- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

The French government’s rebuff last week to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe — not inviting him to their annual Africa summit — surely came as a blow to the tyrant. For decades, he had been used to receiving the royal treatment from European leaders. But as his human-rights record has regressed over the past several years, even the French have decided to follow the policy of international isolation. But whereas Mr. Mugabe no longer has the French to legitimize his rule, he has found help in unlikely places: British financial institutions.

A report in the Jan. 19 edition of Africa Confidential, a British publication, reported that Barclays Bank, Standard Charter Bank and Old Mutual Insurance have together provided 1 billion pounds in direct financing to Mr. Mugabe’s regime. Some of this lending has had explicitly political purposes. For example, in 2005 Barclays offered $50 million to finance the Zimbabwean government’s Agriculture Sector Productivity Enhancement facility, established to assist Mr. Mugabe’s failed agriculture policies following his confiscation of most of the country’s white-owned farms. The land seizures have been the direct cause of the country’s current chaos and plummeting life expectancy rate. With the collapse of the country’s once-bountiful agricultural sector and its export market, Zimbabwe has a major shortage of foreign currency reserves. That is where the British banks play a crucial role in keeping the Mugabe regime afloat.

To be fair, Barclays has a problematical choice to make, as the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank requires commercial banks to reinvest 40 percent of their surplus in treasury bills. “We have been in Zimbabwe since 1912 and have 1,000 employees serving 150,000 retail, business and corporate customers in the country,” a Barclays spokesman told Britain’s Observer. But Barclays itself, as a commercial institution, has lost untold sums of money via the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, the seizure of private lands, the deportation of many of its own clients and the dramatic loss of foreign investment. Annual inflation currently stands at the highest rate in the world and is expected to double by the end of the year. If the humanitarian plight of the Zimbabwean people is not enough to compel the British banks to offer Mr. Mugabe a rebuke, his hurting their bottom line ought to be.

Before I traveled to Zimbabwe last year, I made a vow not to exchange my American dollars or South African Rand for Zimbabwe dollars, a promise that I kept. Yet this stricture meant that purchasing a Diet Coke at a gas station (which, because of the country’s fuel shortage, only sold items in its convenience store, not gas) took about 5 minutes, and required the shopkeeper to check the official bank exchange rate (half of the actual exchange rate as determined by day-to-day purchases on the black market) in that day’s newspaper. But my petty inconveniences paled in comparison to regular Zimbabwean citizens; after all, I had my foreign currency.

In accepting these generous loans from British capitalists, Mr. Mugabe has demonstrated the hollowness of his ideology. Among Mr. Mugabe’s pantheon of enemies, real or perceived, there is no greater force of evil in the world than Great Britain, and no crueler a man than Prime Minister Tony Blair. At the 60th anniversary session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (at which, considering his country’s starving millions, Mr. Mugabe ought to have listened more than talked), he called Blair an “international terrorist” and referred to the British prime minister and President Bush as “unholy men.” A paranoid homophobic bigot who in a speech once called gays “lower than dogs and pigs,” Mr. Mugabe has referred to Mr. Blair as being the ringleader of “the gay government of the gay United Kingdom.” He speaks often of British “neo-colonial sabotage” of the Zimbabwean economy.

The financial institutions’ decisions have not gone without criticism from some British leaders. Conservative Party MP Boris Johnson said, “We have to face the fact that we’ve done nothing to remove a tyrant responsible for untold deaths and complete ruination of the economy.” But while opposition MPs had their say, the British government has yet to issue a statement on the actions of the country’s largest bank.

Mr. Mugabe has shown himself to be an ardent foe of capitalism over the past several years, but does not seem to mind it when some of its greatest practitioners sweep in to his rescue. But, if anything, what this situation demonstrates is that the free-market system has its downsides. How sad that these worthy British banks are sullying the good name of free enterprise.

James Kirchick is assistant to the editor-in-chief of the New Republic.

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