- - Thursday, November 16, 2017


“Every great cause begins as a movement,” the television philosopher Eric Hoffer once observed (maybe), “becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” There’s some dispute about whether Mr. Hoffer ever actually said it, but there’s no dispute that it’s an accurate description of what happened to the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe betrayed those who trusted him, seizing the land of white settlers and giving it to cronies who quickly despoiled it, and ruined the economy. Now, at 93, the Mugabe luck seems to have run out. He has been deposed by a coup, and the military is believed to be in control of the capital and the generals are holding President Robert Mugabe and his wife under house arrest. Mr. Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, wanted to install his wife Grace as the president, but the generals have said no to that.

“Uncle Bob” began his journey as something of an admirable figure. Born into a poor family in 1924 in what was then Southern Rhodesia, he chafed under British colonial rule and was drawn to rebellion. He spent a decade in prison from 1964 to 1974, and earned degrees in law and administration waiting for liberation. The Rhodesian Bush War ended with toppling colonial rule and Mr. Mugabe was elected prime minister. The fertile and prosperous nation was renamed Zimbabwe in 1980. The word Zimbabwe refers to a complex of ruins in one of the nation’s fertile valleys, and it soon became an apt name for the nation Mr. Mugabe ruined.

He first appeared to be a moderate, appointing white ministers to his cabinet and he held out an olive branch to the white community that had dominated the economy, and the London Financial Times observes that, though a professed Marxist, he governed sensibly for a time. His administration embraced certain capitalist principles, including budgetary restraint, and invited foreign aid and investment.

Everything started going downhill in 1987. The constitution was rewritten, and he was made president, apparently understanding that this meant president-for-life. The government grew steadily more repressive, a vast and corrupt patronage network blossomed, the parliament was weakened and his economic policies grew ever more irresponsible.

With the turn of the 21st century things took a turn from very bad to much worse. Mr. Mugabe embraced “land reform,” meaning the seizure of white-owned farms that had supplied much of the country’s agriculture in what was Africa’s breadbasket. Agriculture collapsed and with it the economy, and Mr. Mugabe started printing money. This led inevitably to hyper inflation. In 2009, Zimbabwe abandoned its currency. “Today, almost all tax revenue goes to pay a bloated civil service, though even government employees are often paid with electronic currency that is fast losing its value,” reports the Financial Times.

The generals want to move now to a fiscally responsible, capitalist, democratic state. After decades of corruption and misrule that will take a while. Removing Mr. Mugabe and fresh elections might represent a start.

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