Monday, March 31, 2008


Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change is claiming victory in yesterday's national election. This is big.

This probably marks the end of current President Robert Mugabe's long career atop what was once one of Africa's star industrial economies and and hopeful democratic experiments. After leading the Zimbabwe African National Union to victory in a bitter guerrilla war against the Rhodesian--yes, named after diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes--white colonial oppressors in 1979, Robert Mugabe transitioned smoothly into Presidential leadership and extended an olive branch of sorts to racial reconciliation (while of course providing a vital staging ground to ongoing liberation struggles in South Africa and Mozambique). How big a deal was this? The man himself, Bob Marley, staged a freedom celebration concert in Harare.

Despite socialist origins, Zimbabwe was reined in by en vogue austere IMF structural adjustment type macroeconomic policies--so much so that then Vice President Bush on a state visit lauded Mugabe for his progress in "not shutting whitey out of the economy" (my words, not his) and looking forward to a future Zimbabwe built on racial harmony "where whitey could still control the economy" (again, I'm paraphrasing).

After the conclusion of years of war and strife, naturally the economy saw recovery and productivity gains--particularly in agriculture and commodity exports (tobacco and other horticulture, primarily, also coffee). And Zimbabwe rode along on this wave for some time. But when these gains ran their course, things started to change--particularly politically for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF (Political Front). Slowing pie growth led to more rampant corruption, which necessitated political repression, which necessitated vilification of a political scapegoat: neo-colonialism.

Mugabe charged the former imperialist power--the UK, and throw in a dash of the US for good measure--with meddling in Zimbabwe's domestic affairs and sabotaging their economy to re-establish repressive control. How? By pressuring Zimbabwe not to move ahead on land reform efforts to redistribute agricultural land--virtually entirely owned by whites. Naturally, whites in Zimbabwe and the British government felt that the distribution of land obtained under brutal white racist rule should be preserved (because it would be a crime against nature to meddle with "market outcomes"). Eventually, the British government was guilted into at least acknowledging perhaps the possibility of a modest compensation program in the name of justice for its decades (centuries) of colonial exploitation of Zimbabwe's land and people. But, they dragged their heels on and on and finally, political expedience for maintaining ZANU-PF's hold on power led to the government-promoted occupation of white farms and a host of desperate economic measures that sparked hyperinflation and plunged Zimbabwe's economy into near standstill.

Certainly, this made the political situation a lot worse for ZANU-PF, bringing increased international pressure as well as domestic pressure from people who didn't like to see their already meager life's savings and meager incomes wiped out, widespread food shortages, etc., etc. So, more crackdowns, and Robert Mugabe completed his transition from patriotic liberator to megalomanic dictator. Usually, the western press just likes to highlight this last part of the story--where Robert Mugabe morphs into the hated Hugo Chavez of Africa--to the neglect of the first part about exploitation and the impossible situation of liberation euphoria conflicting with the harsh geopolitical realities of neo-colonialism. So, yes, Mugabe became a bad dictator and drove Zimbabwe into the ground. But it is also just one more example of a failed transition from the social structure of imperialism. All are to blame.

Anyhow, enough background. After desperately hanging onto power in recent years through state violence against the opposition, savage media crack downs, rigging elections, and so on, it is difficult to see how--at long last--Mugabe and ZANU-PF can still hold on.

Unofficial exit poll numbers from local polling stations across the country point to MDC making a killing, even in strong ZANU-PF areas. According to the NYT report, everyone seems to know this, too. Meanwhile government election officials are sitting on the official results, twiddling their thumbs and contemplating a way out for ZANU-PF. The longer they dawdle, the more apparent it is that the vote count for ZANU-PF looks quite grim, the more incited MDC supporters will become, and the more difficult it will be to pass off a stolen election. The government, ultimately, will have little choice but to allow the election results to stand, or face widespread uprising that will present a viable challenge to Mugabe's police-state rule.

Let's all hope for a peaceful transition and for Robert Mugabe to put his vanity aside and stop squandering Zimbabwe's future.

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