Because the United Nations is completely impartial, for the past six months I have had to do my best to hold my tongue on matters of Zimbabwean politics. But now that I am no longer employed by the UN, I feel the need to share some of my thoughts on the notorious Uncle Bob.
In short, Robert Mugabe is terrible. This much is pretty well accepted universally. While I have heard some people defend him in some bizarre attempt to appear trendy and different, everyone else rightly sees Mugabe as the thug that he is. Still, I think it’s worth talking about him and the things that he has done.
What’s interesting about Mugabe is that he used to be held in high regard by the international community. He was considered for the Secretary-General of the UN the year that Kofi Annan was appointed instead. He also received many awards and honours (before they were later stripped), including the Most Honourable Order of the Bath from Queen Elizabeth II.
While Mugabe was successful in overthrowing the British and gaining power, it eventually became clear that he was too inept and too corrupt to run the country properly. In World War Z I read the line, “It’s a lot easier to blow up trains than to make them run on time.” That seems appropriate for Mugabe as well as for many African leaders who ousted colonial powers.
The Zimbabwean economy was once decent, but it completely collapsed under Mugabe. At its peak in 2008, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate was 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%. People carried wheelbarrows full of Zim dollars to the (nearly empty) grocery stores, where prices went up multiple times a day. The American dollar was illegal to use, but it made its way into Zimbabwe’s ever-growing black market.
Life was obviously pretty bad for Zimbabweans during hyperinflation, but what’s more infuriating about the situation is that Mugabe and his cronies made off like bandits. They manipulated the monetary system and took advantage of the price shocks to walk away with millions of (US) dollars. This is a bit of a theme in Mugabe’s presidency; his people suffer in poverty while he hordes incredible wealth.
This all isn’t too surprising, as Mugabe shows no regard for the welfare of Zimbabweans. There is money in Zimbabwe; it’s just all tied up in the hands of a few people. While I was there, it came out that someone running a hospital was making $500,000 per month. And don’t you dare be homosexual. Mugabe called gays and lesbians “worse than pigs and dogs” and made illegal any homosexual act. But then again, public displays of affection between heterosexual couples are also illegal.
Western countries placed sanctions on Zimbabwe and generally don’t deal with Mugabe because of all the human rights abuses. But then there’s good ol’ China who will deal with anybody that has minerals in the ground. So, in an unholy union of immorality/amorality, China sells Mugabe weapons in exchange for easy access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources.
There’s also no freedom of the press, a torture camp in the diamond fields, and a string of “car accidents” to members of the opposition.
And then there’s the land reforms. This issue I have come to understand fairly well, as my landlord in Harare was a former farmer. All across the country land was being taken away from white farmers, sometimes violently. My landlord was one of these people. One day he had a farm, the next day he didn’t. Under Mugabe’s justification of “indigenization,” farms were just taken away without any compensation to the person who owned it. Not only is this unfair, but it’s just bad policy. Zimbabwe was once known as the bread basket of Africa. But when you systematically take away land from people who know how to farm and give it to people who don’t know how to farm, the farms – unsurprisingly – become much less productive. Zimbabwe now has to import everything, including food, from South Africa.
20 years ago people would say, “Don’t worry, he’ll probably die soon.” But oh no. Uncle Bob is still holding strong at 90 years old, aided in no small part by his regular trips to Asia for various surgeries. Paid for, of course, by Zimbabweans.