From a freedom fighter who led Zimbabwe's movement for independence from British colonialism, to a ruler with an iron fist, refusing to honour democratic commitments, president Robert Mugabe has come a long way. Mugabe now presides over a Zimbabwe whose economy is in a tailspin with raging hyperinflation (in more than a million percentage points), 80 percent unemployment, food and essential commodity shortages and a nation wrecked by continuous violence unleashed by members of Mugabe's party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
In recently held presidential elections, Mugabe lost out in the first round to opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but official results showed that Tsvangirai had not managed to get the mandated 50 +1 percentage vote to win outright. Tsvangirai refused to participate in the June run off because of daily violence unleashed by ZANU-PF on the opposition supporters even as Mugabe was declared winner in the sham polls.
Robert Mugabe was the hero of the liberation struggle against the British and became the prime minister of liberated Zimbabwe (only after a commitment to the erstwhile colonisers on a ten year moratorium on constitutional amendments). However following impressive social and developmental gains in the early years of liberated rule, Zimbabwe under Mugabe followed a reform programme with guidance from the IMF, a move that ultimately resulted in hardships for the vast poor and black majority. Faced with elections in 2000, Mugabe embarked upon land seizure from minority white farmers who controlled large farms part of a profitable export oriented cash crop economy and redistributed this land to the poor.
The main reason for the economic instability has been the anarchic manner in which Mugabe went about restructuring the lopsided agricultural land ownership in the country earlier in the decade. A handful of “white” owners had controlled the most productive land in the country and Mugabe's moves to appropriate the same triggered a flight of such owners away from the country. The land seizure and redistribution process was however chaotic with many intended beneficiaries hardly in knowledge of farming practices. Adduced to this anarchic measure was the steady system of cronyism and patronage that Mugabe had developed with many of the ZANU-PF leaders having a strangehold over institutions in the country.Mugabe and ZANU-PF have used repressive measures against urban workers, farm labourers and even the intelligensia to stem out any discontent against the regime.
The collapse of the cash crop economy and agriculture in general meant that Zimbabwe, a food surplus country was now a net importer. Shortages of essential commodities and some irrational monetary policies resulted in situation where hyperinflation took over. How Mugabe has managed to retain his support despite the grave economic situation that Zimbabwe is in today is most perplexing. The key to his support is the fact that many in the majority tribal group, the Shonas, particularly in the rural areas still look to Mugabe as an anti-imperialist saviour of Zimbabwe. But given the fact that the economic issues and shortages have touched even those people dependent upon subsistence farming, the MDC has managed to go beyond its traditional urban base and gain wide support. The ZANU-PF has retaliated with violence, while Mugabe has branded the MDC as agents of imperialism and has blamed economic sanctions by western countries (which were imposed on some of the leading members of the ZANU-PF) for the steady deterioration of the economy.
Owing to the chaotic economic conditions and the difficult conditions for the population, Mugabe is now forced to have talks with the MDC's leaders. South Africa has offered to mediate, but initial negotiations have yielded only a deadlock. It is now pretty clear that Mugabe's continuance in power with the support of his cronies in the ZANU-PF as well as the military is not going to solve the grave economic conditions in the country.The fact that Mugabe still commands a degree of support from the populace means that the best way out of the impasse is an initiative that involves both the ruling as well as the opposition parties in positions of power. .
Zimbabwe's experience as a post-colonial nation proves that the replacement of colonialism with authoritarianism has only disastrous consequences. A short term solution of a unity government featuring the MDC can bring about confidence back into investors, could restrain authoritarian impulses of the ZANU-PF leaders and eventually bring a halt to the downward spiral of the Zimbabwean economy. Strengthening democratic institutions and credible elections are a must to prevent a catastrophe of the nature unleashed by Mugabe's authoritarianism.
Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly