Friday, September 25, 2009

Missing the Point on Zimbabwe

After years of bitter controversy, Africa's most demonized leader is showing no signs of changing course. Agree or disagree with the politics of Robert Mugabe, it is absolutely clear that the West seriously overestimated its ability to manipulate the internal political saga within Zimbabwe. The meaningless exchanges in name calling, accusations of incompetence, and symbolic non-cooperation by the US and UK did not advance the strategic aims of either country, nor did they help transform Zimbabwean society. Both Mugabe and his Western detractors have largely missed the point about the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe is coming fresh off the heels of a rousing speech before the United Nations in which he accurately accused Western countries of intentionally undermining a power-sharing deal between his party and the opposition MDC. The agreement came after months of accusations of election fraud, political violence and a sudden outbreak of Cholera that took the lives of hundreds of Zimbabweans. The power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe was designed with very little influence from either the United States or United Kingdom. The principal actors were the two political parties and the Southern African Development Community led by neighboring South Africa. There is no doubt that both the US and UK had hoped the agreement would fail. The apparent success of the South African arbitration signals the loss of a significant amount of political leverage over the situation in Zimbabwe by Western powers.

Regime change in Zimbabwe has been an explicit goal of both the United States and United Kingdom. The US had expected that record hyper-inflation in 2007 would force political change in Zimbabwe removing Robert Mugabe and his party from power. These calculations were wrong. The hyper-inflation also became a primary target of Mugabe who blamed the ailing economy on foreign interference and economic sabotage. The ZANU-PF was able to galvanize the military veterans from the national liberation struggle and the rural poor of the country while painting the opposition party as collaborators with the UK in the lead up to the disputed presidential run-off elections.

Even as Mugabe and his opposition counterpart Morgan Tsvangirai finally united to resolve long-standing political disputes and jump start the economy, the West has to date refused to remove sanctions. The result has been the vindication of Mugabe's criticisms as the African Union and SADC unanimously condemned all existing sanctions against the unity government. There is evidence to suggest that Zimbabwe will continue re-allocating lands from white land-owners to black farmers. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe spoke with CNN correspondent Christina Amanpour about the controversial land redistribution act which critics allege is the root cause of the nation's current economic turmoil. 10.8 million hectares, have been seized by the state over the past nine years from whites and given to black Zimbabweans.

So far, it is the most radical agrarian reform program ever in post-colonial Southern Africa. Acute inequality between black and white land-ownership is one of the unresolved issues in the region. In the televised interview, Mugabe made no apologies for the land seizures and restated his belief that he was acting in the national interests of his countrymen.

The international politics of Zimbabwe often obscure the principal contradictions causing underdevelopment within the country and the immediate need for both economic recovery and transformation. Zimbabwe was once one of the industrial giants of Africa. Decades of emphasis on primary commodity exports and Structural Adjustment Programs implemented after the fall of colonialism have contributed to a widely uneven economic development model in the country that have left it vulnerable to internal mismanagement, external price shocks and manipulation.

Zimbabwe's agricultural sector is the principal source of export revenue in the country. Decades of liberalization under the leadership of the ZANU-PF de-emphasized industrial development and contributed to lingering unemployment, lack of energy and poverty in urban areas. Now the country faces extreme shortages in both fuel and essential machine tools and technologies needed for manufacturing. The impact of these shortages have even caused Zimbabwe's highly dependent agricultural sector to suffer.

Neither Robert Mugabe nor Morgan Tsvangarai appear to have any idea how to resolve fundamental contradictions within the political economy of Zimbabwe. For example, both parties continue to overemphasize foreign investment rather than organize a coherent vision for industrial policy. Paradoxically, the rebel Robert Mugabe has been in the forefront of the unity government groveling for foreign investment into the Zimbabwean economy. The IMF originally offered over 400 millions dollars in unconditional support to Zimbabwe, a sharp reversal of the bank's previous refusal to lend funds to the former regime. But the funds have already heightened existing tensions within the unity government over how to spend the money and the IMF reversed course delaying payment of the funds.

The crisis in Zimbabwe is that the country is severely underdeveloped, the politicians have no unifying vision to move forward, and external actors have a vested interest in maintaining the uneven framework of the country's development. Emotional speeches and sanctions aside, the Zimbabwean people deserve better than the status-quo.

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