Nothing to Cheer About

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Celebrations next week for the 20th anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence are likely to be muted. Though President Robert Mugabe will no doubt address at least one rally of enthusiastic supporters with his usual bravado, a growing number of Zimbabweans feel they have nothing much to celebrate. The high hopes of 20 years ago have given way to economic crisis and social division. After assuming office, Mugabe, the first black Prime Minister and later President, implemented his own brand of pragmatic socialism, respect for the rule of law and--much to their surprise--a conciliatory tone toward the whites who make up less than 1% of the population but who run most of the economically crucial farming sector. But corruption and mismanagement have strangled the initial prosperity. Inflation and unemployment both hover at around 50%. Foreign debt has soared, leading to shortages of foreign exchange and fuel.
A pointless war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has accelerated the downward slide. Eleven thousand Zimbabwean troops are bogged down there in a conflict costing as much as $1 million a day. And now the country has split--sometimes violently--over a series of land occupations by veterans of the civil war sanctioned by the aging and corrupt government and an increasingly dictatorial Mugabe. "What is most depressing is that I fought against [former white leader] Ian Smith, who introduced a system of fascism, but it seems that Mugabe has perfected it," says Michael Pearce, 62, a Harare architect and former gunrunner for Mugabe's guerillas during the liberation war.

Mugabe blames the country's woes on external forces. He says the economic liberalization plan forced on him by Western donors like the International Monetary Fund--which he calls "a dictator and a tyrant"--and the World Bank has destroyed the once-buzzing economy. He accuses the former colonial power Britain of meddling in the country's internal affairs and has dubbed British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his cabinet "gay gangsters." When U.S. Ambassador Tom McDonald recently questioned the government's land acquisition plan, Mugabe said he would tell U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "to give him a spanking on his backside and tell him to behave."

Such statements play well to Mugabe's core rural supporters, but urban Zimbabweans blame the President for most of the country's problems. Last year, Zimbabwe's trade unions formed a new political party--the Movement for Democratic Change--led by charismatic union boss Morgan Tsvangirai. Together with other opposition groups it campaigned hard for a no vote in February's referendum on changing the constitution, and won. The victory, the first by an opposition group in any vote since independence, has bolstered opposition hopes for success in parliamentary elections due in May.

The defeat has enraged Mugabe, and he has upped the ante in his efforts to hold on to power. He backs the occupation by civil war veterans of more than 800 white-owned farms, arguing that the action is a justifiable protest against the ownership of land by descendants of British settlers. Despite a High Court ruling that the occupations are illegal, Mugabe has warned white farmers not to remove occupiers or they would face "severe, severe consequences."

Last week, a police officer investigating the assault on white landowner and opposition supporter Ian Kay was shot dead. Ten days ago police stood by as war veterans and ruling zanu-pf party supporters attacked peaceful opposition demonstrators marching through Harare. At week's end the zanu-pf dominated parliament pushed through an amendment to the constitution authorizing the confiscation of white-owned farmland--in spite of February's no vote. The U.S. at once announced it would suspend land reform aid.

Opposition parties fear Mugabe may declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections indefinitely. "This is an orchestrated plan by the government to induce fear. If it's an indication of things to come, God help this country," said mdc leader Tsvangirai. "To talk of free and fair elections in this atmosphere is a fallacy." Last week the President met with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook at a Europe-Africa summit in Cairo. Though Mugabe reportedly refused to apologize for police inaction at the riot, he promised that elections would go ahead next month.

If they do, there is cause for hope. Zimbabwe is still richer than most of her northern neighbors, and with the right management, growth should restart quickly. Labor costs are low and the workforce well-educated, and the crumbling infrastructure still beats that of most other African countries. If the opposition stays united--and Mugabe accepts the will of the people--Zimbabweans may have something to celebrate after all.

Reported by Ian Mills/Harare and Scott MacLeod/Cairo