Zimbabwe’s agony

If this one is too esoteric please ignore it. Zimbabwe is back on the news again. It seems that the BBC has managed to get back into it despite being banned. The ongoing tragedy which is Zimbabwe has been going on for years now. What was once a relatively rich African country seems to have descended into being one of the poorest in the world (though of course everyone is a millionaire) and a country once described as the “bread basket” of southern African is now reliant on food from the World Food Programme and with the lowest life expectancy in Africa. Of course the primary villain in Zimbabwe’s current agony is Robert Mugabe; a man who has ruled his progressively collapsing country with a grip becoming increasingly iron fisted as the country has degenerated. It may be that Mugabe’s time is coming to an end (see links and he is of course 83) but more of that later.

It was not always thus, once Mugabe was seen as a fairly enlightened ruler though that was to deliberately ignore some of the signs even in the early stages that he would brook no dissent from his rule with the “Gukurahundi” massacres by the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade.

To begin to analyse the disaster which Zimbabwe is one can go back as far as one wants. A little like Northern Ireland where do you want to start 1969, 1921, 1916, 1688, earlier?

(As before regarding Africa; I do not pretend this is an exhaustive history lesson and I would never delude myself that I lack my biases. In addition I have tried to make the article read without resorting to the links most of which are from Wikipedia. Those interested in books could check out Martin Meredith’s The Past is Another Country, though it is out of print you can get it on Amazon).

A reasonable starting point might be with Cecil Rhodes. This truly bizarre character essentially took over large tracts of Africa with his own private company (though heavily supported by the British government) during the “Scramble for Africa” at the end of the nineteenth century. As ever with these events the country was “civilised” and white settlers brought in to help. Translated into modern speak the black African population were turfed off the land and it was given to white Europeans. The Africans were then allowed to work what had been (and was no longer) their land for the whites. One of the few distinguishing features of what was Southern Rhodesia was the large number of white settlers. After the Second World War a further wave of white Europeans came to Rhodesia including some from Northern Ireland and a significant number of South Africans migrated north.

A movement to get more rights for the black population began which as ever was resisted by the colonial government semi autonomous from Westminster from 1923 (in some ways similar to Stormont). Briefly there was a federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland including Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi) which collapsed as the northern states had little political kinship with the Rhodesian whites.

Roy Welensky and before him Godfrey Huggins were Prime Ministers of Rhodesia and were inclined to some form of compromise and move (extremely slowly) to black votes though in such a way that black majority rule would have occurred some time this century.

Ian Smith and The Rhodesian Front (initially led by Winston Field) were bitterly opposed to black rule ever, and to cut a long and convoluted story short Rhodesia declared UDI in November 1965.

Initially it must be admitted that Rhodesia was reasonably successful (from a strictly white view point). The initial attempts at an uprising were suppressed and black politicians imprisoned.

It is generally accepted that the Bush War began in 1966 (some would argue 1972) but the extremely efficient Rhodesian armed forces who were not adverse to entering other countries and whose human rights record was poor were able to keep the situation under a very significant degree of control certainly until at least 1972 and realistically until 1976. In this war they had obsolete weapons, inadequate ammunition and made great play of their troop’s training and skill with groups such as the infamous Selous Scouts. What they made less play of was the very significant South African air force and ground troops help. Their eventual downfall was related to: South African PM Vorster pressurising Smith, external sanctions, white Rhodesians leaving, the complete failure of the Rhodesians’ to make serious concessions to the black majority and the fact that whilst the Rhodesian army were able to win every battle they fought there was no competent strategic plan nor any logical victory in prospect.

Eventually under pressure from within and without and with a failed internal compromise Smith (having been replaced as PM by the black politician Abel Muzorew) attended the Lancaster House conference which resulted in the creation of Zimbabwe with Mugabe as its first leader.

As I have said initially; the situation seemed to be a success story. However, there were significant problems from the beginning. There was tension between the major ethnic groups the Shona (Mugabe is Shona) and the Ndebele led by Joshua Nkomo whom the whites (and probably the British) had hoped would win the election. This resulted in various compromises occurring and failing.

One of the major problems was land reform. Despite a campaign of voluntary purchase, few whites were willing to sell the large commercial farms which grew cash crops such as tobacco. The government ran up large debts and then embarked on a neo-liberal economic policy which lead to greater hardship (though it was more economically fashionable and arguably more sustainable in the long run).

Exactly how the land invasions of white owned farms began is slightly unclear. It is likely, however, that Mugabe actively promoted these invasions by war veterans who had begun to protest about economic conditions. Ironically whilst retired members of the Rhodesian armed forces received pensions those of Mugabe’s guerrilla army did not. The war veterans were lead by a colourful character “Hitler” Hunzi, (most famous possibly in the UK for his bizarre rant on Radio 4’s Today programme), before dying in 2001. These war veterans and hangers on removed all land from white control but unfortunately much of the land is now not farmed by anyone or has passed to the control of senior ZANU-PF members, leaving the country with the world’s highest inflation rate (currently essentially uncalculateable).

It now seems possible that a palace coup will result in Mugabe either being ousted or being forced to retire. It is possible that ZANU-PF will replace Mugabe with Simba Makoni. Whatever happens when Mugabe finally goes it is likely that any new leadership will attempt to stop the current lunacy and that the international community will be likely to help. Such a situtation is clearly long overdue.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.