Zimbabwe: No Quick Solutions, No Easy Answers

Regime change may not be the best thing for Zimbabwe either.

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On Saturday, the citizens of the African nation of Zimbabwe will go to the polls and cast their votes for president and other offices. Zimbabwe has been embroiled in such economic and political strife that much of the country is without life's basic necessities. The standing president, Robert Mugabe, has been a controversial figure in Southern African politics for a number of years. A renowned scholar echoing the view of the Bush Administration and many in the policymaking community recently declared: "If you care about Zimbabwe you'll just get behind the real solution: Regime Change!"

I beg to differ.

The bottom line: According to many grassroots Zimbabwean human rights activists that we at TransAfrica Forum have consulted and worked with since the country's independence: "if you remove Mugabe today, the country will still be embroiled in a set of complex crises." Unfortunately, many of Zimbabwe's problems stem from the internal mismanagement, corruption, military excess, and abuses of the ruling elite. Yet many problems, in fact all of the deep structural challenges, are similar to those facing every former settler colony in Africa. Those challenges are related to unfair international trade rules, and conservative economic policies pushed by the international financial institutions (IFIs), as well as the unmet promises of Western nations.

In the highly polarized debates surrounding Zimbabwe, this difference in viewpoint frequently results in the characterization of "Mugabe apologist" – which is part of the problem. For many in our government, and in the international community, to focus on anything in Zimbabwe besides the governance crisis puts you on the wrong side.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, the only side worth taking is that of Zimbabwe's people, who have indicated a desire for new leadership, who do feel besieged, and who are suffering great hardship as a result of the current economic and social instability.

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Zimbabwe, a land-locked country of 13 million people, is located in the heart of Southern Africa. The country, once the agricultural breadbasket of the region, has great potential, mineral wealth, a developed manufacturing sector, as well as prime agricultural land. However, a series of interconnected crises have set the country on a downward spiral. While international political opinion is largely focused on issues of governance and human rights, the scope of Zimbabwe's problems are complex and multifaceted, and include social as well as economic factors.

Scholars debate the beginning of Zimbabwe's economic problems. Some political economists identify the country's unresolved structural weaknesses, over-consumption, and systemic inequality built into the apartheid-like system constructed by the Rhodesian settlers as the primary root cause. Whatever the beginning, analysts agree that at independence the country's economy was skewed:

The entire national economy was designed to support the maintenance and enrichment of a small, white minority: 75 percent of land was in the hands of 4,000 white farmers, who, for decades had benefited from government agricultural subsidies and investments in the farming sector; Industry, mining and manufacturing sector were in the hands of multinational companies and the settler minority.The majority population was excluded from the formal economy.

Economic distortions continue today, mining, manufacturing, and most industry remains in the hands of externally-based companies, the white minority, or a small African elite. In addition, South African businesses are taking advantage of Zimbabwe's weaker national economy and have begun to establish a foothold in the country.