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.


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.


Many analysts point to Zimbabwe's Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), which began in 1991, as the source of the current economic difficulties. Despite Zimbabwe's economic progress of the 1980's, during which the economy grew at 4 percent from 1986 – 1990, the country accumulated massive debt, as well as high defense costs resulting from apartheid South Africa's war against the Southern Africa region. ESAP, as has been the case in many other countries, "undermined the country's industrial base." The imposition of tariffs on manufacturing inputs, trade liberalization—which exposed manufacturing companies to foreign competition—decreasing productivity, privatization, imposition of user fees for education and health, decline in wages and employment were all the main outcomes of the program. ESAP's "overall impact was deindustrializing, with foreign competition increasing dramatically," and a weakened economy.

The government's decision to provide a Z4.5Bn financial payout to militant war veterans in 1997 further increased the budget deficit and inflation. Moreover the military costs of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1998 - 2003) and a steep decline in agricultural production following the land redistribution have added to the country's economic woe.

Today, the country teeters on the brink of economic collapse. Unemployment in the formal sector stands at 85 percent. Government estimates of the inflation rate are incomprehensible; suffice it to say that the most Zimbabweans live on less than $2 per day and this month the cost of a few liters of cooking oil is $2.50. "Overall GDP growth has cumulatively declined by 33.5 percent between 2000 and 2006 and the economy is projected to further decline…." Fuel is "acutely scarce," electricity erratic, external debt "continues to mount, and "the country has witnessed a deterioration of all major infrastructures."


Sources within the Administration emphatically state that Zimbabwe's economic isolation will continue until there is a political transition in the country.

Pro-democracy supporters in the region and in Zimbabwe, however, are not united in a single message. Some regional actors express extreme dismay over human rights abuses, and call for an end to the hostile rhetoric of the west, expressing concerns over the possibility that continued destabilization could impact the entire region. Additionally, some analysts fears that the rhetoric has only emboldened Mugabe and in fact prolonged his stay, one Zambian human rights activist opined "the US and the UK have created a monster" and that "Mugabe would have left several years ago" if the west had not publicly sought to isolate the regime.

Further complicating the search for a sustainable way forward is the impact of very potent African nationalism. Pressure, in the form of rhetorical condemnation against Zimbabwe, from the U.S. and the United Kingdom is too reminiscent of the Western destabilization of several African governments in the post-colonial period, including Nkrumah's Ghana and Lumumba in the Congo. And, the United States' Cold War manipulations have given this nation a questionable track record in Africa, and Africans have not forgotten.


Africans look at the debacle in Iraq and assess that Westerners pushing for regime change are simply not to be believed. The West is not prepared for the fallout of regime change. They are not prepared to address possible regional destabilization, the loss of life, or the impact of refugees.

Whatever the outcome of the election process, as flawed as it will likely be, increased diplomacy, support for the country's internal actors and for Southern African attempts to create and implement workable frameworks for problem solving, must be central to the U.S. policy making process.

Nicole Lee is a regular contributor to The Root.