« While We Are Preoccupied... | Main | The Surge »

January 30, 2007


Robert Mugabe seems determined to emulate the fates of Mussolini and Ceaucescu. Or maybe he'll just retire to Switzerland with a big pile of his countrymen's money.

When my grandmother was a missionary in China during their bout of hyperinflation, she gave their/the church's made her monthly salary in the morningand told her to go out immediately to buy her necessities. The maid slacked off, moseyed down to the market in late afternoon... and in the meantime her entire monthly salary had been devalued to worthlessness.

[My dad should feel to correct me if I've misremembered.]

What causes hyperinflation like this on such a grand scale?

The really sad thing about this is that it has pretty much all been caused by one crazy old man. The world, and especially Zimbabwe, would be better off if Robert Mugabwe died today.

I lived in Zimbabwe for 9 months in 1989, and it was a beautifil and idyllic place (basically). I had the time of my life, and went back on my honeymoon in 1996, it was still lovely.

This makes me so so sad. We knew then that Bob was a dangerous nutter, but no-one imagined it would end like this.....

IH: The brief and hopelessly oversimplified version: unbelievable economic mismanagement, including but not limited to the expropriation of white-owned farms, causes production of basically everything to grind to a halt. Zimbabwe's currency is not tradeable internationally, which means that it needs exports (paid for in dollars or euros or yen or something) in order to import anything (since it cannot pay for them in Zim. dollars.) When it's not producing, it doesn't export; thus more and more money (Zim $) ends up chasing fewer and fewer goods.

Meanwhile, not being able to import stuff in general translates into not being able to import things you need to fix your factories/infrastructure, fertilizer, etc., so production plummets further. Repeat until a change of government occurs.

The world, and especially Zimbabwe, would be better off if Robert Mugabwe died today.

Curious – as a theoretical exercise, is this a case where liberals and Democrats in general would advocate for the CIA/special ops working with opposition parties to overthrow the current government?

Scratch that – forget theoretical as this is about as real-world as it gets. Should the US, short of invasion, work through all means necessary to replace the current government? Short of invasion means everything else is fair game up to and including repealing Executive Order 12333 (prohibition on assassination, last reaffirmed by RR).

Assuming that there is an opposition group capable of assuming power, do you support regime change in this particular case (general you, not you specifically Cameron.)

“repealing Executive Order 12333”

I just realized that might come awfully close to violating posting rules. It wasn’t explicitly meant that way, but feel free to delete the comment if you feel it does. It does encourage conversation about the topic so I can see where it might be considered thin ice.

OCSteve: I think that in general, and before we get to stuff like international law, it's worth thinking about blowback. Zimbabwe is, I would think, pretty close to changing government all by itself. (Pretty close = a year or so, not tomorrow.) If it does so, Zimbabweans will get to figure out how to think about all this without the complicating factor of their views about us. If we do it for them, on the other hand, that factor will have to enter in.

Zimbabwe has a long and not particularly pleasant history of colonialism. I would rather not play into it absent some truly compelling need.

Think of it as being like dealing with adolescents. NOTE: not because I don't think Zimbabweans are adults, etc.; just because people in other countries are locked in a world with bigger more powerful us, and have to deal with us telling them what we think they should do even when they'd rather we didn't; and this brings into play some of the same emotions that adolescents who have to live under their parents' roof might feel.

When you think your teenage child ought to do something, it doesn't automatically follow that you should so much as mention that fact, let alone try to force him or her to do it. The moment you do, the issue gets muddied by the simple fact of your involvement. If your kid is going to break up with that horrible boyfriend/girlfriend anyways, or get over the business about college being a compromise with the soulless corporate world, far better to let him or her just do it; your putting pressure on might just make things worse.

This is doubly true with other countries, since while we have some right to tell our kids what to do, we don't have any right to tell Zimbabwe what to do. And, as I said, I think this will happen sooner or later anyways -- you can't have the army and the police quitting without serious consequences.

OCSteve: what you said wasn't advocacy, and the spirit in which you asked the question was clear (to me, at least), so I didn't even think of the posting rules thing until you brought it up.

Hilzoy: Your points about blowback are well taken. I admit I’m somewhat torn myself. Here, as in Darfur (and likely other places) it seems that we could help a great many people at (relatively) little cost by supporting regime change. “Support” is pretty nebulous here; maybe it is money and arms to opposition groups, maybe (Darfur) it is a more active intervention.

IMO, things reach a point where it seems to be wrong to stand idly by and do nothing, when you have the capability to do something. The blowback you mention certainly makes it possible that even with the best intentions things are not likely to evolve as you wish. On the other hand, I’m not that comfortable with waiting it out either (more concerning Darfur).

Maybe we just need new terminology as “regime change” is so tainted at this point. Given our support for terrible governments in the past, or our support in toppling them when it was in our interest, it just seems ironic to me that we would not now consider it for strictly humanitarian reasons.

OCSteve: I'd be more inclined to explore other options. For instance, one of the stories I didn't put in this already long post is this one:

"Barclays bank is helping to bankroll President Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, providing millions of pounds of support for his vilified land reforms, The Observer can reveal. Mugabe's opponents describe the bank's activities as a 'disgrace' and an 'insult' to the millions who have suffered human rights abuses.

Barclays is the most high-profile of three British-based financial institutions, which, in total, have provided more than $1bn in direct and indirect funding to Mugabe's administration. The other two companies are Standard Chartered Bank and the insurance firm Old Mutual. According to influential newsletter Africa Confidential, that first disclosed the Barclays' loans, the British organisations provide an economic lifeline keeping Mugabe's regime afloat."

I don't know enough about what the implications of cutting off these loans would be to say for sure (if, improbably, the loans all go directly to food for the poor, I'd oppose working to get Barclay's to withdraw), but checking out options like pressuring Barclay's and other banks to cut the government off would seem like a better option.

Interesting hilzoy. That might involve some serious blowback as well though:

We have been in Zimbabwe since 1912 and have 1,000 employees serving 150,000 retail, business and corporate customers in the country.

They have to buy government bonds as a condition of doing business. So it seems like their only option would be to pull out entirely. I have to think that would have as much impact on those 150,000 businesses as it would on the government. It seems like it might be desirable to have them there and ready to buy bonds from the next government.

Part of the answer to OSCSteve's question ( leaving aside hilzoy's excellent point) is another question: who could be in charge of a new government? If there was some really good choice in Zimbabwe, someone with lots of support and lots of credibiity in Zimbabwe who wouldn't be damaged by association with outside help, then maybe ... but note all the caveats. Also, if such a person existed, he or she could probably take charge without our help.

Can anybody point me to a good example of external funding of opposition groups working out well?

JM, the only remotely possible example I can think of is Reagan helping Pope John Paul help Solidarity in Poland. I think it has to be a two bank cushion shot. I imagine one of the problems is that no one paying money wants to give up the possibility of having control over the events.

I have no idea whether we actually did, but it's not nuts to think that we might have funded the Free French in WW2, and that had we done so, it might have worked out well.

OCSteve: to my mind, killing someone is something you do only as a last, last resort. I don't think you never do it -- at any rate, I'm not prepared to rule out killing Hitler in 1940, for instance. But it's a serious thing.

Here, Zimbabwe is probably on its last legs. Without access to hard currency, it just can't go on. That means that there are lots of things to try. Cut off their access to hard currency, for instance. Try to get neighboring countries to close the border, at least to Mugabe and his people, so that they have to use the Zimbabwean health care system, etc.

To my knowledge, there isn't an insurgency in Zimbabwe. There might well be disaffected politicians and generals, however. I honestly don't think it can last very long in its current state without that discontent reaching a critical mass, at which point either there will be a coup or (failing that) he will be prevailed upon to hold elections in 2008 as originally scheduled, and the people who normally bring it about that he "wins" will somehow screw up.

I don't think we're near the point where we should start talking assassination. We just have to find ways of tightening the screws on the elite; luckily, there are such ways.

The French Resistance was certainly based in and largely run out of England, sure, but it's hard to say, had the invasion not occurred, that the opposition would have accomplished much. I know rather less about Poland's Solidarity, but had the impression that it was very much a homesprung, locally based mass movement.

Oh, there's Libya financing Mandela...

I'm glad that you've been following Zimbabwe, Hil. It's worth keeping an eye on, given the circumstances. I haven't written about it for awhile, just reading and watching. Mugabe has truly run this country into the ground.

at any rate, I'm not prepared to rule out killing Hitler in 1940, for instance.

I think anytime after June 1934 would fit most moral systems, surely.

I think that in general, and before we get to stuff like international law, it's worth thinking about blowback. Zimbabwe is, I would think, pretty close to changing government all by itself.

I'm no expert, but that does seem likely -- simply because how can things possibly go on? But even Mugabe's government is overthrown literally today or tomorrow, it is already SO LATE. So many people have died, so many have left the country, so much damage has been done to society and to the economy. How long will it take (decades? generations?) for Zimbabwe to get back to where it was?

Was it really the right, just thing to do for the international community to stand by and watch Zimbabwe be destroyed just so that things would ultimately get so bad that regime change could ultimately come from within?

Was it really the right, just thing to do for the international community to stand by and watch Zimbabwe be destroyed just so that things would ultimately get so bad that regime change could ultimately come from within?

Well, I don’t think so, but I’m obviously the minority here.

I also think that (at a minimum) we should have a carrier group in the Red Sea, bombing the crap out of the Janjaweed in Sudan wherever they can be found in strength (and Sudanese forces if necessary). It is repugnant to me to think about the UN wringing their hands and doing little to nothing while hundreds of thousands die.

Kofi’s legacy: Rwanda (800,000 dead), Bosnia (200,000 – 8,000 in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica alone), Darfur (up to 400,000 and counting). 1.4 million people murdered under the watchful eye of the “international community”.

But the world’s sole remaining superpower should not take unilateral action to prevent such things.

I've travelled in Zim (1988, 1998) and the country is really lovely. It has an abundance of good farmland, easily enough to feed its own population as well as those of several neighboring states. In addition, it has some of the best game viewing (and hunting) in the world, as well as incomparable wonders like Victoria falls and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

Mugabe's evil has caused enormous problems for Zim's neighbors. Botswana, a country of ~1.5 million is absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mugabe. The refugees aren't formally recognized as such, but they're refugees nonetheless, despite being called illegal immigrants. The enormous influx of refugees is leading to increased xenophobia in Botswana (ordinarily a pretty mellow place), which empowers right wingers. The desparation of the refugees is such that there has been an enormous increase in crime. My dad actually had to fight off a home invasion by three Zimbabweans, luckily without having to really hurt anyone, though he did have to go on a course of HIV prophylaxis because one of the guys bit him.

Much as I think Mugabe is loathsome, and that his loathsomeness was consistently underestimated by many observers and commenters of Zimbabwe's politics in the 1980s, it's important not to overlook the more systemic problems in the postcolonial Zimbabwean state. Mugabe is not in fact a charismatic authoritarian who somehow overwhelmed an otherwise competent or well-functioning liberal democracy and drove into ruin. He's certainly an autocratic and unscrupulous control freak, and has been ever since he first entered politics. But what has happened to Zimbabwe since the late 1980s has as much to do with a wider circle of people around Mugabe, both in the ruling party and in important and powerful institutions, including the military.

When Mugabe dies, I wouldn't expect things to get magically better. First, because much of what gave Zimbabwe a promising economic and social outlook circa 1988 has been thoroughly and structurally destroyed. Second, because at least some of the people around Mugabe have instincts just as self-destructive and have every reason to inhibit good management or democratization (as they will likely be the ones prosecuted by a vengeful reformist regime).

The problem with fantasizing about unilateral military action in this case is connected to this problem. You could drop a bunch of Special Forces guys on the presidential palace in Harare, take out Mugabe, and change absolutely zero. Frankly you could occupy the country with UN forces and change absolutely zero. What's needed is a huge change in the fundamental architecture of the Zimbabwean state and a change in the basic composition of the thin upper range of the most powerful elite. Those are not transformations which occupiers can readily bring about (something which I'd think should be screamingly apparent to everyone by now).

About the only positive short-term scenario is that some of the younger, smarter, more competent guys in ZANU-PF who have been carefully keeping their heads low through the last decade will move aggressively on Mugabe's death to push aside hacks like Didymus Mutasa and clean out the bureaucratic house. But to really succeed at that, they'd have to reverse a lot of brain-drain and draw back competent managerial and professional elites who have (wisely) left for other countries

Wait, wait -- how many carrier groups does Kofi Annan command?

"The really sad thing about this is that it has pretty much all been caused by one crazy old man."

It's nice to think so, but one man doesn't get into power by himself. It's certainly true that none of the people who honestly voted for him, or supported him, in the past (in reality, not those claimed by fraud) desired this outcome, and neither do I wish to see Mugabe escape a quark's worth of his responsibility for his insane policies, and dictorial enforcement of them, but the idea that he, alone, bears sole responsiblity would require either him to have vast magical powers, or some equally impressive explanation for how it could be that he, singlehandedly, could have put himself into power and maintained it, against the will of all in Zimbabwe.

"Can anybody point me to a good example of external funding of opposition groups working out well?"

The French government in North America in the 1770s.

OCSteve: "'Support' is pretty nebulous here; maybe it is money and arms to opposition groups, maybe (Darfur) it is a more active intervention."

While agreeing that there are various situations around the world, including Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma/Myanmar, to mention just a few, that cry out for justice, or even a thousandth of justice, I'd really emphasize that "even" just money-to-opposition-groups can be wildly counterproductive.

The U.S. is not entirely popular with everyone around the world, as we know; when word gets out in many places that a particular party, or opposition group, is receiving U.S.-funds, that can be a complete killer to any credibility that group has in its own land. They're taking money from the imperialist super-power; they're just tools of foreigners!

A comparable situation is to note, for example, that how it was (with some considerable justice) taken in the U.S. if a left-wing group was found to be -- or alleged to be, as was vastly more common -- taking money from the Soviet Union, back in the day.

I realize Hilzoy said this, and you took note; as I said, just emphasizing that even the most minor "support" can be completely counter-productive. Let alone the endless -- "complications" is far too small a word -- of military action. (Even a small bombing tends to be taken rather the wrong way by those on the receiving end, as in many citizens of a given land, for some reason.)

A more serious answer to this question: "Can anybody point me to a good example of external funding of opposition groups working out well?"

First, please define "working out well." I can point to plenty of examples where governments were overthrown, and in the short-term, this was helpful to the sponsor. But decades later, typically not so much. Is this "working out well," or not?

"I also think that (at a minimum) we should have a carrier group in the Red Sea, bombing the crap out of the Janjaweed in Sudan wherever they can be found in strength (and Sudanese forces if necessary)."

I share the frustration. But shall I start the long list of downsides to this? For instance, "and Sudanese forces if necessary" would be absolutely necessary; either we'd likely have to respond to the Sudanese government's declaring war, and we then overthrow them, and then how well will that work out compared to Iraq? On top of Iraq? And to the fact that Sudan has already long been declared a U.S. target of the "Crusaders" by the jihadists/bin Ladenists, and thus, again, something not entirely unlike Iraq.

Where do you see this putting us five years later?

"Kofi’s legacy: Rwanda (800,000 dead), Bosnia (200,000 – 8,000 in the UN 'safe area' of Srebrenica alone), Darfur (up to 400,000 and counting). 1.4 million people murdered under the watchful eye of the 'international community'."

I never fail to fail to understand how this can be laid at the feet of the U.N. Secretary-General, a position with zero international executive power. Why not blame the head of the International Red Cross? It makes as much sense.

The UN itself has no power whatever beyond that of the members, and specifically that of the leading members. Which country is it, again, that holds the most power and leverage in the Security Council?

I see that the estimable Timothy Burke made the point about responsibility in Zimbabwe far better (understandably -- I trust everyone is aware he's lived there, as well as otherwise possessing professional expertise on the subject) than I did.

I never fail to fail to understand how this can be laid at the feet of the U.N. Secretary-General

The right wing American base thinks of the UN as a kind of all-powerful, oppressive world government. Then when its policies fail (typically, though not always, because of insufficient US support) they take it as an opportunity for mockery and derision towards their oppressor. "Wolverines!"

I suspect that they mentally model the "United Nations" on the "United States," i.e. a strong federal association. (I wonder if other countries with "United" in their names have the same problem. Do fundamentalists from the United Arab Emirates whine as much about UN perfidy?)

That's about the most generous explanation possible. To be a bit blunter, the right wing base also lacks civics knowledge and is frighteningly gullible about anti-UN conspiracy theories, e.g. black helicopters, "Left Behind" fiction, and Bircher tracts.

[I also think that (at a minimum) we should have a carrier group in the Red Sea, bombing the crap out of the Janjaweed in Sudan wherever they can be found in strength (and Sudanese forces if necessary). ]

If you did this, the humanitarian aid agencies would have to pull out of Sudan and the IDP camps would have no food. You might be able to get a conviction of Bashir in the Hague, but the Darfurians would not care much because they would be dead.

And the Janjaweed can never be found "in strength". They're small groups of mounted irregulars. "Janjaweed" is just a word meaning "rabble".

Hilzoy: that thing about Barclays is just the completest bullshit. The "loans" in question are government bonds. Local banking legislation requires Barclays Zimbabwe (which is a subsidiary of Barclays) to hold a percentage of its deposit base in government bonds. The only way Barclays could avoid lending to the Zimbabwean government (it is not like they are really happy about doing so) would be to close down Barclays Zimbabwe or stop taking deposits there, and they're one of the biggest local banks. It's hard to see how things would be made better in Zimbabwe by making them do without a banking system.

the legacy: a comedy of terrors
The breathtaking novel that has the whole of the Conservative Party chattering!
The tale chronicles the progress of unbridled governance, its demise and inevitable descent into hubris.
The work’s title, subject matter and it reasonance with the public are obvious, but it is absolutely bursting with handy quotables and chic wisdom as well.
Freeview. Please use recycled paper.
Grab you handy quotables and chic wisdom now!

Download my novel in pdf format. Go to:

I remember the FT was running stories about Zimbabwe almost every week during the 1990s. At some point the whole situation got to the point where it seems the rest of the world just gave up on Zimbabwe until it "burned the stupidity out." Partly because of countries getting sick of being called "colonizers" every time they tried to do something, plus SA was still acting as a counterweight (I think they thought the "softly-softly" approach could still get Mugabe back to acting sensibly. It didn't.)

There have been other times in history where it seems about the best that can be done is wait until the whole flaming mess is over, the Stupid People have killed each other off, and maybe someone else can take charge who has a few more brains. (I place much of Western European history between 1515 and late 1700s in this. Took that many years for people to finally decide that Religious War was a Bad Thing and religious tolerance was an easier way to go.)

The destruction of Zimbabwe does not lie at the feet of one man, but of many. How many successful farmers stood up to Mugabwe and his ilk when he turned their farms over to deadbeat soldiers? Did any of them pick up automatic weapons and try to resist tyranny?

The same questions can be asked of Venezuela as well. How many people there will stand up to Chavez as he runs that country into the ground? Every citizen in both those countries is responsible.

If men are not willing to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for freedom, then they deserve the chilling embrace of dictatorship.

It is only a matter of weeks now before the Zimbabwe Regime collapses, so it is worth at this stage recapping what brought it about, and what the future folds.

Mugabe is no doubt a narcissistic control freak. There are many people like him at the helm of industry and other institutions – he is by no means unique as a human being in this regard. His ability to give a good speech and his ruthlessness in dealing with his perceived enemies (who include anyone flying too close to the sun) has allowed him, like Hitler, to take control of a political machine which resembles very closely that of the Nazi Party of 1933 – 1945. This Party (Zanu PF) has eliminated all external enemies through use of paramilitary militias, the police and the army. Unlike the Nazi Party however, it never had the benefit of an industrialized economy to sustain it. It nevertheless found a whipping boy in the residual white population, and systematically disenfranchised it. The “Treaty of Versailles” was replaced by the “Colonisers”.

Mugabe and his like were supported during the war of liberation by the Soviet Union and Communist China. They were never indoctrinated in the benefits of liberal democracy, and came to power with ideas of a command economy and a one party state. As it turns out, they got what they wanted – with African characteristics.

So what happens now? Well, General Majuru (alias Rex Nhongo) and his merry band have already infiltrated most of government – including the vice presidency (occupied by his wife). Those of you in the know will realize that Majuru was the ZANLA Commander during the “Chimurenga”. My first prediction therefore is that Vice-President Majuru will try to declare Mugabe as incompetent and will attempt to take over the reigns of power. The first you will know about this is when the military have taken up position at all major junctions in Harare. Mugabe’s Presidential Guard has already been replaced by ineffectual Police Support Unit detachment who are unlikely to stand their ground against army units.

So will Joyce Majuru succeed? Not by a long shot. The economy has already gone too far. The fragmented opposition can still mount mass disobedience campaigns, and the police may prove to be uncooperative. Rebellion will be most noticeable in Matabeleland where the 5th Brigade slaughtered thousands in the 1980’s. Civil War is likely.

There is Zimbabwe exiles blog calling for the British to invade it and restore democracy. http://radicalzim.blogspot.com/2007/03/britain-should-invade-zimbabwe_12.html

A somewhat radical view point, but a sign of how desperate things have got in Zimbabwe.

I am of the "All Africa's a Basket case" school of thought and having visited South Africa last year, I am not convinced they are out of the woods yet either.

Populist leaders such as Zuma are perceived as corrupt and likely to promise "Land for votes" in the next elections. The killings fields of the South African farms, and first court seizure are signs that lessons have not been learnt yet.

As for Zim, well It will be a very long time, if ever, before Zimbabwe fully recovers from the damage. All the farm infrastructure has been destroyed, the farmers dispersed, and capital goods (tractors etc) gone, and livestock diseased or eaten. Even just repairing the broken fences will cost millions.

Where is the money going to come from, Switzerland? I don't think so.

The country has effectively been destroyed, and will never regain the chances lost, because even if Mugabe’s regime collapses, all the "squatters", "veterans", and "activists" etc will still be there, and no one will be able to control them. It would need a military government just to protect people, let alone enforce the courts orders.

I guess I am being ultra pessimistic, but I suspect that when Mugabe’s party lose power, they will revert back to guerrilla violence to get it back

The comments to this entry are closed.