Obama's Zimbabwe Moment

Robert Mugabe has imposed economic, financial, social and environmental ruin on his nation, and it is time to call an end to his reign of destruction.
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As the world focuses on events in the Arab world, and as dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi are overthrown, America's first African-American president has a historic chance to deal with one of Africa's most vicious despots -- Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has imposed economic, financial, social and environmental ruin on his nation, and it is time to call an end to his reign of destruction. Since his election in 1980, Mugabe, now seventy-nine, has created a virtual "how-to" manual for national destruction. Although many of his methods have been applied elsewhere, taken as a whole his approach is more radical and more comprehensive than that of other despots. In January of 1983 Mugabe, a member of the ethnic Shona majority, ordered his North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade to carry out what he called a gukurahundi against the Ndebele people. The Ndebele account for about a fourth of the country's population, and Mugabe felt that they threatened him because his chief political rival at the time, Joshua Nkomo, was a Ndebele. The Nazis gave us the Final Solution, the Serbs gave us "ethnic cleansing," and Mugabe has given us "wiping away."

Mugabe's consolidation of power continued throughout the 1980s during which time 60 percent of the white population of Zimbabwe emigrated. Parliamentary seats reserved for the white population were abolished in 1987 and a new constitution crafted by Mugabe consolidated his power over Zimbabwe. And despite some advances in literacy rates, the 1990s saw Zimbabwe grow more isolated and economically stagnant. Since 2000, Zimbabwe has experienced increased political repression and economic ruin. In mid-2005, Mugabe ordered the demolition of urban slums and shantytowns, leaving 700,000 people homeless in an operation called "Drive Out Trash." By the end of 2008, inflation skyrocketed to a mind-boggling 231,000,000 percent, up from 7,000 percent in 2007. Unemployment reached 80 percent, and the Zimbabwean dollar was basically worthless. According to the World Health Organization, Zimbabwe has the world's lowest life expectancy.

Today, Zimbabwe, once considered the bread basket of Africa, is a net importer of foodstuffs, with the European Union and United States providing emergency food relief as humanitarian aid on a regular basis. The destruction of the agricultural economy has been savage, as fertile farmland once cultivated by trained white farmers has been forcibly relocated to black former combatants, who are untrained in agricultural land management, as compensation for military service. Production has fallen to less than half of its estimated capacity and fertile land lies fallow due to neglect.

Mugabe blames the failures in the economy on the crippling sanctions imposed by Western governments to force a regime change. But the overall picture is one of a nation that fails to function on any level -- economic, political or cultural. It highlights the lasting effects of decolonization -- limited Western influence on the continent and a reluctance by African leaders to criticize their own. And it offers a warning about how much damage one man can do, very quickly.

In her brilliant 2003 article in The Atlantic, "How to Kill a Country," Samantha Power chronicles the transition of Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of Africa to the basket case it has become under Mugabe's rule. Power, who is currently a member of President Obama's National Security Council, has a deep insight into both the economic and human rights failures of Zimbabwe. However, she also points out that Zimbabwe shows how hard it is to completely destroy a nation, thanks to the redoubtable spirit of its people. Power writes, "The mounting severity of Mugabe's crackdown is a testament to his frustration with the resilience of civil society, which simply refuses to go away. If Mugabe were to give up power, Zimbabweans insist, the country would quickly show how liberated citizens can mend a shattered land." Power points to graffiti that has sprung up at city bus stops, reading, "Zvakwana!," or "It's enough!"

Zimbabwe is a land rich in natural resources and human capital whose growth has been stunted by the megalomania of its dictator. There is no reason why the Arab Spring cannot translate into an African renaissance, and this can be accomplished if President Obama takes the lead in a multinational coalition to oust Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe.

I propose that an international conference be convened, which could take place in the Liberated Libya (a north African state sending a message to the south). It would include opposition members from a broad cross-section of Zimbabwe as well as international experts in a variety of industries and organizations. Their task would be to agree on terms that would define the transition from dictatorship to democracy. The most important document would be not only a new constitution but a detailed blueprint on transition. This blueprint would be drawn up by international experts from all industries with the help of Zimbabweans. All international aid would be directed to companies doing the actual building so as to prevent corruption and fraud. Export earnings would be deposited in a neutral country's bank and appear on a website for all Zimbabweans to see where their funds are being deposited. This practical first step would crush the vicious momentum of destruction and provide a plausible path to recovery and stability.

The Nobel Prize awarded to President Obama in 2009 caught many people by surprise, but a timely, just and effective intervention to rid the people of Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe would surely silence his critics.

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