May 1, 2006

May 1, 2006 | Commentary on Africa

Forum: 'Independence Day' in Zimbabwe

When the Fourth of July rolls around and you gather with family and friends to celebrate Independence Day, take a moment to think of those of us from Zimbabwe. Our Independence Day, which took place recently (April 18), was no cause for celebration.

Like you, we have heroes. Thousands fought and died for our freedom. Like you, we threw off colonial rule -- first by the Portuguese, then the Ndebele and, finally, the British. Even then, our country was not ruled by native sons but by white settlers. It was not until a protracted resistance ended in 1980 that, finally, we achieved independence.

Alas, it proved a mixed blessing. We wanted social justice and democracy. Instead, we've suffered thousands of deaths, often by horrific and brutal methods. Today, we wonder if the sacrifice was worth it.

We won our freedom from Britain in 1965, thanks to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. A brutal guerrilla war lasted until 1980, when a negotiated settlement brought us a constitution, a parliament and a ruler, Robert Mugabe, who quickly won international praise for his efforts at reconciliation.

It was not until 1998, when Morgan Tsvangirai launched the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), that the country took a turn for the worse. Mr. Mugabe, threatened by the popularity of the new movement, surprised even his supporters with his crude response.

First, he took over the army and police force and converted them to arms of his ruling ZANU-PF party. Then, he began to use the country's treasury for his own gain and to reward relatives and friends with positions of power. Before long, he was publicly threatening anyone who dared organize against his rule. Today, Zimbabweans live in fear of his security forces. He accuses the opposition of working with the U.S. and Britain to destabilize the country and overthrow him.

Thousands languish in prison, accused of plotting to kill Mr. Mugabe. Others are simply murdered or flee as refugees. Migration and high death rates disrupt communities at unprecedented rates. This disintegration causes the disappearance of the very family values and identity Zimbabweans fought for.

Mr. Mugabe also has sacrificed the economy to maintain power. Inflation now tops 900 percent and continues to climb. Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe now faces mounting deaths from starvation. Rather than admit the problem and attempt to solve it, government ministers claim nobody has died of starvation in Zimbabwe and that what problems do exist stem from shortages of drugs, sabotage from opposition parties, the United States and Britain and drought.

Meanwhile, Mugabe cronies plunder not only drugs but any commodities they can turn into quick cash. They control the sale of staple food, fertilizer and agricultural seeds. They buy whole loads from the manufacturers ahead of retailers and sell these goods on black markets. What is distressing, however, is the example they set for ordinary people to join the plunder, thereby creating a nation of plunderers with no consideration of social justice.

Says the "Index of Economic Freedom," the nation-by-nation guidebook to economic policy published annually by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal: "Heavy regulation, price controls, expropriation of land and businesses, government spending equal to a quarter of GDP, inflationary monetary policy and government-sanctioned violence have discouraged foreign investment and hindered economic production. Unemployment is estimated to be 80 percent, and most economic activity has been forced into the informal sector."

At the outset of independence, Zimbabwe had some of the best hospitals in southern Africa. The government spoke of providing health services to all citizens by 2000. Six years beyond that goal, corpses overwhelm mortuaries, coffin production ranks among the fastest-growing businesses, and Mr. Mugabe's lieutenants divert vital donated HIV-AIDS drugs for personal use and benefit.

Mr. Mugabe has shown his true colors. His deputies' continued plunder with impunity and the West's increased demand for accountability has forced him to scramble for new friends. His choices are Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and China -- all diehard dictatorial regimes.

China offered investments in mines, military, manufacturing industries and service industries. The Zimbabwe-China relationship rescued the country from imminent collapse. In his desperation, Mr. Mugabe seems to have avoided asking what China wants in return.

As we mark another independence day, we would love to have a country that respects its own citizens and the rule of law. We would settle for a country where people live without fear of murder, forcible expulsion, rape or torture. Sad to say, even that seems beyond hope.

Denford Madenyika is a recent graduate of North Carolina State and an intern at the Heritage Foundation's Center for International Trade and Economics (heritage.org).

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First appeared in the Washington Times