Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Descent of Zimbabwe

I've been meaning to post on this week's article in Newsweek on the tragedy of Zimbabwe under authoritarian strongman Robert Mugabe. The article indicates that the African nation has become one of the world's worst dictatorships -- on par with Burma and North Korea:

On a rare journey into Zimbabwe, NEWSWEEK found a nation dominated by fear and the ever-present secret police, where a suspicious population is gradually turning on itself. Since early March, when police violently dispersed an MDC rally and arrested the party's leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, some 500 opposition foot soldiers have been abducted, beaten and dumped miles from their homes. Neighbors are enlisted to spy on neighbors. Speaking out, even on the most mundane issue, is often met with a harsh response. If he cannot rig the March election, Mugabe seems intent on making sure no one will dare support his challengers. Tsvangirai, who suffered severe head wounds while in detention, says: "We're under siege."

So is Zimbabwe. The lush green country once boasted Africa's highest literacy rate. Now, statistically, a Zimbabwean woman can expect to live only to the age of 38. The government says inflation is running at 3,700 percent, but experts say the actual figure is closer to 19,000 percent. Last week two separate U.N. bodies estimated that by early next year some 4 million Zimbabweans—one third of the population—could go hungry. An additional 3 million are living abroad now, and as many as 2,000 more flee each week. South Africa, worried about stability as it prepares to host the 2010 World Cup, has stepped up deportations of Zimbabwean migrants back across the border.

Mugabe came to power in 1980 as a hero, having led a brutal war of liberation against the white-rule government of Ian Smith. For more than a decade he was feted as a reformer who educated his countrymen. Among other African leaders, that reputation silenced any criticism of his brutal treatment of rivals, just as it has in the past few years as his forces set about intimidating opposition leaders, beating prominent activists and cracking down on the press.

But such tactics have drawn fierce and unwelcome attention abroad; a British Foreign Office minister recently warned that Mugabe was opening himself up to war-crimes charges. So now Mugabe is going after the "nuts and bolts" of the opposition, says Roy Bennett, a former parliamentarian who fled Zimbabwe last year. Authorities are focusing on drivers, accountants, secretaries—the anonymous workers who keep the movement afloat. "What [the government] has done is move away from the high-profile people," says Dell. "Now they're hollowing out the opposition at the grass-roots level."

I don't claim any particular expertise on Zimbabwean politics (a point I make regarding Saudi Arabia in my entry on Megan Stack and her powerful account of women's subjugation in the Saudi state, "Rage Behind the Veil").

I do, however, discuss Zimbabwe in my Comparative Politics course. Zimbabwe under Mugabe is a textbook example of "one party authoritarian rule." Zimbabwe's ruling party, Mugabe's Zimbabwe African People's Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has been in power since 1980 (a point noted in the the Newsweek piece).

In recent classes, I have assigned Patrick O'Neil's Essentials of Comparative Politics, which is one of the most innovative and accessible comparative textbooks of recent release. When I was in graduate school, in my Third World Development seminar, I read Vicky Randall's Political Change and Underdevelopment: A Critical Introduction to Third World Politics. Randall's text has long sections on African political development, making the book a vital primer on the region.

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