In the last two years Zimbabwe has been transformed into a state that increasingly resembles Cambodia under Pol Pot. The government seems set on adding famine to the list of oppressions visited on the nation. In May, a law was passed decreeing that any commercial farmer who continued to farm 45 days after being given notice to stop would face imprisonment.
On Friday, that law will be used to evict thousands of commercial farmers and their workers. Fear and desperation pervade the country. All the signs are that President Robert Mugabe is determined to hold on to power at any cost, including the destruction of the nation and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans.
It has been clear for some years that the Mugabe regime is determined to shrink the democratic space to an absolute minimum. The judiciary has been all but destroyed. Independent journalists have been arrested, their presses bombed. In January the regime rammed through Parliament legislation subverting the electoral process, revoking civil liberties and restricting the press. In the same month, the military suggested that only Mr. Mugabe would be acceptable as leader.
The political campaign that followed was marked by violence. The presidential election in March was a farce. Mr. Mugabe was proclaimed winner in an election that was widely condemned internationally. The overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans, who were hoping for a peaceful transition to democracy in March, have had their hopes dashed.
For its part, the Mugabe regime, while increasingly irrational and paranoid, knows it must convince the world it is legitimate if it is to survive. For this reason, the regime cloaks its suppression of democracy in what would otherwise be legitimate concerns, primarily the need to redress legacies of colonial injustice. The unresolved land-ownership issue has been exploited very effectively to cover up corruption, poor administration and human-rights abuses.
The catastrophic human-rights situation is now complicated by a famine that is, in the case of Zimbabwe, mainly the result of the Mugabe regime's ruinous policies. While a drought did occur at a critical period during the summer, it only affected the dry-land corn crop. The rainy season was just below average and nearly all the irrigation reservoirs are almost full. Had experienced farmers been allowed to plant their crops, Zimbabwe would not have had to import any food at all.
As it is, Zimbabwe is now facing a shortage of some 1.2 million tons of corn. The situation is compounded by the fact that only a small proportion of the winter wheat crop has been planted because of threats directed against wheat farmers. If the Mugabe regime goes ahead this weekend with its plans to evict thousands of farmers and their employees, many of their crops will not be properly harvested.
The World Food Program recently predicted that as many as 6 million Zimbabweans will soon face starvation. At least 25 percent of Zimbabweans are H.I.V. positive. Experts are agreed that some 20 percent of AIDS sufferers are extremely vulnerable to drops in nutritional levels. Conservatively, one might calculate that 300,000 Zimbabweans could die within the next few months as a result of this combination of famine and AIDS.
The Mugabe regime may be counting on catastrophe for its own salvation. It has already sought to hide behind drought. There is no doubt a calculation taking place that the "CNN factor" (images of starving children) will soon dominate policy decisions in the West and that a flood of aid will pour in.
That Zimbabwe and other countries in the region need vast amounts of food and medical aid is beyond doubt. But if the symptom of famine is addressed but not its cause, the international community will only have succeeded in perpetuating the problem. Ongoing food shortages will occur unless a massive irrigated corn crop is planted this November. It can still be planted if the rule of law is re-established — which will only occur with help from Zimbabwe's neighbors and through holding a fresh election that complies with accepted standards.
Sadly, there are very few levers left which can be used by the West to restore sanity to Zimbabwe. The new relationship between Africa and the wealthy industrialized countries — as expressed in the recent meetings between representatives of the Group of 8 and the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development — is one such lever. While Zimbabwe should not be allowed to hold hostage democratic African states that desperately need the new partnership to work, the reality is that, like it or not, Zimbabwe is the partnership's first test. Famine in Zimbabwe is primarily caused by bad governance, which in this specific case is tolerated by many African states and supported by some. The consequences of this man-made famine will become clear in the next few months. Investors the world over will be watching closely to see whether African rulers deal with the cause of this particular famine, not merely its symptoms. If African leaders do not act in these circumstances, what investment in Africa will ever be safe in the future?
Yet there has been very little to indicate that African states have the political will to deal with the crisis in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is becoming a police state without so much as a whimper coming from the same African states who heralded a new beginning for Africa at the Group of 8 meeting and the inauguration of the African Union.
If leaders in the industrialized democracies are interested in preventing what was once the jewel of Africa from becoming another Somalia — and in preventing future famines in southern Africa — then they must persuade their African colleagues to deal with the real cause of the catastrophe unfolding in Zimbabwe.
David Coltart, a member of Zimbabwe's Parliament, is a leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party.