The world once regarded Robert Mugabe as a hero. Blacks in Rhodesia had to fight a bitter guerilla war against an oppressive white minority regime to gain equal rights, and many predicted revenge and racial massacre after independence. But when Mugabe took the helm of the renamed Zimbabwe in 1980, he talked only of democracy, peace, and reconciliation.


The coalition with Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu ended after the discovery in 1982 of a large arms cache, which prompted a brutal crackdown on Zapu supporters. Thousands were killed, but many saw this as a necessary consolidation of power in a war torn country. In 1987 the two parties united, thus averting civil war.

The economy was relatively well developed and debt free, the country could feed itself, and the infrastructure was in good shape. There was no reason why Mugabe could not achieve his goal of turning Zimbabwe into a model for Africa. The nation embarked on a mass education and health program, and even today literacy rates are the highest in Africa. Mugabe was lauded as a great statesman who had turned potential chaos into a working democracy.


But there was no credible opposition, and like nearly all unchallenged governments Mugabe’s administration grew lazy and corrupt. The economy stagnated under massive social spending and pervasive patronage. In 1991 Zimbabwe turned to the IMF, who lent the money but demanded economic liberalization. But reforms were half-heartedly implemented and so doomed to fail. Like many before him Mugabe blamed the messenger for the bad news he had created, claiming that relinquishing economic control to "western enemies" was his biggest mistake.


Zimbabwe’s wasteful intervention in the Congo civil war caused the IMF to break off relations. And graft and mismanagement brought the economy to its knees. The country is chronically indebted, living standards are below 1980 levels, and the infrastructure is devastated. Inflation is over 50%, two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line, and hospitals lack even basic drugs.


Though even senior officials in his own party have urged Mugabe to leave, he refuses to go. It is an age old tragedy - a once great leader grows obsessed with retaining power, sees enemies everywhere, and becomes a tyrant who   prefers to see his country destroyed rather than let anyone else rule. Absolute power has again corrupted absolutely.


Mugabe has not accepted any responsibility for the country’s ills and taken no serious steps to reform the economy. Rather he has resorted to naked populism, mob rule, and outright brutality. The full machinery of state - from the police to the media - is used against “unpatriotic” opponents, and investigative journalists are intimidated and sometimes tortured.


Mugabe blames the 75,000 white Zimbabweans (out of a population of 12 million) and their “foreign backers” for the economic collapse. In 1997 he announced a plan to seize land from whites, who own 70% of the nation’s fertile tracts, and give it to poor blacks. He said Britain should pay compensation to “its kith and kin” since Zimbabwe’s unequal land ownership is a result of colonialism. Britain admits land reform is necessary, but points out that land from the over 270 farms acquired by the government for the “landless poor” has gone to 400 of Mugabe’s cronies.


In February Mugabe’s land reform bill was rejected in a referendum. He promised to accept “the will of the people”. But weeks later Rhodesian war veterans were encouraged to occupy white farms and intimidate owners and their employees. Then Zanu-PF supporters attacked a peaceful opposition march, viciously beating whites, while the police stood by.


A court order was issued ordering the squatters to leave, but the authorities did nothing to enforce it. Mugabe defied his own independent courts, warning that any attempt to implement its decision without his permission “risked chaos”. Here was a clear message to the world that the rule of law no longer existed in Zimbabwe. He then rammed through parliament an identically worded land reform bill to the one rejected in the referendum. White farms account for the majority of the country’s exports, and it would be economic suicide to abruptly seize land from experienced farmers and hand it over to people with no experience of large-scale farming. But reality seems increasingly irrelevant to Mugabe.


Zanu-PF holds 147 of the 150 parliamentary seats, so Zimbabwe is in essence a one party state. But the deteriorating economy has prompted trade unions to form the Movement for Democratic Change, which masterminded the “No" campaign in the referendum. Mugabe labels the MDC "a front for racist white interests", but they are far ahead in the polls. Yet many fear that Zanu-PF will do anything to remain in power. Several opposition activists have died violently, and the chances of a fair election are growing dim. War veterans warn of a military coup if Zanu-PF loses the elections. Observers talk of a possible civil war, for events are spiraling out of government control. War veteran squatters have flatly refused to obey any court order to leave and killed and beaten white farmers. What will happen next is anyone’s guess.


Squatters claim they are only taking back what is rightfully theirs, since whites are occupying land the British stole from their ancestors. And Zimbabwean whites are indeed suffering for the sins of their fathers. Had Rhodesia given its blacks more rights and education and not sought to maintain white supremacy by arms, there would have been no civil war and no embittered war veteran squatters.


Yet every country on earth is occupied by the last conquerors of its land. When they arrived in Zimbabwe in the 1890s British settlers moved about half the black population off their farmland onto barren communal properties. Yet 50 years before the British came the warrior Ndebele tribe had dispossessed the peaceful Shona. Only the rule of law can prevent might from always being right, and past injustices can only be remedied through the courts. Where there is no law the only rule can be that of the gun. Zimbabwe is on the brink of an abyss.


Jamaica gave strong moral support to Zimbabwe’s fight for independence. And while we can do nothing to help now, Jamaicans should still be watching these sad events closely. Here is a veritable living example of a nation’s tragic fate when an entrenched government grows corrupt, stops listening to the people, panders to the mob, and abandons the rule of law. Let us hope it never happens here.

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