Saturday, December 13, 2008

Zimbabwe Faces Extinction

Zimbabwe is dying.

According to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy at birth for Zimbabwean males and females is 44 years and 43 years, respectively (compared to 65 and 58 in 1990). This means that, with the exception of Zambia, the people of Zimbabwe live at least five years less than the residents of bordering nations. American men and women in the year 1900 lived longer.

HIV/AIDS is a major contributing factor. An estimated 10.5% of the population is currently infected with the virus and UNAIDS reports that nearly one quarter of Zimbabwean children have either lost one or both parents to the disease.

Complete economic collapse has fueled the humanitarian catastrophe. The unemployment rate is over 80%, the currency is worthless, and the annual inflation rate is 231 million percent (in November, the Cato Institute's Hanke Hyperinflation Index for Zimbabwe (HHIZ) adjusted this number to 89.7 sextillion (1021) percent). The country's infrastructure is also failing. The nation's Health Minister recently remarked that Zimbabwe's hospitals "are literally not functioning" in the midst of an overwhelming cholera epidemic that has claimed the lives of at least 575 Zimbabweans and infected 13,000 more. UNICEF is preparing for the possibility of 60,000 additional cases in the coming weeks.

President Robert Mugabe is solely responsible for Zimbabwe's agony. Every destructive act by the dictator and his ZANU-PF party has brought the country closer to annihilation. His thugs and cronies, with scant knowledge of agronomics, have brutally seized previously fruitful white-owned farms under the guise of land reform. This policy, initiated in 2000, has crushed the agriculturally dependent economy (GDP has fallen 40% since the start of the land takeover) and threatened the nation's food supply. Millions now rely exclusively on foreign food aid just to survive. In May 2005, the President launched a nationwide demolition offensive, known as Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out Trash), that drove at least 700,000 from their homes and deprived many more of vital access to proper sanitation and health care, including antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai (pronounced chang-girr-IGH), defeated Mr. Mugabe in the March 29 elections, but failed to capture the 50.1% of the vote necessary to avoid a second round runoff. Mugabe's response was vicious. He claimed that non-governmental organizations were giving food to Tsvangirai's supporters and ordered a three month ban on all food aid agencies, leaving millions of Zimbabweans famished. Human Rights Watch has documented an extensive ZANU-PF campaign of intimidation and violence accountable for at least 163 murders and the torture of 5,000 others in the period leading up to the June 27 runoff. One of the dead is Ignatius Mushangwe, a senior Electoral Commission official, whose charred body was recently discovered. Mr. Mushangwe disappeared in June shortly after revealing multiple episodes of government sponsored voter fraud during the March election. It is hardly surprising that Tsvangirai pulled out of the runoff election and Mugabe won 85.5% of the vote.

Since that time, the country has continued its descent into chaos. This year's production of maize, the country's staple crop, is expected to be 28% lower than 2007 and the United Nations has predicted that 5.1 million people face starvation by early 2009.

An unlikely power sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was signed on September 15 that made Tsvangirai the new prime minister. President Mugabe responded by claiming key cabinet ministries for ZANU-PF including control over the army, police, and justice system. As a result, negotiations between the two sides have been deadlocked for nearly three months and Zimbabwe's neighbors have failed to persuade Mugabe to share power as previously agreed.

Where will an Obama Administration stand? When asked about the use of military force in situations of humanitarian crisis during the second presidential debate, Obama responded that "when genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us. And so I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible."

Obama's appointment of Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations is also revealing. Ms. Rice is an expert in African affairs. Specifically, she is known to favor military intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur and has in the past written a doctoral dissertation on Zimbabwe. Hopefully this means that President-Elect Obama will lead an international force to pressure Mugabe and save Zimbabwe from extinction. As politicians and diplomats continue to stall, the fate of literally millions hangs in the balance.

(photo credit: