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As tensions rise in Zimbabwe, what are the reasons behind the violence, and what might be the likely solutions?
The country's status as the world's fastest shrinking economy is due to politics. With inflation touching 2000 percent, one-third of the country abroad and half the country's 11 million people dependent on food aid, President Robert Mugabe's land redistribution policies have virtually destroyed the agriculture sector.
Once the mainstay of the economy and employment, agriculture output is now less than half of its late 1990s peak - and tobacco, the main export crop, just one-fifth. Today HIV/AIDS afflicts 18 percent of the population, unemployment is over 70 percent, the fiscal deficit an unsustainable 60 percent of GDP, and life expectancy is down to 36 years.
The change in the country's land policy was a profoundly political act, motivated by the growing unpopularity of the country's octogenarian leader. The country's 4,000 white farmers were easy prey in a country where the politics of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party are defined by the 20-year liberation war against white rule.
CONVERSELY, IF you can fix the politics, one should be able to fix the economy. How to do that is not easy in a country which Mugabe has ruled with an iron fist if democratic fa ade since independence from Britain in 1980.
Three models of reform and recovery are possible:
â€¢ A reformed ZANU-PF without Mugabe at the helm and with more internationally-acceptable leadership and policies is apparently preferred by those leaders in the southern African region for whom the unraveling of the ruling party resonates uncomfortably with their own situation.
Along with Mugabe's iconic liberation hero status this helps to explain why the region has been so reluctant to intervene and slow even to publicly condemn Mugabe's actions. Where a new ZANU leadership might come from is a subject of much speculation. The faction around the former army boss General Solomon 'Rex Nhongo' Mujuru is portrayed as the most powerful. Indeed, it is speculated that Mugabe's tough recent crackdown on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was not a sign that he either feared a resurgent MDC or had lost all fear of international reprisals, but that it was a tough message aimed at his own ranks, especially the military.
â€¢ Another option is to engineer an interim coalition government with the MDC. Given their scent of victory it is unclear whether the MDC would accept this. But removal of Mugabe from political center-stage would make this more likely and palatable, even though the MDC itself would have to engineer a settlement between its own squabbling two factions led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutumbara.
â€¢ This may be a precursor to the third option, to hold democratic and free elections as soon as possible, thereby undoing Mugabe's shameless vote-rigging in earlier polls.
Either way, economic recovery will demand a degree of multiparty consensus and cooperation unseen since the partnership between the Shona-dominated ZANU and Ndebele-controlled ZAPU led by Joshua Nkomo. In combination with South African pressure and British-led diplomacy this alliance brought about the fall of Ian Smith's white regime. It faltered in the 1980s when President Mugabe cracked down on opposition in Matabeleland.
The notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killed an estimated 20,000 ethnic Matabele in quashing resistance to his rule - explaining why the MDC draws much support from that area to the west of the country.
Any economic recovery strategy would, in turn, have three basic components: Sorting out the agriculture mess created by Mugabe's policies; providing for the disgruntled and highly politicized war veterans who have led the land grab; and addressing human security and rights.
Given its scale and complexity, the crisis in Zimbabwe is not going to be resolved quickly or easily. International experience suggests that the period of recovery is inevitably as long as that of decline. But there is an imperative to start now, to improve the daily struggle of Zimbabweans by stabilizing the economy and reducing political tensions.
MEDIUM TO longer-term steps will have to address land and economic policies. External assistance is viewed as key to both staving off further economic collapse and, ultimately, recovery. Yet international aid has a poor record in this regard, often proving a band-aid incapable of forging domestic consensus on dealing with underlying problems. Usefully planning should start on aspects such as monetary stabilization and the re-establishment of a functioning state system including baseline performance in education, policing and health.
There is only so much that can be done by the international community for Zimbabwe in undoing Mugabe's sorry legacy. The tough message is that this lies largely in Zimbabwean hands, today and in the future.
The writer heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation dedicated to strengthening African economic performance.
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