As World Looks Away, a Nation Dies

Paula R. Newberg, who writes regularly on countries in crisis, recently returned from southern Africa.

When historians review this century’s missed opportunities, Zimbabwe may be one of them. Like many of its neighbors in southern Africa, it is the victim of familiar plagues: HIV and AIDS, drought and famine, and the ills of misguided economic development. But Zimbabwe’s leaders, chiefly President Robert Mugabe, the former freedom fighter who now rules with an iron fist, have turned difficult circumstances into an almost impossible situation. Ignoring his country’s impending implosion and chasing foreign donors away, Mugabe has steered Zimbabwe to the political edge. Without a rescue plan, he is courting the failure of the state.

Zimbabwe suffers more than its share of plagues. HIV and AIDS have infected at least 33% of the adult population, and last year’s drought turned food shortages into famine. Unemployment has reached 60%, and 75% of the population lives in poverty. But Zimbabwe’s government, once blessed with a vibrant civil service, can barely find enough employees to do its work: The shrinking, debt-ridden economy has led to a brain drain that threatens to sap the country’s vitality for generations to come.

Famine and disease result as much from bad policy as from Mother Nature. Fiscal austerity during the 1990s wreaked havoc on the economy, misjudgment led to default on international loans, and miscalculated food estimates forced Zimbabwe to depend on outside aid to eat. Worse, Mugabe tried to redress so-called colonial-era grievances by expropriating large commercial farms and redistributing their lands. In doing so, he displaced farm workers, aggravated the ailing agrarian economy, angered foreign governments whose citizens owned the lands and thumbed his government’s nose at the rule of law. What Mugabe calls land reform, others, including donor governments, brand as state-sponsored thievery.


Resentful of the criticism, Zimbabwe’s leader has chosen economic and diplomatic isolation from the West, at the cost of fiscal prudence and investment, and relies on old friends among southern Africa’s leaders to offer him the appearance of support and solidarity.

Worse still, Zimbabwe has yet to contend directly and fully with the effects of HIV and AIDS. Few of the thousands who die each month know they have AIDS. The rising death rates have yet to provoke the government to acknowledge the prevalence of the disease, let alone count its victims. Health care, prevention, education and social protection are inadequate. An official attitude of denial is turning Zimbabwe into a country of orphans. But as long as AIDS is a crisis mostly affecting the poor and disenfranchised, government is unlikely to fundamentally change its views or behavior.

Mugabe has increasingly found the rule of law too burdensome to obey. The violence unleashed by the ruling party during the March elections and the government’s refusal to encourage civil society to set the terms for civil politics seriously compromise the government’s legitimacy and the viability of future elections. Mugabe has criminalized the mere idea of opposition politics; young praetorian guards patrol the streets. “If you challenge the state,” reports one opposition politician, “you’re in for it.” Even stalwart Mugabe supporters are leaving his party’s ranks, but they can count on few legal protections for civic activism. In separating his own interests from those of his citizens, Mugabe is pulling the state apart. Soon, Zimbabweans will have no place to turn for help.

Zimbabwe is simply worn down. Every woe feeds on others: Poverty and famine drain a disease-ridden society; disease weakens workers; debt leaves the exchequer empty and drought mitigation inadequate; aggressive land expropriation forces donors to close foreign-backed health and education programs. Donors respond to the country’s emergencies, but without long-term aid, Zimbabwe’s assistance crisis will jeopardize its development. Even the World Bank is packing up. When aid workers call the current situation in Zimbabwe “horrible,” they are barely scratching the surface.

We have seen this before. In countries as diverse as Haiti and Somalia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, state leaders mistakenly believed that they ruled for themselves alone. In each instance, the abuse of power slipped into authoritarianism and then something worse. Without local politics, no one was around to prevent wrongful behavior, and without the active protection of the international community, failed states turned local conflicts into wars that risked civilians, compromised borders and endangered entire regions.

While diplomats argue about the limits of sovereignty and intervention, countries can disappear and states can break. Rwanda and Somalia were important only to Rwandans and Somalis -- until they almost perished in their own bloodshed. Afghanistan seemed important to almost no one until its failure made it, for a short time, the most important problem on Earth.


We know what happens when no one is looking: Failure, like disease, offers the opportunity for infection -- and like disease, it rarely cures itself. By now, we should have learned that abandoning countries and peoples has consequences: Crises multiply when we don’t envision recovery. But while our armies and banks have become adept at fixing damage, we haven’t yet learned what we need to do to prevent disaster from striking.

Zimbabwe offers the international community a chance to act collectively to prevent the collapse of a state before it happens. It is beset by problems to which there are no easy answers. But it still has some government infrastructure, educated and sophisticated citizens, resources and the recent memory of lively and engaged politics.

Years after the Rwandan genocide, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded his colleagues that “if we had acted earlier, we could have saved lives.” The shadow of inaction in the face of malign states lies heavily on the international community. Surely, an experiment in conflict prevention is a good way to begin the new year.