Editorial: Zimbabwe after Mugabe

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe inspects the guard of honor in Harare on Oct. 6, 2009.
(Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / Associated Press)

Robert Mugabe helped free Zimbabwe from white minority rule, won a legitimate and democratic election as prime minister, served as a symbol of African self-determination, urged reconciliation with white residents and former leaders — and proceeded to run his country into the ground.

Rich in natural resources and human capital, the nation once known as Africa’s breadbasket was ruined by Mugabe’s harebrained economic schemes and his systematic smothering of dissent. An autocrat who has dominated the country’s politics for 37 years, Mugabe has refused to cede power or plan for succession even as he has blithely violated human rights.

Mugabe is the country’s founding (and so far only) top leader. Now a doddering 93, he last week sacked Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa for supposed disloyalty and boosted the succession prospects of his own wife, the widely reviled Grace Mugabe. As a result, the army finally moved against him, putting Mugabe and his wife under house arrest. That leaves the once-wealthy and at least marginally democratic nation with a set of depressing possibilities all too familiar among countries still struggling with their colonial legacy: If the aging president is unable to perpetuate his rule through his spouse or other family members, the nation faces rule by the military, its puppet or at least its chosen candidate, likely Mnangagwa, who previously headed the secret police and is implicated in ethnic massacres in the nation’s early years.

The short-term prospects for Zimbabwe look dismal.

Yet it remains a nation rich in resources. Its agricultural output has long been in decline but its soil remains productive. Many Zimbabweans have fled from its stunning hyperinflation but retain ties to their home country and are well educated — a result of a good system of grammar schools and higher education, one of Mugabe’s few successful contributions. It has good roads. Its legal and judicial systems aren’t the region’s best, but neither are they the worst.


But it needs competence in banking and financial management, and expertise to manage farmlands that were wrested from white ownership and awarded to Mugabe supporters who lacked farming know-how. Above all, it needs a government that focuses on freedom and economic recovery rather than on clinging to power by oppressing opponents.

Post Mugabe, Zimbabwe is likely to get renewed and substantial assistance from China, which invests heavily in Africa but in recent years soured a bit on Zimbabwe as its leader grew older but no wiser. Success will require broader buy-in — from Zimbabwean expatriates, who have expertise to contribute along with remittances and a devotion to their homeland — and from Western powers, including the United States, which would be wise to leverage aid to encourage free and fair elections and a political infrastructure that discourages either family rule or military intervention.

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