Robert Mugabe Turns 90

Robert Mugabe, the longstanding president of Zimbabwe, celebrates his 90th birthday today. There is no question he has seen significant changes occur over his lifetime, from the end of colonialism to the rise of globalization. But being the only president Zimbabwe has ever had since its transition to majority rule in 1980 also means that no other person has defined the political and economic landscape of his country more than he has.

Looking at the state of Zimbabwe today, that is neither a positive legacy nor one that many in Zimbabwe hope continues.

Since the harmonized elections last July that returned Mugabe to another 5 year term, Zimbabwe has lurched from one crisis to the next. With the opposition largely out of the picture, infighting within Mugabe’s ZANU PF party has grown as various politicians jostle for a spot ahead of the inevitable battle for who will take Mugabe’s place. Despite public calls by Mugabe for party unity, he has been unable to stop the growing factionalism which is taking its toll on the already weak economy and the party.

Recently the infighting has gone public with factions battling each other through the media and leaking critical information exposing corruption throughout the government. The latest chapter involved revelations of the salaries of senior bureaucrats in various underperforming government parastatals, which in some cases reached $500,000 a month. Given that the government is largely out of money and struggling to pay ordinary civil servants their meager salaries that average $300 to $400 a month, the revelations have further divided ZANU PF and hurt general morale in Zimbabwe.

It has long been known that corruption is endemic in Zimbabwean politics and that any attempt to investigate and prosecute the offenders would not be tolerated. But the revelations of “salarygate” put that corruption in full view of a public that is badly hurting from the country’s continuing economic malaise. With a formal unemployment rate estimated at 70 to 85% and a quarter of the rural population dependent on aid from the World Food Program, Zimbabwe desperately needs economic growth across all sectors of the economy. Instead, the factionalism within ZANU PF is giving them key insights into the reasons why such growth continues to be elusive.

It also puts it in full view of potential donors and investment partners. Zimbabwe’s difficult relationship with the West following the controversial fast-track land reform program and increase in political violence over the last decade means that while traditional donors such as the US and EU can be counted on for humanitarian aid, they are largely out of the picture for foreign direct investment and government aid. While the EU lifted most of the remaining targeted sanctions on ZANU PF elites this week and ultimately offered Mugabe an invitation to the EU-Africa Summit in April, the basic economic relationship between the West and Zimbabwe is unlikely to change soon.

This has made China Zimbabwe’s best development and investment partner over the last 10 years. But recently even China seems hesitant to continue on the path with Zimbabwe unconditionally. Heavily indebted and facing a significant cash shortage, the government recently tried to secure a loan from the Chinese government and business community using Zimbabwe’s vast mineral deposits as collateral. However, for the first time since Mugabe launched his “Look East” policy, the answer Zimbabwe received was a resounding “no.” While China continues to invest in other projects within the country, the development puts into question the ambitious economic growth plan Mugabe campaigned on last year and likely signals the continuation of economic stagnation for most of the country.

Thus this is the Zimbabwe Mugabe has fashioned from his 34 years in power. Crippled by unemployment, fractured by corruption and always seemingly on the verge of a possible economic collapse, the promise Mugabe held in 1980 has long disappeared into an abyss of corruption, paranoia and self-entitlement by the political establishment. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans continue to wait for the country to turn a corner, for the services they once counted on to return, and for a new chapter in their history to begin.

As Mugabe celebrates his 90th birthday, The Economist probably summed up his tenure best by pointing out that of all the current long-standing African leaders, Mugabe is the only one that has overseen a drop in average life expectancy for his country. Many within the government see that as all the more reason for him to celebrate beating his own odds to reach 90, with a party that is expected to cost the government a million dollars.

In the meantime, Zimbabweans are left to wait to see what happens next as they struggle to get through the landscape Mugabe has created.

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