An Empty Breadbasket

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ONCE the "breadbasket of Africa," today's Zimbabwe is desperate. Half of the country's citizens are malnourished. They can be beaten and tortured for expressing anti-government views. The country's inflation hovers around 100,000 percent, meaning the price for a loaf of bread is comparable to what a Zimbabwean might have paid for a house just a few years ago. Yesterday, the exchange rate reached an astounding 35 million Zimbabwe dollars to a single U.S. dollar on the black market, according to Bloomberg news.

This misery results from the policies of President Robert Mugabe, a man once hailed as a liberator but who now watches from his 25-bedroom mansion while his people starve. The world has been hoping that elections scheduled for March 29 will present an opportunity for change. Mr. Mugabe's reelection, though, is all but guaranteed; he seems to be readying his old tricks of brutal voter intimidation, bribery and ballot-box stuffing. Still, the infighting within Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party -- as evidenced by a presidential challenge from Mr. Mugabe's former finance minister -- gives hope. Mr. Mugabe himself dismisses condemnations from the West, which he derides as continuing colonialism. But disenchanted fellow party members may be more amenable to persuasion, since they know the government's current policies are not sustainable. Western countries should offer financial assistance upon the condition of basic reforms, such as an end to voter intimidation, to encourage party officials unhappy with Mr. Mugabe. Even though Mr. Mugabe has said he won't allow Western countries to provide election monitors, the international community can still send representatives, accredited or not, to bear witness.

Those with the most leverage are Zimbabwe's neighbors -- South Africa and fellow members of the Southern African Development Community. For now those countries are doing precious little to help. While for historical and political reasons they may be hesitant to criticize Mr. Mugabe, whom they respect for his long-ago fight against white minority rule, these countries must realize that stabilizing Zimbabwe and protecting its people from human rights abuses are in the region's present interest. South Africa and its neighbors should pressure Mr. Mugabe to hold a fair election -- and to step down if he does not.

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