There are two things that most outsiders know about Zimbabwe: One man, Robert Mugabe, has run the country for what seems like forever (36 years to be exact), and his regime has left the country broke -- and broken.
Elections in Zimbabwe are as farcical as the inflation rate of its spiraling currency, which at one point, in 2008, reached 89.7 sextillion percent. The government then issued 100-trillion-dollar notes. The country currently owes the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank a total of $1.8 billion in arrears that represent just a fraction of massive debts that have been piling up for two decades.
In short, Zimbabwe is in economic ruin and needs money quickly.
But how can international institutions give money to the government without propping up the regime that destroyed the country in the first place? That conundrum doesn't seem to be stopping the World Bank from planning to extend Mugabe a financial lifeline.
Internal documents leaked this month show that the World Bank has a $400 million cash injection in the works despite the fact that Mugabe has engineered disastrous economic reforms and ferociously clamped down on a growing movement demanding his ouster.
The documents are from July and contain praise for those reforms and for Mugabe himself, calling him "popular" and a "source of stability." Furthermore, the documents indicate that a reduction or eradication of human rights abuses isn't considered a prerequisite to financial support. All that is required is that those abuses "level off or decline from the 2014 average and/or no unwarranted arrests of key opposition leaders."
It shouldn't be difficult for the World Bank to see that even those minimized conditions are not being met. In June, for instance, at the height of the #ThisFlag anti-Mugabe protest movement, its leader, a pastor named Evan Mawarire, was arrested and some of his supporters were beaten in the capital city of Harare.
And last year, a young activist named Itai Dzamara went missing after leading unprecedentedly bold protests against the government. On March 9, 2015, six men in plainclothes grabbed Dzamara while he was getting a haircut. They handcuffed him and threw him into the back of a white truck. No one has heard from him since. Protesting against Mugabe can get you arrested, beaten, kidnapped, or even killed, plain and simple.
Dzamara's brother, Patson, journeyed to Washington last week to deliver a letter in person to the World Bank imploring it to reconsider its planned support. In the letter, he writes, "Let me be clear. Any such financial aid would NOT be extended to Zimbabweans, and would NOT benefit people on the ground. Quite the contrary, it would extend the lifespan of a crumbling regime that is harmful to the future of the people and nation of Zimbabwe. It is actually likely that such financial support would directly fund the very mechanisms, physical and otherwise, that cause such harm to a long-suffering population."
For the World Bank to be unlocked, Zimbabwe must first clear its arrears. Negotiations on how to get the nation enough money to pay off the arrears so that it can then borrow even more money have been underway for months now.
The Sunday Telegraph reported last month that Zimbabwe's government is in talks with two lending institutions, the African Import-Export Bank and Lazard, an investment bank, to procure a billion-dollar-plus loan that would enable them to pay back those arrears, and unlock the financial aid package. One of Lazard's directors traveled to Harare in February and met with Zimbabwe's finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa.
In a review of a trip he took to London published in state-run media, Chinamasa seemed to imply that the British government had helped him arrange for the loans. "They put together a syndication of banks to address the World Bank arrears," he told the Sunday Mail. "With this understanding and commitment from Afreximbank and Lazard, we are now definitely on course to fulfilling what we set out in our arrears clearance strategy. I can safely say that everything is now on course."
Under questioning in parliament, members of the government with whom he met denied playing that role. Annabel Goldie told the questioning panel, "There is no bailout for the Zimbabwean Government and no British taxpayer money is used to fund that Government. The Government of Zimbabwe are in discussion with private sector banks to arrange a financial package to clear their debt arrears to the international financial institutions. We do not provide specific guidance about the provision of funds to Zimbabwe, but if asked, we would discuss the situation, highlighting the financial and political risks of operating in Zimbabwe."
Without irony, Mugabe often inveighs against the supposed meddling foreign hand in his speeches, even though his government relies on foreign money. After Itai Dzamara went missing, government officials espoused the idea that he probably staged the kidnapping himself, thinking it would galvanize the international community against Mugabe.
The former head of Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Operation spoke with The Washington Post last year and hinted at a more likely scenario. "I think Dzamara was an embarrassment to ZANU-PF, and that’s why he had to disappear," said Didymus Mutasa, referencing Mugabe's political party. "I know there are several ways to make people disappear in this country."
Patson Dzamara is unsure what happened to his brother, but he acknowledges that he may be dead. Still, he thinks Itai set in to motion a movement that eventually will gather steam, especially if the international community continues to isolate Mugabe and his cronies.
"Itai decided to take a stand," said Dzamara, while standing in front of the White House in Washington last week. "He sowed the seeds of a movement. What we are seeing in Zimbabwe now is the germination."
"But for the World Bank to fund the regime would be to fund our oppression," he said, before embarking for New York to lead protests at the United Nations, where Mugabe arrived Sunday for the meeting of the General Assembly.
This item has been updated.