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Mugabe's stranglehold on Zimbabwe

As the crisis and uncertainty surrounding Zimbabwe's recent election continues, Richard Downes reflects on his recent month-long visit to the country, where many people are desperate for change.

A person carrying a child and holding a Z$50m note (Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
Spiraling inflation has seen the introduction of a Z$50m note
As I sat in the coffee shop in the airport fiddling with my bill, I reflected on the extraordinary state of affairs in Zimbabwe.

I had just bought two cups of tea and two glasses of water and, reaching into my bag, I took out a massive wad of Zimbabwean dollars.

New and crispy Z$10m notes. Clean and sleek.

Then I looked at the bill. The charge was Z$204m. That would make a serious dent in my brick of notes.

The Zimbabwean dollar is one of the most worthless currencies in the world so any notions of being a millionaire, or even a billionaire, lasted all of a few seconds.

Not so long ago Z$204m would have bought you a highly profitable gold mine in the south of the country, near Kwekwe. A huge plant with hundreds of employees and land and buildings.

A year or so later it would have bought an estate of expensive houses in one of the more salubrious suburbs of Harare.

Even quite recently, you could still have bought a car with Z$204m, but today all you can get is a measly cup of tea. It is a pathetic state of affairs and a sign of the depths to which the country has fallen.

Clinging to power

Paul Connolly has plenty of experience of the collapse of Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls
Zimbabwe's side of the Victoria Falls has seen a fall in tourism
I met him as he was conducting one of his unique tours on the Zambezi river, navigating 63 men and women around obstacles both natural and animal - a hippo here, a fallen tree trunk there. They were having a marvellous time under Paul's masterful direction.

He used to conduct these tours and run his large successful tourism venture from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and although he still lives there, he has transferred all his business across the water to Zambia.

At least there, he remarked, the government is rational and relatively stable. He now employs more than 20 people in Zambia.

Zimbabwe, he told me, has become a pit. The whole nation has been dragged down by a ruthless politician with no regard for his own people, only a burning desire to cling on to power.

Zimbabwe in the past has proved that an African country can educate its people, provide them with healthcare, have banks that work, shops that sell goods and hold its head up high

"One man, just one man," he said, shaking his head. "That's what I can't get my head around," he told me.

Yes, the whites clung on to colonial notions and failed to embrace a new non-racial Zimbabwe. Yes, the Western countries showed little real interest in the problems of this developing country, but to destroy the country to stay in power, that is what Paul found so hard to comprehend.

Systematic looting

And he is not alone.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe has dominated Zimbabwe's politics since 1980
Over nearly four weeks in Zimbabwe it was hard to find anyone who had a good word to say about Robert Mugabe.

Most would spontaneously offer the comment that it was time to change.

Others would eye me warily and say, "Things are not good, we need something different." It was code for getting rid of Mugabe, and not very subtle at that.

Zimbabwe matters to Paul and to the many other Zimbabweans for very practical, concrete reasons. But it is also very important to the continent as a whole.

Zimbabwe in the past has proved that an African country can educate its people, provide them with healthcare, have banks that work, shops that sell goods and hold its head up high among the nations of the world.

Under Robert Mugabe, the country has been systematically looted by the top brass in the army and the ruling party
More recently it has also proved that this infrastructure can be destroyed surprisingly quickly. Up to the mid-1990s Zimbabwe functioned very well.

Agriculture produced, services functioned and the state invested heavily in education, producing the most educated population in sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy was just over 60 years.

That is where Zimbabwe was and where it could be in the future, but it is not where it is now.

Corrupt system

At present Zimbabwe's situation is perilous. Under Robert Mugabe, the country has been systematically looted by the top brass in the army and the ruling party.

They have got rid of most of the white farmers who produced the basic wealth of the country. They control a deeply corrupt foreign exchange system that guarantees a few top dogs in government and the army millions of US dollars in hard currency every month.

People still have hope for Zimbabwe and I am one of them
Virtually every aspect of life and the economy has been controlled by army people or members of the ruling Zanu-PF party. And they owe it all to Robert Mugabe.

In that context, how would they ever allow the opposition to win the presidential election?

Stranglehold

The next round of Mugabe's onslaught is well under way. The opposition says violence against its members by the ruling party has intensified.

A map of Zimbabwe showing Harare, Kwekwe and Victoria Falls
People still have hope for Zimbabwe and I am one of them.

But it is crystal clear to anyone trying to look at the country with even a vaguely objective eye that it will only stay at a standstill and even reverse further, if the current leader and his cronies keep their stranglehold on the country and its people.

As I left my cup of tea and made my way to the aeroplane and on to Johannesburg, I checked my bag and found that I still had about a billion Zimbabwean dollars sitting in a pouch.

It is an offence to take Zimbabwean currency out of the country so I volunteered it to the customs officer who was searching my bag rigorously.

"Yes sir, you should leave it here," he said. "It will be worth nothing when you come back anyway."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 12 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Zimbabwe
29 Mar 08 |  Country profiles
Zimbabwe inflation hits 100,000%
20 Feb 08 |  Business

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