Commentary

Bureaucratic Heart of Darkness

This article appeared in the Washington Times on April 16, 2006.

Sometimes even the most pessimistic observer of African affairs is forced to admit to being surprised just how low a particular African regime has sunk in its treatment of its own people. The latest chapter in the tragic story that is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has all the usual ingredients: incompetence, callousness, greed, and barefaced lies.

Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has been so impoverishing that the women of Zimbabwe can no longer afford to buy even the most basic hygienic products. Poor substitutes lead to infections that can be fatal in a country where health care has collapsed. International donors have tried to provide relief, but they have encountered a major obstacle: Zimbabwe’s officialdom.

In 2000, Robert Mugabe embarked on a course that led his country to economic ruin. By expropriating Zimbabwe’s farmers, he destroyed his country’s ability to feed itself. Famine rages in the countryside, despite efforts of international aid agencies. Mr. Mugabe’s evisceration of private property rights in agriculture fatally undermined other sectors of the economy, such as manufacture and financial services.

With private sector production rapidly declining, Zimbabwe can no longer sell enough goods overseas and earn the foreign currency it needs. Most imported items, including gas, have become nearly impossible to obtain. The government has also lost most of the revenue it needs to pay the wages in the public sector. It therefore resorted to printing money. Inflation runs at 600 percent, and doctors, nurses, lawyers and businessmen are fleeing in droves. More than 2 million Zimbabweans found a new home in South Africa alone.

One of the more mundane, but telling examples of skyrocketing poverty in the country is the fact even the most basic everyday necessities, such as feminine hygienic pads, have become a luxury most Zimbabwean women can no longer afford. The country has 80 percent unemployment. People who are lucky enough to work earn a meager salary that averages $21 per month. A month’s supply of pads, unfortunately, costs $5.

Use of unsanitary substitutes has spread disease. The Zimbabwean Congress of Trades Unions has requested, and secured, donations of free hygiene pads from donors in South Africa and Great Britain.

In a farcical twist, the Zimbabwean authorities refused to award the shipments duty-free treatment, demanding the cargo first be quality-tested. It may seem astonishing that government officials in a country undergoing social and economic implosion should think twice before exempting the much-needed products from an import tariff or that they should have the nerve to demand quality-testing for imports from a comparatively affluent and well-run country like South Africa. But bureaucrats have no shame and in Africa doubly so.

After all, Zimbabwe is a country where life expectancy fell from 56 years in 1993 to 30 years in 2005, yet where the government taxes foreign medicines at an average rate of 22.5 percent.

No doubt greed also plays a role. Africa has an army of customs officials, whose job it is to collect import duties. With wages low and deteriorating rapidly in real value due to inflation, customs officials rely on bribes to speed shipments through or look the other way altogether.

Thus, when a group of South African churches and nongovernmental organizations raised money to purchase emergency aid for the people of Zimbabwe in the winter months of 2005, the Zimbabwean customs officials demanded that import tariffs be paid. South African blankets and food languished at the Johannesburg airport for weeks.

Worse, the government’s Propaganda Ministry is in full swing denying that anything out of the ordinary is happening in Zimbabwe. The deputy minister of information, Bright Matonga, told the BBC’s “Focus on Africa” that people were “creating a crisis that does not exit.”

“The Zimbabwe government won’t sit back and let women suffer. We care about our women,” Mr. Matonga said. Perish the thought. In fact, Zimbabwe’s government must hold a record for barefaced lying.

Take operation “Murambatsvina” in May 2005, during which Zimbabwe’s security leveled entire townships, leaving some 700,000 people homeless. The operation caused international outcry prompting even the United Nations, usually less-than-vocal on African governments’ human-rights abuses, to condemn Zimbabwe for violating international law and urging prosecution of those responsible. Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general, called the policy a “catastrophic injustice.” In response, the government promised to find the displaced people alternative housing. Reports from Zimbabwe make it clear nothing of the sort was done.

Zimbabwe has clearly reached a point where authoritarianism stops and tyranny begins. It is now an Orwellian society where government officials engage in all-out war against reality and where “Room 101” is a very real place for many of the government’s opponents.

It was, therefore, with a sense of disbelief that many have learned that Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and a man whom the Zimbabwean human-rights activists call a “linchpin” of the Mugabe regime, was given a U.S. Capitol reception by the National Black Leadership Roundtable last week and that Rep. Diane Watson, California Democrat, and member of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, made an appearance there. Zimbabwean people deserve better.

Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty specializing in the study of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.