'Nice shoes,' said a young Zimbabwean looking wistfully at my $40 Nike tennis shoes that I wore when I encountered him sitting on the floor of a completely barren Bata shoe store in the town of Victoria Falls. It was last November and I was in Zimbabwe having crossed the border from Botswana earlier that day.
The once charming town that used to teem with travellers from around the globe was more derelict and much emptier than I remembered it from my visit in the early 1990s. About half of the shops were either empty or closed altogether. The main shopping centre looked more like a warehouse and offered a few strategically placed products in an attempt to mask the widespread shortages of consumer goods. A small number of backpackers, mostly bemused young students from the former British dominions, wandered around the town centre in futile search of edible food. They were clearly delighted to see another white face — cracking jokes and drawing comfort from our shared hardships.
Few of the locals would talk to me and those who did would look over their shoulders — worried that someone might be listening. Zimbabwe suffers from 150,000 per cent inflation, unemployment of more than 80 per cent, collapse of basic public services and the lowest average life expectancy on earth. What was once a breadbasket of Africa is now an economic disaster zone. What was once a reasonably free society is now a police state where armed gangs of government supporters harass, beat and kill opposition members with utter impunity.
As I reflected on what I saw, it struck me how much Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe resembled what I read about the Congo in the final years of rule by another corrupt and megalomaniac dictator — Mobutu Sese Seko. Like Mobutu, Mugabe came to power promising a new dawn for a nation that had just emerged from under a white minority rule. Like Mobutu, Mugabe will leave or be forced out of power amid political repression and economic collapse.
In her 2000 book In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the British author Michela Wrong provides a vivid description of the last years of Mobutu Sese Seko's rule. Mobutu started as a popular leader who brought stability to the war-scarred Congo in 1965. But his dictatorial streak and megalomania soon got the better of him. He renamed the country Zaire, and instituted a cult of personality and indigenisation policies that saw the country empty of the remnants of her educated white middle-class.
Despite being a self-styled anti-communist, Mobutu undertook the most comprehensive nationalisation seen in Africa. In 1974 farms, plantations and commercial enterprises were taken from their foreign owners — ostensibly to be distributed among the black Zairians. Instead, thousands of businesses... were divided between top [government] officials. Most of the new proprietors had no idea how to run farms and businesses and quickly ran them into the ground.
Most foreign investors fled and those who stayed behind turned their attention to making quick profits, which they then repatriated overseas. Prior to 1974 the Zairian economy grew at 7 per cent per year. Following nationalisation, the country started on a downward spiral that continues to this day. In 2006, the Congo was the third poorest country in sub-Saharan Africa. Congolese incomes were 23 times lower than those of Seychellois — Africa's richest people.
The effects of nationalisation extended beyond the immediate economic crisis. The belief that something could be had for nothing... had been endorsed at the very highest level of society. Mobutu and his ministers had plundered mercilessly, and no one had ever been punished. Zaire became a kleptocracy and Mobutu became the kleptocrat-in-chief.
The extent of his loot became legendary. In addition to a number of residences in the capital and presidential villas in every major town, Mobutu had a massive palace complex built in his native town of Gbadolite. There he had the airstrip enlarged so as to accommodate the landings of the Concorde planes that he occasionally rented from Air France. Mobutu bought villas on the French Riviera, in the Swiss Alps, Portugal's Algarve, and no less than nine buildings, including a turreted château, in the upmarket part of Brussels.
As the economic situation in Zaire deteriorated, unhappiness with Mobutu's rule increased. To remain in power, Mobutu devised a vast system of patronage that incorporated an expanding number of his critics in the government. The size of government exploded. Between 1965 and 1990, Zaire saw 51 prime ministers and their governments come and go — each averaging 40 ministers and deputy ministers. Each government member, of course, was expected to use his time in office to provide for himself, his family and a few generations of his descendants. By the 1990s Zaire had more than 600,000 civil servants notionally responsible for tasks the World Bank estimated could be carried out by a mere 50,000.
As the government's financial resources dwindled, the looting became more desperate. Gécamines, the gigantic state-owned mining company responsible for most of Zaire's foreign currency earnings from the extraction and sale of copper, cobalt, uranium and zinc, was looted so thoroughly that its copper production fell from over 440,848 tons in 1989 to 27,507 tons in 2001. In the final act of desperation, Mobutu ordered the Bank of Zaire to print money. By 1994, inflation hit 23,773 per cent.
By 6 May 1997, when Mobutu took off in a Russian cargo plane that flew him to exile in Rabat, Morocco, he was so universally despised by his fellow countrymen that some members of his own presidential guard opened fire with bullets ripping into... [the plane's] bodywork.
It was 1980 and Zimbabwe had just gained independence from Britain. White rule had ended and so did a civil war that cost some 30,000 lives. The first-ever multiracial election gave Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) a parliamentary majority, but Zimbabwe had an independent judicial system and a constitution that protected minority rights. Moreover, Zimbabwe had one of the largest and most sophisticated economies on the continent. The country seemed destined to become an African success story.
Things turned out very differently. In 1982, Mugabe turned on his once comrade-in-arms, Joshua Nkomo of the Zimbabwe Africa Peoples Union (ZAPU). He unleashed his special forces trained by the North Koreans on Nkomo's supporters in the Matabeleland, killing some 20,000 in the process. In 1987, ZAPU's remnants were swallowed by ZANU and Zimbabwe became a de facto one-party state.
Mugabe remained firmly in charge until 1998, when he ordered his army to invade, of all places, the Congo. Following Mobutu's flight, the Congo descended into chaos. Her new strongman, Laurent Kabila, was faced with internal rebellion that drew military responses from Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe on Kabila's side, and Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda on the rebels' side. The conflict — Africa's largest ever — cost Zimbabwe US$15 million per month and tied up one third of Mugabe's forces.
In return for his help, Kabila gave Mugabe and his generals mining concessions in the southern part of the Congo. The top brass of the Zimbabwean military made small fortunes and developed a taste for riches that Mugabe would later find so difficult to satisfy. Back home, however, the war was deeply unpopular and the Zimbabwean population threw its support behind the newly founded Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by a former trade union boss named Morgan Tsvangirai. It was Tsvangirai's MDC that defeated Mugabe's plans to change the constitution and extend his rule in a 1999 referendum. Furious at his defeat, Mugabe turned on the white commercial farmers, whom he suspected of giving financial backing to the MDC.
Over the next few years almost all of Zimbabwe's 4,000 white-owned farms were invaded by state-organised gangs. Some of the farmers who resisted the land seizures were murdered, while others fled abroad. Mugabe claimed that the land would be given to the landless masses. In fact, much of the best land was given to his cronies who proceeded to enrich themselves with such gusto that Mugabe had to plead with them to choose one [farm] and give up the rest.
As in Zaire, the new owners showed little aptitude for farming. The agricultural sector soon collapsed and with it most of Zimbabwe's tax revenue and foreign currency reserves. To meet its obligations to domestic and foreign creditors, the government ordered the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to print more money, sparking the first hyper-inflation of the 21st century.
Like Mobutu, Mugabe's answer to the falling economy was to increase state patronage and the intensity of the looting. Mugabe, the Savile-Row-suit-wearing dictator, and Grace, his shop-till-you-drop wife, reportedly paid US$12 million for a 25-bedroom house in a posh suburb of Harare. His government now consists of 45 ministers and deputy ministers, each entitled to a variety of perks, including SUVs and formerly white-owned farms.
To buy their loyalty, the government has provided influential police officers and army lieutenants with hundreds of imported vehicles. Mugabe has recently signed into law an indigenisation programme that foresees majority stakes in all non-black owned private enterprises in Zimbabwe confiscated and given to black Zimbabweans. In reality, they are certain to be distributed among the government officials, and army and police personnel, without whose support Mugabe's regime cannot survive.
Mugabe has also declared his intention to confiscate 25 per cent of shares in all non-state mining companies. This locust-like feeding frenzy that sees Mugabe and his cronies moving from one area of the economy to the next leaving nothing but destruction behind suggests that the ruling elite understands that the end of Mugabism is near. Members of the government continue to pay lip service to economic reconstruction, but their main preoccupation appears to be last-minute self-enrichment.
As I returned to Botswana, I felt relieved to leave behind a police state that makes it impossible for people to talk freely with one another; a state where taking a photograph of an empty grocery store can land you in prison. I was saddened by the sight of yet another African country that has collapsed into poverty, but I was also hopeful for before us lay Botswana — a market democracy, where life seems safe and increasingly prosperous.
On 29 March, Zimbabwe will hold a presidential election. A public opinion poll conducted by the University of Zimbabwe last week found that Mugabe had the support of only 28 per cent of Zimbabweans. Support for his main rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, stood at 42 per cent, while Simba Makoni, the former finance minister, was yet to break into double digits. Unfortunately, the election will likely be rigged in the incumbent's favour. But, at 84, Mugabe is an old man. He may yet die in office or be forced out.
The Zimbabwean diaspora is abuzz with rumours of flight plans and comfortable exile in Malaysia or Namibia. There is talk of Far Eastern bank accounts stuffed with treasure. Either way, Mugabe will be gone one day. When that happens, the new leader of Zimbabwe should look across the border with Botswana. He will see that freedom and rising prosperity are possible — even in Africa.