July 26, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

Ruin By Design

Ruin By Design To whatever extent the recent United Nations report on Zimbabwe calls attention to the brutalities of the country's tyrant, President Robert Mugabe, the U.N. has performed a service. But as far as the report translates into nothing more than a fresh bout of aid funneled via Mugabe's regime, this U.N. initiative will only compound the suffering in Zimbabwe–where the government's latest atrocity has been to “clean up” the cities by evicting hundreds of thousands of poor people, destroying their dwellings and leaving them jobless, homeless and hungry.

In describing this scene, the U.N. report provides a wealth of horrifying detail, but takes a detour around the basic cause, which is not, as the report concludes, such stuff as “improper advice” acted upon by “over-zealous officials.” The real cause is the long and ruinous rule of Mugabe and his cronies.

With a delicacy over-zealously inappropriate in itself to dealings with the tyrant whose regime has been responsible for wreck of Zimbabwe, the report starts by thanking Mr. Mugabe for his “warm welcome” to the U.N. delegation, which visited the country from June 26 to July 8. The report, issued by the secretary-general's special envoy Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, then proceeds to the usual U.N. prescription that what Zimbabwe needs is more aid, and a framework–here comes the UN lingo–“to ensure the sustainability of humanitarian response.” While the report also calls for the “culprits” to be called to justice under Zimbabwe laws, Mugabe himself is somehow excused from direct responsibility.

Instead, the report faults wealthy nations for not providing more aid already, and notes that “With respect to the funding issue, some in the Zimbabwe political elite and intelligentsia, as well as others of similar persuasion around the continent, believe the international community is concerned more with 'regime change' and that there is no real and genuine concern for the welfare of ordinary people.”

Apart from the problem, not mentioned in the U.N. report's comment, that after a quarter-century of Mugabe's rule the surviving Zimbabwe elite are to a great extent Mugabe's own cronies, there is the profound difficulty that in Zimbabwe's state-choked economy, Mugabe has a record of diverting foreign aid to his supporters, while starving–as well as mugging and murdering–his opposition. Aid workers themselves in recent years have lamented the difficulty of channeling aid in Zimbabwe to the intended beneficiaries. The danger with any massive, not to mentioned “sustainable” humanitarian response, is that it will most likely translate into sustainability of Mugabe's regime (generating hefty fees along the way for any U.N. agencies involved).

What to do? Rushing aid to help the starving and homeless is an impulse common to decent people anywhere. There is no doubt that Mugabe's regime has created a crisis, to which some will be moved for the best of reasons to respond. But to downplay the role of the tyrant himself, in hope he will “engage” with humanitarian donors, and in kindly manner mend the mistakes of his reportedly wayward subordinates, is to misinterpret his methods, shore up his rule, and most probably sustain or even worsen the miseries of Zimbabwe.

Atrocities under Mugabe are nothing new. Since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe has ruled with what is apparently the prime directive of remaining in power, whatever the cost. The U.N. report, in its brief history of the country's struggles, fails to mention that one of Mugabe's first moves after coming to power was to invite in North Korean advisers, to train the shock troops known in Zimbabwe as the “Fifth Brigade.” In the 1980s, Mugabe dispatched this Fifth Brigade to massacre an estimated 18,000 Zimbabweans opposed to his rule–far more than the number of people slaughtered, say, at Srebenica, and more than six times the number murdered in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The world paid no notice. Most of those who died were not members of Zimbabwe's white minority; they were black, most of them belonging to the Ndebele tribe. Mugabe then consolidated power, and was feted for years as a champion of African progress. Indeed, the new U.N. report, while omitting mention of this slaughter, describes Mugabe in admiring terms as “part of that exclusive club of African statesmen” who “fought colonialism and racial discrimination.”

The report also gives an odd account of the farm invasions that from 1998 on escalated in Zimbabwe not only into the eviction of white land-owners, but the ruin of the country's agricultural base–replaced not by fair distribution of property and rule of law for blacks, but by plunder, violence, and enrichment of Mugabe's chums at the expense of millions of black Zimbabweans. The model for this was not equitable land reform, but Communist China's cultural revolution, the methods of which Mugabe and his crony “war veterans” learned in the 1960s and early 1970s at the knees of Mao Tse-tung himself. And the mobs who invaded the farms, while described as war veterans, did not consist on the ground of the aging satraps of Mugabe's elite circle–who profited from the policy. They were youth militia, unleashed by the aging Mugabe in an effort to thwart a growing opposition movement, and keep his grip on power.

The U.N. report does warn that its findings are incomplete. But they are rather worse than that. The eviction of hundreds of thousands was not, in Mugabe's universe, a policy mistake. It was, for Zimbabwe's murderous tyrant, a success–now yielding leverage over decent people who are indeed prone to send help to those suffering in Zimbabwe. We have seen this cycle before. It is what led to the U.N. devising, albeit on a far grander scale, with a far bigger cut for its own administrative services, the now scandal-ridden Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, which fortified Saddam Hussein and helped him keep power for years beyond what many in the early 1990s expected. What must be grasped in dealing with Zimbabwe is that the problem is Mugabe himself. And whatever welcome, warm or otherwise, he may provide to visiting U.N. delegations, the true recovery can only begin with his departure.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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