In the closing decades of the last century, much of the world discovered, or rediscovered, some basic political ideas and economic truisms. In terms of politics, civil society has become widely accepted as a medium to empower citizens and provide an active means for them to improve their quality of life. From the economic side, many people came to understand that governments and central banks are the culprits behind inflation and many other economic disasters.
In choosing to ignore these ideas, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has embarked on a path that is destroying his country. He has attacked and undermined elements of civil society while imposing some of the most dreadful economic policies seen since the Great Leap Forward in China.
In the first instance, Mugabe has struck several blows at the heart of civil society. Citing that Western-funded charities, church and human rights groups often side with issues supported by his political opponents, he claimed that such NGOs support “foreign” ideas. Terming this as interference in domestic politics, his majority Zanu-PF party passed laws to can such groups and arrest their leaders if they offend him.
Dusting off his cloak of an anti- colonial warrior, Mugabe suggested that respect for individual rights expressed through the organs of civil society are inspired by neo-imperialism. Following this Alice-in-Wonderland logic, freedom of expression has been throttled with the arrest of independent journalists and closing of most of the independent media.
These actions have succeeded due the fact that judges have been co-opted and that the regime can count on the sycophantic support of the military and police force. With the media tamed and with most organs of power concentrated in the hands of one person, there have been widespread claims that elections have been rigged.
But this authoritarian behaviour contradicts the ideals of self-determination that inspired Mugabe’s own independence agitations and revolution against British imperialism. As it is, civil society goes beyond national autonomy to support individual “self-ownership”, whereby each person exercises free will to choose and pursue life purposes.
Mugabe has limited individual liberties in the form of private property rights and freedom of expressions. These restrictions on individual rights have obvious political consequences, but they are also the cause of growing economic misery.
Zimbabwe is now experiencing a serious economic crisis with soaring consumer prices, rising unemployment and growing shortages of essential goods. A number of ruinous policies have crippled the economy.
Armed with extraordinary powers, his government approved the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms since 2000. This racist policy of evicting white farmers led to these productive plantations being broken into smaller and less efficient plots and agricultural production plummeting. While Zimbabwe was once a food and agricultural commodity exporter, many Zimbabweans now face extreme privation.
Recently, small traders operating in the informal sector were accused of opposing the regime and forced to close. Large swathes of make-shift establishments were simply bulldozed out of existence, and with them the livelihoods of thousands also disappeared.
The official estimate of inflation is above 4,500%, the highest in the world. However, independent financial institutions estimate it to be as high as 20,000% per year. As suggested above, economic history and theory show that irresponsible government policies and ruinous choices by central bankers are the fundamental causes of inflation.
Accusations that private business interests are fuelling inflation, caused by his own policies, Mugabe’s actions cannot be excused as economic ignorance. What he is doing must be put down to pure malevolence and want on political opportunism.
Under Operation Dzikiza (Operation Reduced Prices), the regime ordered price cuts that have worsened economic conditions. These low prices led to store shelves being stripped bare. However, retailers will be unable to restock since official retail prices are set below wholesale costs or the price of new imports.
About 3,000 retailers and manufacturers have been arrested or forced to pay fines for violating the edict. Hoping that citizens will mistakenly blame the private sector for Zimbabwe’s economic problems, it appears that there are plans to expropriate private companies. It has been reported that legislation is pending to grant controlling stakes in publicly traded companies to loyalists of the regime.
Abuse of individual rights and ruinous economic policies under Mugabe’s home-grown autocracy are more injurious to freedom and human welfare than was colonialism. Unfortunately, the United Nations and the South African government under President Thabo Mbeki have stood by idly while Zimbabwe has descended into tyranny.
Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and professor of Economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comments are welcome at email@example.com