Once regarded as a model of development in southern Africa, Zimbabwe continues to plunge into political chaos and despair. The Mugabe regime’s litany of human rights abuses grows unabated, aggravated by economic collapse, food scarcity, a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic, and now the scourge of cholera. Since the first major manifestations of cholera in August of 2008, Zimbabwe has seen over 20,580 infected and 1,500 deaths from the illness. Originally centered in the Budiriro suburb of Harare, the epidemic has now swept the country, with concentrations in Mashonaland, Masvingo, Midlands, Manicaland, and Matebeleland in the south.



Over the past decade the Mugabe regime has engaged in blatant mismanagement of the Zimbabwean economy. Official figures put inflation at 231 million percent in July 2008, and it has arguably increased since that point. Hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and severe declines in agricultural productivity have increased malnutrition in the general population. Malnourished and HIV-infected populations are increasingly susceptible to infectious diseases such as cholera. Moreover, economic deterioration has eroded the capacity of Harare to provide essential public goods and services including electricity, garbage disposal, sanitation, and--in particular–clean water and medical treatment. Hyperinflation has accelerated the disintegration of the nation’s public health infrastructure, as medical personnel and sanitation workers have left their jobs because their wages cannot feed their families or pay for transportation to work. Many hospitals have simply shut down as doctors and nurses now refuse to work.



A principal cause of the epidemic is the Mugabe regime’s recent nationalization and politicized mismanagement of the civic water and sanitation structures of Harare. The government’s corruption and incompetence is evident in its refusal to chlorinate the water supply or replace broken pipes in areas that have seen significant support for the political opposition. Such politicization of public health, in an effort to punish supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has directly induced the proliferation of the cholera bacteria. Moreover, this decline in the capacity and willingness of the state to provide even basic public goods--exhibited in declining national life expectancy (now a mere 34 years) and increasing infant mortality--is an excellent indicator of a failing state. Declining health is correlated with, and functions as an effective empirical predictor of, state failure.


Despite Mugabe’s recent claims that the epidemic is ‘under control,’ both the WHO and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon have indicated otherwise. The Mugabe regime has attempted to deflect criticism by accusing ‘the West’ of fomenting the epidemic. Zimbabwean Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu recently attributed the cholera to “serious biological chemical war… a genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by the British.” He continued, “Cholera is a calculated racist terrorist attack on Zimbabwe by the unrepentant former colonial power which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies so that they invade the country.” This politicization of health echoes assertions made by many African leaders during the 1990s that HIV/AIDS infection was a plot by Western nations to annihilate African populations and destabilize African polities. Furthermore, the Mugabe regime has a nefarious history of using the provision of public goods as a political tool to retain its tenuous hold on power. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government routinely punishes those citizens who fail to support the regime by withholding food and antiretroviral therapies to combat HIV/AIDS.


Failing and failed states often generate serious externalities that radiate beyond their borders, and health externalities such as the proliferation of cholera are but one manifestation of this dynamic. According to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the cholera epidemic has now spread to Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, and to Limpopo province in South Africa, where it has generated circa 750 cases and 11 deaths. Clearly, the Mugabe regime’s inability to govern effectively is now compromising the ability of Zimbabwe’s immediate neighbors to keep a pernicious epidemic from affecting their own populations. Thus, while health may be seen as a public good (being non-rivalrous and non-exclusive), epidemic disease is a public bad – imposing costs upon society as a whole and radiating beyond affected polities to jeopardize the health, prosperity and stability of other polities throughout southern Africa.


To date, the Mugabe regime has generated a plethora of public bads (epidemic disease, poverty, migration) throughout Southern Africa. Given the collective regional interest in stability, prosperity, and peace, it is shocking that other political leaders in the region have been so utterly ineffective in implementing the power-sharing agreement between ZANU-PF and the MDC, let alone forcing Mugabe from office. Despite SADC’s role as mediator, it has been completely ineffective. While the Mugabe regime maintains power for now, it is clear that Zimbabwe is collapsing into a failed or shadow state.


Regrettably, the disintegration of Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s human rights abuses have been largely ignored by the political elites of neighboring nations. Given the externalities resulting from the collapse of Zimbabwe, contiguous states have an increasing self-interest in removing the ZANU-PF government from power. Clearly, Mugabe and his coterie are authoritarian power-seekers who prey upon their own population. Merely denouncing the Mugabe government is therefore ineffective in generating substantive internal change. Thus, the global community must actively support the political opposition of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC. While South Africa and Sweden have recently committed humanitarian aid to Harare for the purpose of quelling the epidemic, others have been direct in their justifiable criticism of the ZANU-PF regime. For example, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK recently designated the outbreak an “international emergency” and called on the international community to tell Mugabe that “enough is enough.” Furthermore, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has criticized the UN Security Council for its failure to take meaningful action to resolve the intertwined political, economic and health crises in Zimbabwe.


International organizations are attempting to remedy the worsening contagion. Specifically, UNICEF is trucking in clean water to battle the epidemic. Concurrently, the WHO is trying to establish a command and control center in conjunction with the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health, asking donors for US$6 million to enable its response. Unfortunately, the Mugabe administration has proven increasingly untrustworthy in the eyes of the international community, having recently misappropriated funds from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Thus, donor nations should be leery of providing funds to the corrupt administration in Harare. Indeed, they might do better to support NGO efforts, such as the International Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontiers, that circumvent ZANU-PF.


The complex interactivity between the political, economic, and health crises in Zimbabwe complicates external intervention. In this particular case, poor governance has combined with economic collapse, malnutrition, and the pre-existing HIV/AIDS epidemic to generate a rapidly spreading, regional cholera epidemic. Collectively, the social disruption of Zimbabwe’s failing state combines with the human toll of the cholera and HIV/AIDS epidemics to accelerate the de-legitimization of the ZANU-PF regime. Such disruption and criticism of the government has intensified its predatory and volatile behavior, augmenting the widespread abuse of human rights. The argument here is that certain malign governments use the provision of health as a political tool to bolster their power by rewarding their sycophants; the corollary to this is that they withhold basic necessities of life to punish those who favor the political opposition. The Mugabe government has clearly recognized that the denial of public goods, such sanitation and clean water to non- Mugabe supporters fosters disease and keeps the political opposition in a weakened state.


The Obama Administration has a moral duty to seek Mugabe’s removal, but the United States also has a considerable degree of self-interest in the matter. First, the externalities resulting from the collapse of Zimbabwe exhibit the potential to destabilize the entire southern cone of Africa, including strategically important regimes like South Africa. Second, the United States has increasing material, ideational, and strategic interests throughout the African continent, denoted by the recent establishment of AFRICOM. The destabilization of Zimbabwe and contiguous nations thereby threatens U.S. interests in maintaining geopolitical stability, encouraging prosperity, and fostering democracy throughout the region. Third, the United States’ opposition to the Mugabe regime will bolster America’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, augmenting its soft power. The United States and other responsible members of the international community must use a variety of mechanisms to compel the dictatorial Mugabe regime to accept the power-sharing deal with the MDC. Failing that, they must force the predatory ZANU-PF regime from power.