Zimbabwe's Man-Made Disaster

Politics, Health, and People

At the height of Zimbabwe’s ongoing health crisis in December 2008, President Mugabe proclaimed, “There is no more cholera!” The aging despot’s fantastic declaration belies the stark reality that Zimbabwe has collapsed under the weight of a man-made disaster. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who has ruled this country of 12 million people since 1980, may be delusional, but remains defiantly in power. Only a few months ago he swore: “I will never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine.”

Certainly there can be no lasting solution to Zimbabwe’s health crisis without a satisfactory resolution to the political crisis. But will Zimbabwe resurrect itself only after the octogenarian leader dies, as Spain did after Francisco Franco or Cambodia after Pol Pot? Or can the fledgling coalition government of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) succeed – against seemingly insurmountable odds – in restoring hope and prosperity to Africa’s once-thriving breadbasket?

They have their work cut out. The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy and health system is unprecedented in scale and scope. Zimbabwe has over 90% unemployment as well as the world’s highest inflation – an unfathomable ninety sextillion percent. All public-sector hospitals have been shuttered since November 2008. The nutritional and health status of Zimbabwe’s people has acutely worsened this past year due to epidemics of cholera, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. Zimbabwe now has one of the world’s lowest life expectancies at 36 years. High maternal mortality and severe malnutrition augment the daily death toll.

Heedless of the concern world leaders have expressed for the people of Zimbabwe, the Mugabe regime has derailed international efforts to assist: he has politicized humanitarian aid, detained journalists, tortured human rights activists, and even blocked Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and Graça Machel from their humanitarian mission.

As part of a Physicians for Human Rights investigation, I led a team that managed to enter the country and transparently conducted an emergency health assessment in December 2008. Nevertheless, the Government planned and falsely reported our arrest after we had escaped. These actions are a desperate attempt to conceal how Mugabe’s malignant policies have led to the destruction of infrastructure, widespread disease, torture, death and the abysmal state of his people.

This article traces the antecedents to the current health crisis and the unprecedented national regression that occurs when a government reverses its population’s access to food, clean water, sanitation and healthcare. It concludes with a prescription for redress.

Mugabe’s rise to power

Cecil Rhodes, the eponymous colonizer of Rhodesia, obtained mining rights in 1888 from King Lobengula of the Ndebele people indigenous to present Zimbabwe. With this concession, Rhodes convinced the British government to grant him a royal charter over Matabeleland, home of the Ndebele, which precipitated an influx of European settlers to the region. The settlers eventually displaced the Ndebele onto less favorable lands. In 1923 Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) became a self-governing British colony, only to be consolidated with Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Nyasaland (Malawi) thirty years later. Growing African nationalism and dissent compelled Britain to dissolve the union in 1963, thus forming three separate colonies.

Ian Smith, the leader of the white-minority government of Southern Rhodesia, promulgated a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom in 1965 and declared Rhodesia a republic in 1970; only the neighboring apartheid government of South Africa recognized Smith’s regime. Civil war ensued over the next decade. With his regime in near ruin, Smith signed an accord with Robert Mugabe and other revolutionary leaders ending civil war in 1978. The following year Great Britain convened a constitutional conference with the Smith government and with Mugabe and the other opposition leaders. The delegates signed the resultant Lancaster House Agreement in December 1979 paving the way to independence. The British subsequently oversaw the disarming of revolutionary forces and Zimbabwe’s first democratic elections in 1980. Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) won a landslide victory, and its leader, Robert Mugabe, became the country’s first Prime Minister.

From breadbasket to basket case

After Mugabe came to power, he extended healthcare to the black majority and increased minimum wages, which led in part to the dramatic improvement in life expectancy, maternal mortality, and infant mortality (key health indicators). Unfortunately, his subsequent policies such as a draconian land-reform campaign eroded these early advances and led to the displacement of farmers, unemployment, hyperinflation, and a dollarized economy. A causal chain runs from Mugabe’s disastrous economic policies, to Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, to food insecurity and malnutrition, to the destruction of public healthcare, and finally to the current outbreaks of infectious diseases.