November 25, 2008
As president, I worked actively with African leaders and the British to change the apartheid regime of Rhodesia into a democratic Zimbabwe in 1980. Eight years later, The Carter Center established one of our first Global 2000 agriculture projects in Zimbabwe – so successful that we soon shifted our emphasis to more needy countries. At that time, Zimbabwe was known as a breadbasket for the region and set an example for the rest of Africa in economic stability, education, and health care.
Now, after almost three decades of governmental corruption, mismanagement, and oppression, Zimbabwe has become a basket case, an embarrassment to the region and a focus of international concern and condemnation. From our earliest days, the Elders have monitored this political and humanitarian crisis, while realizing that its resolution must come from within Africa. There is great aversion among even the most enlightened African leaders to "interference" from former colonial powers and their allies, including the United States. However, these same leaders have been reluctant to assume responsibility for the political stalemate and evolving humanitarian catastrophe.
Since I had played a strong role in the founding of his nation and worked closely and harmoniously with President Robert Mugabe early in his tenure, the African Elders welcomed my participation in a mission to assess, publicize, and help to alleviate the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe.
I met former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graça Machel, women's activist and wife of Nelson Mandela, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 21. The Elders' CEO Mabel van Oranje and her staff had made an advance visit to Zimbabwe and arranged our itinerary there and in South Africa. Their understanding with the Zimbabwe government officials was that our visas would be issued when we arrived in Harare, if not earlier. However, when we met with former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the mediator designated by other Southern African (SADC) leaders to facilitate the political dispute in Zimbabwe, he delivered a message from Harare that we would not be welcomed and no visas would be forthcoming.
We had known that this was a possibility, so we proceeded to learn as much as possible from a series of delegations that came from Zimbabwe to meet us in Johannesburg. We obtained visas and airline tickets for those who needed our help. Our discussions were with ambassadors of major donor nations, heads of UN agencies, regional managers of CARE, Save the Children, World Vision, and Zimbabwean civil society leaders who were human rights defenders, business and financial executives, representatives of teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, women, and victims of torture and AIDS. We also met with Botswana President Ian Khama, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC party president (and prospective South African president) Jacob Zuma, and Zimbabwe's opposition party leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.
In summary, we had a complete and balanced agenda and more frank discussions than would have been possible in the oppressive and restrained environment of Harare.
The current political crisis originated with a fraudulent presidential election in March 2008, with Tsvangirai (MDC) probably winning an actual majority, but being awarded 47.9 percent and Mugabe (ZANU-PF) 43.2 percent of the votes when the results were finally announced five weeks after Election Day, forcing a runoff between the two. Orchestrated violence and brutal persecution of Tsvangirai and his supporters forced him to withdraw from the runoff, and Mugabe retained his office by default. African political leaders largely ignored reports of fraud by their election observers, but a series of negotiations under SADC auspices finally resulted in a power-sharing agreement signed by Mugabe and Tsvangirai on September 15.
President Mugabe has not been willing to cede any real power to his opponent, who is supposed to assume the co-equal role of a strong prime minister. A constitutional amendment will be required to establish this office in the government and to spell out its legal duties. It is imperative for this to be accomplished without delay so that a functioning government can be formed.
With Tsvangirai in exile (not being issued a passport), the trend toward a national tragedy has accelerated. The official inflation rate is now 231 million per cent (the actual rate 2,000 times as much), and thousands of people stand in line each day to receive an allowance of 500,000 Zin dollars (about 2¢ U.S.) from their own bank accounts, not sufficient to buy even half a loaf of bread. Teachers receive about one U.S. dollar per month, which will not pay the cost of transportation to and from schools, many of which have closed. Within the last three months, school attendance has dropped from 85 percent to less than 20 percent, with students going mainly in hopes of obtaining some food. Teachers report that there are 20 students for each remaining textbook.
The manager of a supermarket chain reported that shelves are empty of necessities, so some valued workers, as in banks, are compensated with a few liters of fuel or a basket of food instead of the worthless currency (bills are in denominations of 100s of billions). Meanwhile, top government officials and other privileged people can exchange Zim money at a favorable rate that is several thousand times more than the official rate available to other citizens. They profit greatly from these monetary transactions and shop in special stores.
The four major hospitals, the medical school, and most other hospitals and emergency clinics no longer operate, and police have clashed with doctors and nurses who insist on the ability to treat their patients. It is reported that 3,500 AIDS victims are dying weekly, and there are cholera outbreaks in all ten provinces because of uncontrolled sewage and lack of clean water. More than 600 cases of cholera were reported on the Zimbabwe side of the main South Africa border crossing during the four days prior to our arrival. The government admits 294 deaths from cholera, and Zimbabwe doctors told us that there are more than 6,500 cases, with a death rate ten times greater than when normal treatment is available. This outbreak of cholera is arousing growing opposition to immigrants in all the neighboring countries.
The exodus continues; the UN reports an average of 19,000 "mobile and vulnerable people" (MVPs) leaving Zimbabwe each month, with 15,000 of them entering South Africa and most of the others going to Botswana. It is estimated that as many as 4 million people have left Zimbabwe, seeking food, medical care, and freedom from abuse. Some of the more privileged move freely back and forth across the border, selling purchased goods at a huge profit when they return home. The middle class is departing, leaving behind the extremely poor and the small elite group around Mugabe who are profiting from the economic disaster.
One night we visited Central Methodist church, where 2,000 refugees were eating and sleeping in the rooms and corridors. Bishop Paul Verryn was struggling to raise funds to support this remarkable humanitarian operation. Human rights activists reported to us that there has been a recent increase in police brutality, especially at the international borders, and frequently mentioned Police Superintendent Commander Mabunda as orchestrating the oppression.
Almost all of this year's planting season has been lost because of a lack of seed and fertilizer, and the World Food Program estimates that 50 percent of the population will need food assistance before April 2009. The next potential harvest will be in April 2010 – if supplies become available. Relief agencies report the channeling of available supplies to ruling party loyalists and a deliberate starving of MDC party leaders.
This entire debacle is exacerbated by denials of an emergency by Mugabe, who uses the controlled news media to blame the suffering of his people on non-existent economic sanctions. His tightly controlled and well organized political party, ZANU-PF, has always been a military organization, with humanitarian concerns relatively unimportant compared to remaining in power. Ambassadors from donor nations and leaders of major humanitarian organizations report that there is no substantive contact permitted between them and national government officials.
Without a political solution, the economic and social fabric of society will continue its free fall. When it is impossible to pay the army and the enormous civil service, the result may be a resort to internecine violence in what could become a failed state, similar to Somalia.
The overriding problem has been reluctance of key African leaders, especially in South Africa and neighboring SADC countries, to confront Robert Mugabe and force him to accept the result of the March election and more recently to comply with negotiated political agreements to share governmental authority with Morgan Tsvangirai and the opposition party. The result is that human suffering, denied and concealed by the Mugabe regime, escalates and the poisonous effects, including a cholera epidemic, are spilling over into the entire region.
If action by SADC leaders continues to be ineffective, it is imperative that the African Union and the United Nations take action. A first step, short of intercession, could be to send independent fact-finding teams to Zimbabwe to obtain information directly from major donors, international relief agencies, medical doctors, teachers, farmers, and other citizens who have described their experiences to us.
In the meantime, there is a desperate need for food, medicine, and cash contributions, which can be made to established humanitarian agencies including CARE, World Vision, and Save the Children – or Bishop Verryn. It is counterproductive to contribute money that can be confiscated by the Zimbabwe government. Additional information will be posted at http://www.theelders.org/.