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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Interview

Mugabe's Role in Zimbabwe's Downfall

March 29, 2008 ·

National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered

Listen to the interview.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host: Voters in Zimbabwe lined up before dawn to vote in elections that pose the biggest challenge to President Robert Mugabe in his 28 years of rule. To get a look behind the news, we're turning to Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies.

So, how did Robert Mugabe change and why?

Ms. WOODS: Well, to some extent he hasn't changed. He has been a populist, he has run and ruled on rhetoric of black liberation, and that has, you know, continued up through the day before the election. His last rally was very much rallying against the West, which he blames for a lot of the internal problems in Zimbabwe. 

But you would say, you know, beyond that what has changed over these years is that the liberation leader that many respected and applauded really became very much over the 28-year period a dictator that closed off the political space, that did not allow newspapers to operate freely, that clamped down on journalists of all kinds, and had brutal crackdowns on his opposition, most notably over the last year and a half preceding the election. 

SEABROOK: And what were the decisions he made about the economy that have so devastated the country? 

Ms. WOODS: Well, the economy, I think, you have to look to two causes – one internal and one external. Internally there was this push to push forward land reform and changes in land ownership. Now, remember, Rhodesia, which was the name of the country before it became Zimbabwe, before independence, was white-ruled. So a key part of Mugabe's rule was to equalize, to get rid of the white rule essentially. 

And there was a real dominance of whites in land ownership, especially in the farming, the core agricultural sector of the Zimbabwean economy. Now, the problem is that much of the redistribution went to Mugabe cronies and did not really push forward a way to manage the agricultural sector in ways that were sustainable. 

Now, the external piece of that is also important. The sanctions in place now for almost 10 years on Zimbabwe have also had an impact on the economy. So, whether it's the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or bilateral donors – the U.S. and U.K. in particular – there have been sanctions that have had economic implications there on Zimbabwe.

 SEABROOK: Now, this has happened at a time that other countries in sub-Saharan Africa seem to finally moving toward true democracy. Do you see examples of that? Tell me about them.

Ms. WOODS: Clearly. I mean, so, the most enlightened and the most upheld is South Africa, which ended the racist white rule of the apartheid regime back in 1994. And throughout the region you have extraordinary leaps forward when it comes to democracy. 

Clearly Botswana, one of the neighbors in the southern Africa region with Zimbabwe, has been a democracy now since independence. And you have Botswana being held up as a beacon of democracy, not only for Africa but for much of the world. 

You also have Mozambique having come through years of conflict emerging with a woman prime minister and some extraordinary achievements in terms of women's leadership. So, there's a lot happening on the continent or even in that sub-region when it comes to an open political space, when it comes to freedom of the press, when it comes to these core building blocks of democracy. And I think it bodes well for all of Africa. 

SEABROOK: So, Emira Woods, what are you predictions both for today's elections and, more importantly, for Zimbabwe's future?

Ms. WOODS: Well, we don't know the outcome of this election will be. To be honest there is quite a record of elections that have been stolen in Zimbabwe. And I think the worry is that the outbreak of violence after the stolen elections in Kenya could well be repeated in Zimbabwe. That is the fear that many have. I think the hope is that the will of the people for change will be expected and that rule of law and a process towards real economic stability can be put forward in a way that people can have meaningful lives again in their country.

SEABROOK: Emira Woods is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.  Thank you very much for speaking with us.