Conflicting messages marked Zimbabwe's 31rst independence day on April 18.
It's not surprising that political rivals President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai would have clashing messages. But what is striking is that neither view gives Zimbabweans much cause to celebrate their country's birthday.
President Robert Mugabe, 87 and in power for 31 years, said Zimbabwe had made progress economically and politically and was on track for constitutional reforms before elections. Mugabe did not set a date for the elections, but many speculate that he will call early elections this year.
Mugabe blamed the country's troubles on the personal sanctions against him and his 200 closest associates. But he said the U.S. and Europe Union are not prepared to discuss lifting the sanctions.
“We have had disappointing results so far in our efforts to re-engage the Americans and the European Union over sanctions,” he said. “When will Europe ever realize that there is international law which forbids us from interfering in the domestic affairs of others?”
A totally different message came from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 58, who said Zimbabwe is suffering "looting and plunder" by Mugabe and his ruling party, Zanu-PF.
Tsvangirai lambasted Mugabe's plans to force all businesses and mining firms to have 51 percent black ownership within five years. The Indigenization and Economic Empowerment requires all foreign-owned companies worth over $500,000 to have at least 51 percent black ownership within five years. Tsvangirai said the plan would enrich Mugabe and his cronies in Zanu-PF but would impoverish the nation's economy.
Tsvangirai and others have said the "indigenization" of Zimbabwe's businesses and mining is like Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farms over the past 11 years. The farm grabs are widely blamed for destroying the country's once productive agriculture sector and causing widespread hunger. Zimbabwe's economy has been in a tailspin since 2000 when the land seizures began.
Who is right? Mugabe or Tsvangirai?
Mugabe defended his plan to force foreign mining companies to submit their plans to cede 51 percent of their shares to black Zimbabweans. The companies, including mining firms, have until May 9 to submit their plans to transfer shares to black Zimbabweans. Mugabe said it is part of a broad economic program to empower black Zimbabweans.
But critics say that the scheme will channel lucrative shares to Mugabe's inner ruling circle. "Now thirty years after independence, we are being told by multi-millionaires and multiple farm owners that indigenization will set us free," he said.
"By this, they are not referring to broad-based empowerment of the ordinary man and woman, but the looting and plunder of national resources by a small, parasitic elite," said Tsvangirai, according to Reuters.
Economists widely agree that Mugabe's management of Zimbabwe's economy has impoverished a once prosperous nation. Once known as "the breadbasket of Africa" for its agricultural productivity, Zimbabwe has been dependent upon international food handouts for years.
Mugabe's control of the economy brought hyperinflation that many say was the worst the world has ever seen. How bad was that inflation? At the height of the inflation in 2008, prices increased by nearly 100 percent every 24 hours. That works out to an astounding 80 billion percent per month, according to Johns Hopkins applied economics professor Steve H. Hanke, who developed the Hanke Hyperinflation Index for Zimbabwe (HHIZ).
“Zimbabwe’s inflation rate … peaked at 80 billion percent a month," said Hanke. "That means around 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent a year – or 65 followed by 107 zeros. To get a handle on it, realize that it’s equivalent to inflation of 98 percent a day. Prices double every 24.7 hours.”
Inflation was only brought under control after Mugabe created a coalition government with opposition leader Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change party. One of Tsvangirai's deputies, Finance Minister Tendai Biti, jettisoned the Zimbabwean currency and currently the economy operates by using the U.S. dollar, the British pound and the South African rand, as well as the Botswanan pula, the Zambian kwacha and the Mozambican metecai.
Mugabe let Tsvangirai and Biti bring down inflation, but he did not stop hounding their party. MDC supporters have continued to be beaten by Mugabe's supporters and they get little to no protection from the police. Many Zimbabweans say the beatings — which have been reported countrywide — are the way the Mugabe campaigns. Mugabe is expected to call for early elections this year so that he can be voted president for yet another five-year term.
However, all is not rosy for Mugabe. He came under unexpected pressure at the end of March when he met with South African President Jacob Zuma and Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba and Mozambican president Armando Guebuza in Livingtstone, Zambia, in the shadow of Victorial Falls. The thee leaders met with Mugabe as representatives of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC). subjected Mugabe to unusually harsh criticism, telling him to stop all violence.
Usually the SADC summits have been tame affairs for Mugabe because South Africa and the other SADC members have supported Mugabe's rule. It was SADC that enabled Mugabe to stay in power even though he lost the 2008 elections. SADC came up with the solution of a power sharing government in which Mugabe retained virtually all power and Tsvangirai did all the sharing.
But the March 31 summit in Livingstone was decidedly different. Zuma lashed out at Mugabe, charging that the violence and repression was making a mockery of the government of national unity and threatening its viability, according to reports from the summit.
Ordinarily the final communiques issued after the SADC summits are bland, bureauratic statements — but not this one. It boldly states that things must change in Zimbabwe. "There must be an immediate end of violence, intimidation, hate speech, harassment, and any other form of action that contradicts the letter and spirit" of the power sharing government, states the communique. It went further to urge Mugabe to "create a conducive environment for peace, security, and free political activity" and to "complete all the steps necessary for the holding of the election including the finalization of the constitutional amendment and the referendum."
This was a slap to Mugabe. He was told to change his ways. Of course Mugabe, a master political manipulator, has finagled his way out of jams like this before. But at the Livingstone summit he looked weak and tired. At 87, Mugabe is beginning to show his age.
Mugabe looked frail, according to insiders attending the summit in Victoria Falls. He had difficulty walking unassisted and went everywhere, even very short distances, slumped in a golf cart. Always by Mugabe's side was Emmerson Mnangagwa, his much-feared henchman and minister of defense.
There is considerable speculation that Mnangagwa and others in Zanu-PF want Mugabe to call early elections and to use the same violence used in other elections to achieve a Zanu-PF victory that will permit the party to rule for another five years. They fear that Mugabe's health is deteriorating so quickly that he could not lead the party in elections next year.
It's no surprise that most Zimbabweans find little to celebrate on the country's independence day. But it seems that Robert Mugabe, beset by old age and challenges to his rule, does not have much to celebrate, either.