HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe today is the perfect humanitarian storm: the convergence of AIDS, poverty, hunger and a despotic regime that cares more about its power than the welfare of its people. Now there is cholera to crown the country's misery.
More than 1,600 Zimbabweans have died of the disease and 30,000 have been infected, according to the World Health Organization. The agency estimates that 60,000 will be infected in the next few months before the deadly outbreak is brought under control.
Yet President Robert Mugabe, 84, blithely announces there is no cholera problem. "Cholera has been arrested," declared Mugabe recently.
"Mugabe has arrested everyone else, so why not arrest cholera?" quipped a Harare journalist.
But Mugabe’s government has not taken the steps needed to control the disease, such as providing clean water and working sewage systems to cities and towns. These basic services used to function well, but Mugabe allowed them to deteriorate while resources were diverted to the military that has kept him in power.
Similarly Mugabe has declared Zimbabwe’s agricultural system a success even though his government does not provide seeds, fertilizer or financial support to the poor black farmers he claims to be helping.
Mugabe persists in laying the blame on his perennial scapegoat, Britain, the former colonial master. Zimbabwe’s minister of information, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, followed suit, claiming that cholera was part of a germ warfare campaign allegedly waged by Britain against Zimbabwe.
No one is fooled, neither here in Zimbabwe nor in the international community. Yet the perfect storm in Zimbabwe is more than just the cholera epidemic. And it is more than the disastrous decline in the health of Zimbabwe’s population: the life expectancy for women has dropped from 61 to 34 years. It is the world's lowest life expectancy, according to the WHO.
Another key element is the decline in education. Just 10 years ago Zimbabwe boasted one of the world's highest literacy rates — 90 percent. Primary school enrollment was at 85 percent as recently as 2007 but by the end of 2008 it had plummeted to 20 percent, according to the United Nations Childrens Fund (Unicef). Unpaid teachers no longer come to school and children spend their days scavenging for food and firewood, said the UN.
The breakdown in the rule of law is also a major contributor to Zimbabwe's tempest. Government officials are no longer held responsible for corruption. Police don’t even-handedly enforce the rule of law. In December more than 40 people were abducted, including journalists, civic leaders and supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Police routinely ignored court orders to produce the victims, denying that they were in police custody. But at the end of December the kidnapped individuals were brought to court and charged with plotting to overthrow the Mugabe government by providing military training to people in Botswana. The Botswana government dismisses the Harare government’s claims of a plot as “ludicrous.”
A group of 75 farmers recently won a judgment from a regional tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — the 15-nation group to which Zimbabwe is a signatory — describing Mugabe's land seizures as racist and illegal. Mugabe not only ignored the ruling, he sent his armed agents to savagely beat the farmers. Then they were charged with the crime of not vacating their own land.
In all this Mugabe paints himself as the helpless victim of Western powers. Most Zimbabweans think he has it the wrong way round and they look to the United States and the European Union for relief.
“Zimbabwe is mine, mine, mine!” declared Mugabe at the annual conference of his ruling party, Zanu-PF, at the end of December. He did not bother to mention how he would reduce the suffering of the people. The indifference of Mugabe and his ministers to the plight of the population contrasts starkly with the high standards of living Zimbabweans enjoyed in the early years of independence in the 1980s. Zimbabwe was recognized as a beacon of African success and Mugabe was hailed as a world-class statesman.
Now he is seen by many here for what, perhaps, he has always been: a malevolent demagogue who believes Zimbabwe is his own property and that he is justified to use any amount of violence to keep the population in his steely grip. More destitution, disease and death are on the horizon and can only add hurricane force to Zimbabwe's perfect humanitarian storm.