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Opinion: There's hope yet for Zimbabwe

It is imperative that the people build a better future.

A protester carries a placard after South Africa's President Jacob Zuma met with Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to discuss Zimbabwe's power-sharing government at the Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, in Johannesburg, Aug. 3, 2009. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Like a chronic alcoholic, Zimbabwe never seems to truly hit bottom, no matter how far it falls.

Privations that would be considered catastrophic elsewhere have become routine in the country’s long painful decline. However, as the death of Omar Bongo, another African autocrat, reminds us, the day will eventually come when the country’s autocratic president, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, is no longer on the scene. At age 85, he is still robust, but certainly not immortal, and when he inevitably passes away, Zimbabweans will have to pick up the pieces, a Herculean undertaking that would greatly benefit from some serious advance planning by them and their friends in the West.

Under the rule of Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980, the once relatively prosperous economy and locally envied health and education systems have crumbled. In the latest manifestations of this national nosedive, millions found themselves in the dark for long periods last month, although the government insisted the electrical blackouts were unrelated to $57 million in delinquent payments due to power suppliers in neighboring countries. The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that 4,000 Zimbabweans have so far died in the cholera epidemic that took several months to bring under control.

Six months ago, in a difficult political compromise with his archrival Mugabe, the man whom many believe was robbed of victory in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, Morgan Tsvangirai, took up the position of Prime Minister. Since then, he has manfully tried to manage a dysfunctional government of cohabitation while simultaneously struggling to attract foreign investment and assistance.

However, most foreign donor agencies and businesses remain understandably leery of providing help to the government of a country where neither commercial nor human rights laws are respected. Farm confiscations continue, corruption remains rampant, and following a visit this month to Zimbabwe, the head of Amnesty International condemned what she called “persistent and serious human rights violations, combined with the failure to introduce reform of the police, army and security forces or address impunity.”

The massive problems facing Zimbabweans are intelligently explored in a little-noted 2005 book entitled "What Happens After Mugabe: Can Zimbabwe Rise From The Ashes?" by Geoff Hill, who grew up in various parts of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe. Hill’s small volume tackles hot button issues including land rights, agricultural recovery and media reform, and should be required reading for policy makers in Harare, London and Washington.