Opinion: There's hope yet for Zimbabwe

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.

One critical focus area that will have to be dealt with is the rampant official criminality of the past three decades. From the army atrocities committed in the province of Matabeleland in the mid-1980s to the use of torture and assassination of political opponents by security services, there are important decisions to be made about who will be held to account. Models for balancing justice with reconciliation can be found elsewhere on the continent, in countries like South Africa and Rwanda.

Then there is the question of how to rebuild a state administration that has been converted from serving the people to serving the regime. Courts, the police, the army, and the education system will all require new leadership and a dramatic reordering of priorities.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be luring home some of the millions of Zimbabweans, black and white, who have fled the country to seek opportunity elsewhere. Many of the best and brightest, including teachers, nurses and lawyers, can be found in South Africa and the U.K., where they have put down roots, started new lives and are raising their children. Given sufficient funding, roads, schools and hospitals can easily be repaired or rebuilt, but the human infrastructure is vastly more difficult to construct.

The good news is that there are still citizens left in Zimbabwe — human rights activists, independent journalists, business people and others — who possess the merit and morality to help restore sanity to their nation. For them to succeed, Zimbabwe’s friends need to do more than simply provide money and goodwill; they need to begin to laying the intellectual and organizational foundations for a brand new nation.

Christian Hennemeyer has lived in Africa for over 20 years and currently works in the democracy promotion field in Washington D.C.