Robert Mugabe wants your money again. After years of failing to
repay Zimbabwe’s staggering debts,
repeatedly blaming the United States
for its problems, and shamelessly courting China,
the nonagenarian president is now seeking a rapprochement.
To be clear, this is
the wrong time for Washington to embrace an aging dictator who has devastated
his country for over 35 years. Do not let Mugabe’s recent charm offensive fool
you: neither Zimbabwe’s economic policy or the country’s governance and human
rights situation have fundamentally improved. If anything, Zimbabwe is getting
On August 25, Mugabe
delivered a State of the Nation address to parliament, his first such speech in
at least eight years. At the podium, Mugabe made half-hearted overtures about
“strengthening re-engagement with the international community” and pursuing
“long-overdue reforms.” His brief and largely incoherent speech then descended
into Alice-in-Wonderland territory: he bemoaned slow economic growth and the
thousands of jobs that have been lost in recent months, only to recycle a 10-point plan of
government interventions and investment. Local economists estimate
that the plan needs at least $27 billion to succeed; yet the government is
mired in debt and has been actively chasing away foreign investors for
years. While the economics of the speech were ludicrous, the message was clear:
Zimbabwe is in dire straits, and it needs help.
By no coincidence,
Mugabe’s rhetorical change of heart coincided with a high-level delegation from
the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was in the capital Harare to review progress
on a voluntary program. The so-called staff-monitored program is an informal
agreement that provides a first step toward normalizing the country’s damaged
relationship with creditors. Zimbabwe stopped paying its external debts in
2001, lost its voting rights at the IMF in 2003, and was close to full
expulsion in 2006 until it started making token repayments.
In 2009, during
Zimbabwe’s government of national unity—formed in the aftermath of anotherviolent and stolen
election— the finance minister Tendai Biti from the opposition
Movement for Democratic Change, began the arduous task of re-engaging the
international community and improving Zimbabwe’s badly damaged economy.
Although the unity government ended after the July 2013 election—which was
again marred by human rights abuses and electoral fraud—the
Mugabe government continued to seek an IMF agreement in the hopes of gaining
relief for the country’s $9 billion in
external debt, of which $5 billion is in arrears.
Mugabe needs debt
relief because he wants new loans. Lots of them. This is a delusion.
Mugabe and his inner
circle might be forgiven for believing that the IMF would be open to serious
negotiations. The Fund’s mandate, after all, is to help member countries when
they are faced with economic crisis. Zimbabwe negotiated a new agreement in October
of last year and will plausibly reach most of the technical
targets. However, completing a staff monitored program is just an initial step
on a very long road towards
And, unlike normal debt
restructuring, where old loans can be rolled over into new ones, the scale of
Zimbabwe’s arrears requires extraordinary amounts of cash. That means Zimbabwe
or a benevolent creditor must clear the country’s arrears up front before any
new lending can be expected. In the best of times, arrears clearance poses an
incredibly heavy lift (see, for example, how long it took Liberia’s
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which enjoyed major support from the United
States). Since Zimbabwe doesn’t have $5 billion to spare, a major creditor
would have to be thoroughly convinced that the country, and the Mugabe
government in particular, was on a credible pathway to reform. Someone would
have to be willing to make an audacious multi-billion dollar gamble on Robert
That’s a tough bet to
Zimbabwe was looking up
during the unity government when finance minister Biti killed hyperinflation
and instituted a cash budget. His ministry had managed to reinstate
financial controls, allowing public services to recover and business
confidence to improve. After eleven consecutive years of contraction, the
economy once again started to grow in 2009.
That all changed after
the July 2013 election when the unity government ended and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF
resumed control of all government ministries. Public policy once again became
erratic and the economy began to wobble. After double-digit positive growth
rates from 2010-12, Zimbabwe’s GDP slowed and will at best expand by 1.5% this
year. Unless something drastic happens soon, Zimbabwe’s economy will likely
fall back into recession.
The effects on
Zimbabwean society from another economic collapse are devastating. Labor unions
estimate that at least 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past two months alone,
as the economy has continued on its downward spiral.
The country of some 14 million people now has only 700,000 workers employed in
the entire formal sector, half of which are in Mugabe’s bloated civil
service. (The government’s payroll now gobbles three-quarters of
the $4 billion budget.) An estimated 1.5 million citizens are
expected to go hungry this year – this in a country that was once a net
exporter of food – while nearly six out of ten children
are currently suffering from anemia due to an overall lack of nutrition.
turmoil has coincided with a fresh crackdown on the human rights community, a
rise in political hate speech, and increasingly bitter political infighting as
the succession battlewithin
ZANU-PF escalates. Taken together, these factors raise the country’s risk
of another major atrocity.
A prime example of the
regime’s descent back into tyranny has been the case of Itai Dzamara. The
outspoken activist has been missing since being abducted in broad daylight on
March 9, an incident that bears all the hallmarks of
an operation by the intelligence services. Local authorities have brazenly
defied a High Court order to
locate Dzamara. Diplomatic calls for
a thorough investigation have been ignored. Ruling party officials have
displayed caustic indifference, even declaring that the activist staged his own
disappearance and is “enjoying life” abroad.
Meanwhile, a family continues to grieve while
fear has again spread throughout civil society.
It should come as no
surprise that regimes that oppress their own populations and ignore the basic
tenets of private property rights are more likely to have unstable economies.
Conversely, transparent governments built on respect for human rights and the
rule of law tend to foster environments that
are conducive to a sound, sustainable national economy. Zimbabweans should not
expect economic recovery while Mugabe’s heartless and economically illiterate
junta remains in charge.
financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank technically do not
meddle in political issues, the shareholders of those organizations know
better. Australia, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and other leading
economic powers are all aware that aid to clear Zimbabwe’s debts, or any new
loans, ultimately come from their own taxpayers’ wallets. Any support that is
provided to sustain the Mugabe regime will not accomplish much more than extend
Zimbabweans’ suffering and delay the inevitable.
The IMF team visiting
Zimbabwe will no doubt discuss narrow technical issues and economic indicators
with finance ministry officials. But officials on both sides of the table will
also know that their bosses will have politics at the forefront of their minds.
Discussions over arrears clearance, debt relief, and any new lending will be an
elaborate Kabuki theater. Each side knows that any promises made will not be
honored while Robert Mugabe remains in power.
It is of course true
that Zimbabwe and its people are hurting. The country is desperate for roads,
healthcare, and jobs. Donors should continue to supply humanitarian aid
directly to those most in need, ideally through trusted civic actors and
grassroots organizations. But expecting widespread economic recovery to arrive
at the hands of the very same people who have destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy is
wishful thinking. Providing new funding to a government that has shown nothing
but utter disregard for human rights and basic economic principles is nothing
more than a recipe for more pain.
Mugabe and his ZANU-PF
henchmen seem intent on driving Zimbabwe over the cliff. Washington should not
go with them.
Todd Moss is senior fellow at
the Center for Global
a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa. Jeffrey Smith is
an Africa specialist at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. Follow
them on Twitter at @toddjmoss and @Smith_RFKennedy.
Disclosure: Former finance minister Tendai Biti was a visiting fellow at CGD