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Professor Burke on Zimbabwe

He writes:

: Don’t Pet the Hyena: The main question with Zimbabwe now is the question we used to ask about Sani Abacha’s regime in Nigeria: namely, how bad can it get? As low as Zimbabwe has sunk lately, there are still further depths to mine. It is depressingly possible, even plausible, that events will continue to that point: mass starvation of the people lately forced out of the cities is conceivable. At the very least, many of them will redefine the standard of rural wretchedness if they are compelled to remain in rural areas.

One of my major jobs for this summer is to finish work on the chapter of my manuscript that deals with African nationalism and sovereignty in Zimbabwe. As I write, I continue to be haunted by the foreseeable nature of the current disaster. The mass evictions of recent weeks are no surprise at all to anyone familiar with Zimbabwe: they are neither a sudden or unanticipated development. Since the mid-1980s, before important international events, including the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II, the government has evicted or harassed squatters in Harare’s townships. Traders active in the informal sector have often been the target of arbitrary police action and confiscation of their property.

When I was working at the National Archives of Zimbabwe in 1990, another researcher asked me why maize was growing wild in so many parts of the city. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes and replied that it wasn’t growing wild, that people were cultivating it in open fields and vacant areas as a cash crop or for food. The other scholar vehemently objected: “That can’t be: I’ve seen city workers burning the corn! Why would they do that?”

At the time, I just thought that response was an individually naïve one—-and that the abusive actions of officials in the case of maize burnings or squatter harassment were largely idiosyncratic activities of brutal, inefficient or rule-bound bureaucrats. I should have known better, not just because there was already ample evidence of the nature of the ruling elite of Zimbabwe but also because government mistreatment of urban populations and informal sector traders was a part of life in other postcolonial African nations.

The truly depressing thing is watching individual men and women who have previously simulated some degree of decency or political conviction sell that away so easily: people like former academic Jonathan Moyo, who sold away his soul so he could declare that a free press is undesired in Zimbabwean society and otherwise act the fool in his shameless pursuit of power. Now the scales have fallen from his eyes after he was cast aside for showing his political ambition openly. Mugabe pegged Moyo pretty well in a mocking speech after the minister’s fall: “Jonathan, you are clever, but you lack wisdom”. That sums up not just Moyo, but almost all of the scholars who wrote about the nationalist struggle and ZANU-PF in the 1970s and 1980s. Norma Kriger and a precious few others come out looking like they understood what was going on: the rest of us clever, not wise...

I understand the logic of state-building: reward your supporters, punish your enemies, make it clear that enthusiastic support for the government is the road to personal wealth and prosperity, and make it clear that opposition makes you poor, imprisoned, or dead. This is the way it worked under Henry IV or--in a much kinder, gentler way--George III. And it is clear that an era of state-building is not likely to be one of rapid economic growth: too many of the enterprising and entrepreneurial will not be supporters, and their wealth is one of the things that can be plucked and transferred to make supporters happy. Only states that are strong enough not to need to strain every nerve to assemble the coalition needed to survive can afford "soft rule," can relax control of resources now in order to provide incentives for growth that will produce a much more prosperous economy in a generation.

But what's going on in Zimbabwe today does not look anything at all like the logic of authoritarian state-building. Robert Mugabe is not Henry IV or George III or Pyotr the Great or even Dread Ivan. He's a character out of "Apocalypse Now":

Kurtz: "What did they tell you?"

Willard: "They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound."

Kurtz: "Are my methods unsound?"

Willard: "I don't see any method, at all, sir."