Zimbabwe Election Results: Don't Judge Mugabe Until You Read This Article

So far, the Zimbabwean elections have been peaceful and seemingly proper. If Mugabe wins again the West should not merely dismiss his victory as a product of cunning electioneering, but reevaluate the effectiveness of its policies that economically strangle the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabweans broadly support land reform, despite its tragic mishandling, and neither incumbent nor challenger would reverse the reforms.

Before 2001 Zimbabwe had a relatively strong economy, with increasing growth, a literacy rate of 90%, and a GDP per capita substantially higher than that of the average African economy. The turning point, however, was the Fast-track Resettlement Program that saw the widespread invasion of white-owned farms that were later given to native black Zimbabweans.

From then on, the Zimbabwean economy went into a downward spiral, and Robert Mugabe earned the ire of the international community. The case of Zimbabwe is not the exception, however, but the rule.

Land reform, which constitutes a mass redistribution of wealth from the rich (and often white, in the case of postcolonial nations such as Zimbabwe) to the poor, does not sit well with the international community, and has often been followed by punitive measures from countries such as the United States.

For the West, land reform is not only a violation of private property and individual ownership (regardless of the legitimacy of the acquisition of that property); it is usually a direct threat to the profits of private companies operating abroad.

But for many nations seeking a material form of economic justice and independence from previously oppressive outside powers, land reform has been a necessary and decisive step. The Chinese Revolution of 1949, based on redistribution of land from rich to poor, caused a souring of relations between the U.S. and China that still today lingers. The land reforms of Guatemala, particularly detrimental to United Fruit Co. profits, resulted in a U.S.-backed coup and the ouster of Jacobo Arbenz, along with the subsequent destabilization of the country. South Korea and Taiwan too, now both highly developed economies, enacted their own forms of land reform. Theirs, however, were supported by the U.S.

When the first phase of Zimbabwe’s land reform was drawn up in 1979 with British assistance, a very small minority of white settlers owned much of the prime land. As such, a reconfiguration of power through land was necessary to truly progress from the colonial system of race-based ownership.

The reasons for the failure of land reform before Tony Blair are disputed — was it insufficient assistance from the British, unwillingness to sell by whites, or lack of initiative by Mugabe? But some 20 years after Zimbabwe's independence, Tony Blair’s New Labour Party washed their hands clean of post-colonial responsibilities taken on by previous administrations, and the pressure for change among the Zimbabwean people, particularly through powerful lobbies such as the War Veterans Association, had mounted to fever pitch.

There is no excuse for the violence resulting from the callousness of the Fast Track reform. In the face of abandonment by the powers that once so easily pillaged that same land, and the pressures of a populace eager for its own subsistence, Mugabe fatefully supported the project, thinking he had more to gain politically from supporting it than opposing it. But the allocation process of the newly acquired land was itself corrupt and biased towards those with political connections.

After Fast Track, the U.S. moved quickly to pass the Zimbabwe Democracy & Recovery Act of 2001, which stopped all aid from large international banks and financial institutions, implemented a freeze on any new credit, and opposed any proposals for debt cancellation or reduction.

The folly of historical experimentation is that without a control group we cannot tell whether the reform would have spurred or killed growth barring sanctions and international condemnation.  

Despite the suspiciousness and violence surrounding the elections of 2008, should we really hold economic justice hostage to democratic values? Should the vast violations of the past, under colonialism, be shadowed by the more vivid violations of the present? 

These and many other questions must be asked when thinking about the future of this once proud and prosperous nation.

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Diptesh Soni

Diptesh is a Master's candidate at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) studying Economic and Political Development

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