Last week, Robert Mugabe, the long-time leader of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) died. He was 95.
Looking Back on Robert Mugabe’s Career:
How to Bankrupt a Country and Keep It Poor for 40 Years
In 1975, I was teaching English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Chad as a Peace Corps volunteer. That same year, 1000+ miles south in Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe was released from prison.
He had spent 11 years behind bars for his leadership role in the Zimbabwe African National Union, which was working towards peaceful independence from British colonial rule.
When he got out of prison, Mugabe was no longer a pacifist. He soon became one of the main leaders of the Union’s guerrilla forces. When Rhodesia won its independence in 1979 and became the Republic of Zimbabwe, he ran for prime minister. Under the banner of “peace and unity,” he promised to support the country’s white citizens and protect their property while promoting the welfare of the native African population. That position got him elected by an overwhelming majority.
I was writing for a publication called African Business & Tradeat the time. I remember thinking that Mugabe’s vision for Zimbabwe was laudable. Along with most of the international press, I supported him.
That bright promise dimmed several years after the elections. Mugabe became concerned that a faction of his political party (in Matabeleland) did not support him. Working with a crew of handpicked generals, he initiated a campaign against them. It began with public denouncements and moved on to bureaucratic harassment. Then arrests. Then executions. More than 10,000 civilians were killed in the process.
I remember losing some faith in him then, but in Zimbabwe his popularity did not ebb. In 1998, he became president, a position of greater power.
The economy was still strong – mostly because Mugabe had wisely left the country’s wealthy white farmers and businesspeople unmolested. He had, until then, a policy of rewarding his most loyal supporters with land grants for many of the tens of thousands of acres of fertile farmland that were unused.
But a year or two after he became president, Mugabe felt the need to do something more. The country’s population had swelled from 7 million in 1980 to 11 million, and this was stressing the economy. In 2000, he began to publicly denounce the white majority that had, during colonial times, been the country’s ruling class.
Most of them were farmers with large landholdings. He criticized them for having gained their property illegally, even though they had inherited it from their fathers and grandfathers.
Then he instituted a quiet campaign of harassment, accusing them of all sorts of minor violations and assessing penalties. The coup de grace was encouraging the National South Service to act as “green bombers,” a virtual license to invade white-owned farms and loot international food aid. After a year of two of that, the government itself began seizing farms and factories directly.
Not surprisingly, this lead to an exodus of most of the white businesspeople and landowners. It also caused an immediate and severe reduction in foreign investment, and a collapse of the local currency. By 2009, Mugabe’s government was printing 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bills!
Fun fact:There were 4,000 white farmers in Zimbabwe in 1980. By the time Mugabe left, there were only 300.
Without the education, experience, or even interest to run their seized assets, most of the new “owners” (many of them former guerillas) quickly failed. As they failed, they sold off their equipment at bargain basement prices.
It didn’t take long for the economy to start falling apart. Unemployment soared. Food shortages became commonplace. Foreign aid was diverted from those needing it to corrupt government officials.
And while all this was going on, Mugabe was spending millions on payments to former guerillas and a war in the Congo. Hyperinflation and defaulting on international loans followed.
As Bill Bonner explained in a recent essay:
“By the end of the ’90s, the inflation rate was already around 30%. Mr. Gideon Gono, head of the central bank, was in an inflation trap. The easiest way out was to print money – to stimulate the economy, of course!
“Mr. Gono added more and more zeros. The inflation rate passed 11 million percent in 2007, when Zimbabwe became the first nation ever to issue a $100 billion note. In nominal, local currency terms, Zimbabwe had the world’s best-performing stock market in 2006.
“Finally, the economy collapsed completely, and Mr. Mugabe was forced into exile. Later, Mr. Gono was asked why in the world he inflated the currency so disastrously. ‘I only did what you are doing,’ he replied, referring to major central banks.”
Fun fact: At its peak, inflation reached an astonishing 500 billion percent, with prices doubling every 24 hours!
And yet, through corruption, intimidation, and sheer force of will, Mugabe remained in power until November 21 of last year, when he was forced to resign in the wake of a military takeover.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been Mugabe’s right-hand man, was sworn in as president, and Zimbabwe’s long-oppressed citizens took to the streets to celebrate.
But so far, little if anything has changed.
It was clear to me, and to pretty much anyone that paid any attention to African affairs, that Mugabe had destroyed his country. Before independence, it had been, along with South Africa, the richest country on the continent. Forty years later, when he was forced out of office, it was among the poorest.
Back when I was writing for African Business & Trade, it was obvious that change was needed in Rhodesia. And when it came, as I said, many of those that were following the story welcomed it.
But Mugabe’s “solution” (extinguishing his opponents, establishing a virtual dictatorship, and then seizing assets and redistributing wealth) did nothing to equalize the wealth gap.
Rather, it made things a hundred times worse. First, because the country lost the lion’s share of the population that was managing the production of wealth. But also, and perhaps more importantly, because new talent and new money – which are necessary for continued growth – disappeared instantly and permanently.
This is not unusual. It is pretty much the story of every Socialist/Communist takeover of third-world countries throughout the 20thcentury.
It is perhaps the most important economic story of my lifetime. And yet, if you look at what most US college students are learning about global economics and what an ascending faction of the Democratic party in the US is advocating, you’d think none of these things ever happened.