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As the situation in the African nation of Zimbabwe continues to worsen under the corrupt regime of Robert Mugabe, context becomes our friend in ascertaining how this once-prosperous “bread basket” of Africa is now home to millions of starving people. A brief examination of the lawless tradition of leadership in this troubled nation gives some clue as to how the country has degenerated into its present madness. Such an examination offers clear evidence that economic prosperity is only sustainable when the rule of law is fairly and equitably applied and the preservation of human dignity serves as the foundation of just governance.

Tragically, the history of Zimbabwe has bequeathed to it the destructive legacy of an exploitative colonialism. The type of colonialism experienced by Zimbabwe put colonial interests over the needs of indigenous people. Thus, from the beginning, human dignity was diminished and property rights ignored, at least for those not in the ruling elite. There was no sense in which the rule of law was equitably applied to all people in Zimbabwe. British colonial power governed Zimbabwe in an autocratic fashion, inaugurating a tradition of autocratic rule. This tradition of autocratic rule allowed leaders to pursue their own interests, rather than those of the nation, leading to endemic instability and aggression. In this regard, Robert Mugabe has learned the lessons of his predecessors well.

Some History

In 1889, the British Crown granted Cecil Rhodes a charter to establish a mining company giving him the authority to settle a vast area of what is now known as Zimbabwe. After obtaining a concession for mineral rights from the local tribal chiefs he began a wide-ranging land grab. In 1893, the colonialists attacked and defeated the Ndebele kingdom. The land and livestock were taken and redistributed among the white settlers. Does this sound familiar?

In his humility, Cecil Rhodes named his newly conquered territory “Rhodesia.” With wide swaths of fertile land and a region rich with natural resources under his control Rhodes set about making Rhodesia a place of prosperity. Applying advanced agricultural techniques and innovative mining technologies from the West, it was not long before colonial settlers enjoyed high levels of wealth.

In 1930, the ruling elite passed the Land Apportionment Act. This act gave the white minority (five percent of the population) more than 50 percent of the conquered land of Rhodesia. Partially as a result of this development, indigenous political resistance to colonial rule began to take form and shape. Tensions would continue to rise for decades.

In 1965, Ian Douglas Smith declared Rhodesia’s independence from Britain. The British government wanted eventual indigenous rule in Rhodesia, but the ruling elite resisted any power sharing. The United Nations levied sanctions against the nation, but Smith simply ignored international consensus on the matter and continued with his own plan. Does this sound familiar?

The Land Reform Politics of Robert Mugabe

Britain simply turned its head; meanwhile the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) organized anti-government political movements directed at restoring a majority rule. During the 1970s blood began to spill, as the indigenous majority sought to regain control of the land. The violence was unprecedented and, in 1980, British and American negotiators developed the Lancaster House Agreement aimed at implementing majority rule and the rule of law. As a result, Robert Mugabe was installed as prime minister.

After Mugabe’s installation the nation was renamed Zimbabwe. There was a land reform program developed to foster the transition to majority rule whereby white settlers were to transfer land to indigenous citizens. The ZANU and ZAPU organizations combined forces securing Mugabe’s re-election to the presidency in 1996.

In 1997 Mugabe, in the autocratic tradition of the country, announced a new land reform program redistributing farmland, by force if necessary, to non-white Zimbabweans. The international community was outraged at these actions, so Mugabe’s government did not press the issue. The issue, however, remained important in domestic political calculations, as it was painfully obvious that nearly 70 percent of the best farmland was owned by five percent of the population. It was a political opportunity to consolidate power not to be overlooked.

The white minority lost its political hegemony by leaving the government completely in the hands of Mugabe and his associates. Within Mugabe’s regime there has been much recent infighting between former rival political factions dating from the political conflicts of the seventies and eighties. This infighting created uncertainty for Mugabe’s political future, and the land reform program served as a prime opportunity for him to reassert himself. Mugabe, acting solely in his own political self-interest, obviously cares little about the welfare of his nation. Hundreds of thousands of his own people are expected to die from the twin plagues of AIDS and politically contrived starvation. Mugabe and his cronies are securing their own future under the guise of seeking what is best for the nation as whole.

A Lawless Nation

The difficulty with analyzing the Zimbabwe situation through the lens of Western political values is that Zimbabwe, despite its rule by a Western power, has never been governed by the best principles of Western governance. Beginning in the 1890s, Zimbabwe has been ruled in an autocratic fashion. The country never developed a system of property rights and protection, because neither Rhodes nor Smith governed in a way consistent with these principles. Rhodes granted some mineral rights concessions, but then simply took the rest of the land for the colonial settlers. Smith snubbed his nose at British insistence that Africans have political rights.

The rule of law, in any form, has been absent throughout the entire history of Zimbabwe, in part because the nation never operated under the assumption that such a rule had any value. Under colonial rule, the rule of law applied only to white settlers. The rule of law was exercised only as it accelerated Rhodes’ conquest of the land. This also explains why Smith abandoned rule of law as it applied to his diminished role as leader and rejected the British government’s demand to construct a plan returning rule to the demographic majority.

Mugabe, continuing in the tradition established by his predecessors, is ignoring numerous legitimate transnational and international authorities and securing absolute political rule for himself. To further accomplish his consolidation of power, last Friday, he dissolved his cabinet and replaced them with more pliable associates. The once-oppressed has now become the oppressor. Mugabe has furthered his rule in the very same fashion and using the very same strategies as did the colonial elites he so derides.

The autocratic and despotic cycle of leadership must not be allowed to continue if people are truly concerned about the sanctity of human life and welfare of the people of Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans are being denied basic freedoms that would allow them to feed their families and stabilize the nation. Mugabe’s tyrannical mismanagement has allowed famine and disease to wreck a nation with enormous potential.

Zimbabwe needs sweeping constitutional reform and economic restructuring. There is a need for efforts at racial and economic reconciliation of the type successfully employed in South Africa. The cycle of political chaos perpetuated by the elites, white or black, must come to an end. In this regard, a long-range plan supported and led by African nations at establishing the necessary climate for peace, political stability, and economic vitality should be established. Unfortunately, efforts by neighboring countries to reign in Mugabe’s rule have yet to materialize.

Currently, the moral and cultural context necessary to institutionalize principles of national reform, such as rule of law based in the preservation of human dignity, property rights, individual liberty, free-market initiatives, entrepreneurship, improved education, and quality healthcare simply do not exist. These are just a few of the many ingredients needed to develop a properly functioning national life and the vibrant civil society necessary to hold it together.

Context is our friend in understanding the problems of Zimbabwe. As long as self-interested autocratic rule in Zimbabwe continues, chaos will remain and people will continue to die. While there is some hope for reform as the international community becomes more aware of the dire situation on the ground, it is important to note that in Zimbabwean politics, “past is prologue.”

Dr. Anthony Bradley is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York City where he also serves as director for the Center for the Study of Human Flourishing. Since 2002, Dr. Bradley has been a research fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, a Masters in Ethics and Society from Fordham University, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.