There’s Nothing Natural About Zimbabwe’s Woes

NEW YORK — In the waiting room of Zimbabwe’s mission to the United Nations, posters advertise the country’s natural wonders, including wild elephants and the splendid Victoria Falls, with the caption “Africa’s Paradise.”

Yet in today’s Zimbabwe what looms large is not paradise but famine. “The situation is deteriorating fairly rapidly,” says Kevin Farrell, country director for the U.N.’s World Food Program, reached by phone in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. He says that in any village right now, “you will see people clearly hungry.” The U.N. is appealing for $611 million worth of emergency aid for sub-Saharan Africa. Almost half of that is for Zimbabwe, the region’s former breadbasket, where aid workers now predict that without massive help, hundreds of thousands may soon starve to death. But, as Rev. Jack Finucane of the U.S.-based Concern Worldwide, told me after his recent visit to Zimbabwe, “There’s a problem about getting food into the country.”

There is nothing natural about this. True, Zimbabwe has had a drought. But in our modern world of swift transport and global markets — supplemented in a crisis by eager aid agencies — there is no way that famine can be chalked up to natural disaster. Given any reasonable degree of freedom, people will make mighty use of their own ingenuity to survive. It takes a lot of work, by determined tyrants, to starve human beings to death.

Stalin in the 1930s, Mao in the 1950s and ’60s and North Korea’s totalitarian Kim Jong Il today all belong on the list of rulers who have forced starvation on their own people in the course of consolidating their own power. Ethiopians starved in the 1980s under the brutal Marxist rule of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was finally ousted in 1991 — and retired to luxury digs in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.

At Zimbabwe’s U.N. mission hangs a portrait of the ruler who has enrolled this once-fruitful country in the axis of famine: “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe” — Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe peers out from behind big dark-rimmed spectacles, looking younger in this official portrait than his 78 years. He has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, tightening his grip over time. As some countries in Africa have begun to liberalize, Zimbabweans have been looking more urgently for change. Mr. Mugabe has responded with increasingly destructive tactics for keeping power — imposing price controls, nationalizing enterprises and turning loose gangs to brutalize opponents.

In March, Mr. Mugabe “won” re-election in a vote that the State Department said was “marred by disenfranchisement of urban voters, violent intimidation against opposition supporters, intimidation of the independent press and the judiciary and other irregularities.”

Over the past two years, Mr. Mugabe’s bid to boost his waning support has included a land “reform” in which his government ordered commercial farmers belonging to the 1% white minority to quit farming and surrender their land to be parceled out to blacks. This was done in the name of redressing racial injustices of colonial times. But the huge farms and their economies of scale were the most productive source of the country’s food. Their confiscation, carried out in many cases by violent mobs, has brought food production to a near halt. And though the drought ended months ago and many of the reservoirs are now full, Mr. Mugabe’s “reform” means there is now almost no effective irrigation or new planting. The worst hit by these ruinous tactics are huge numbers of Zimbabwe’s 12 million blacks.

Nor can people buy supplies on the open market. The government runs a Grain Marketing Board that has monopoly rights to import and deal in commodities such as corn — the staple food in Zimbabwe. Farmers are forced to sell exclusively to the state marketing board, at well below world price, which further reduces incentives for large-scale planting. According to the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, the grain board “has politicized the distribution of food,” funneling grain toward Mugabe supporters and away from the opposition.

Mr. Mugabe’s policies have also sent inflation into the triple digits, eroding the buying power of ordinary Zimbabweans. The official exchange rate is now about 1/16th the black-market rate, meaning that food prices are increasingly out of reach. The effect is a “mass destruction of the middle class,” says Mr. Natsios. In neighboring South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has warned that “Zimbabweans are now suffering the brunt of policies that could soon spill over into the entire region.”

Aid donors are now trying to maneuver emergency rations through Mr. Mugabe’s horrific political maze, which has included objections by Harare officials to the importation of genetically modified grain. The U.N. has issued a call for swifter relief to avert catastrophic starvation, and nongovernmental organizations have been petitioning officials in Harare for permission to ship in food. Mr. Mugabe, meanwhile, was off in Cuba last week, lauding what he calls his “fast track” land policy and hobnobbing with his old pal Fidel Castro — another septuagenarian believer in the power of rationing.

By phone from Zimbabwe last week, a relief worker described to me the scene in village after village, saying that though people still look healthy, they are now running through their last resources. They are selling off the cow or the goats, boiling roots for food, and waiting in mile-long queues at local offices of the state’s Grain Marketing Board.

The relief worker described an old Zimbabwean woman who came with hundreds of others to a foreign aid center near a village school. She said that almost everyone she knows is getting desperate: “We beg, we borrow, we look for food.” In hunger, if nothing else, she added, “we are all equal now.’

Ms. Rosett is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.