On Feb. 21, Yahoo! Finance released a list titled, ‘The 25 Most Miserable Places in the World’. While nations like Syria, Kosovo, Turkmenistan, Nepal, Burkina Faso, and Liberia occupied various spots near the top of the list, no one should be surprised that Zimbabwe took the #1 slot. You can read the Yahoo! article here.
Zimbabwe has earned this sort of recognition many times in the past. In 2010, Forbes listed Zimbabwe as the ‘world’s worst economy’, citing the country’s 5-percent inflation rate and astonishingly low GDP of $375 per capita. The same year, the World Bank Group noted that Zimbabwe recorded the lowest Human Development Index score on the planet — a paltry 14 out of 100, and a full 10 points behind second-worst Democratic Republic of the Congo (where a brutal conflict known as the Second Congo War has been fought for the last 15 years). Last summer, Britain’s Economic Intelligence Unit named the Zimbabwean capital city of Harare as fourth worst city to live in on the planet. Currently 15 percent of the Zimbabwean population is infected with HIV, and the disease is responsible for roughly 60,000 deaths and 1,000,000 orphaned children every year. The list goes on and on.
So yes, Yahoo! Finance, Zimbabwe is probably a very miserable place — and surely the people who live there appreciate the shout-out. But if we’re going to assign blame for the economic ruin and human suffering that has come to define Zimbabwe’s international image, most of the blame falls one man. His name is Robert Mugabe, he’s 89 years old, he has served as president of Zimbabwe for the last 26 years (and counting), and he ranks among the most insane world leaders of all time, right up there with Ivan the Terrible, Kim Jong-il, and Andrew Jackson.
Mugabe was once considered a hero. He served as a guerilla leader during the Rhodesian Bush War, and spent several years of the conflict as a political prisoner. When the war ended and Zimbabwe became an independent nation, he called for peace between the previously warring factions and was instrumental in restoring order to the country after nearly two decades of violence. As a result he quickly ascended the political ladder and, in 1980, was elected prime minister.
Then, sometime in the early 1980s (if not earlier), Mugabe began losing his mind. He was viciously tortured at the hands of his white Rhodesian captors during the war, and many experts believe he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder ever since. Others argue he is an evil genius who charmed his way into the halls of power with a hidden, sinister agenda. Either way, Mugabe was elected president in 1987 and Zimbabwe has been steadily rolling downhill ever since. His administration is, if nothing else, an airtight argument for term limits.
If he’s so incompetent, then why haven’t the Zimbabwean people banded together and put an end to his tyranny? The answer is simple: if you publicly oppose Mugabe, his goon squad will most likely murder not only you, but also members of your family and, in some cases, your entire community.
That’s precisely what happened in the early 80’s in the southern province of Matabeleland, which at the time was home to ZIPRA, an anti-Mugabe political party founded by a notable Zimbabwean muckraker named Joshua Nkomo. The locals must have known something terrible was about to go down when a platoon of North Korean soldiers arrived in August 1981 and began training a local militia named ‘Gukurahundi’, or ‘the rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains’. Soon afterward, Mugabe’s government began enforcing strict curfews in Matabeleland and banned journalists from visiting the province. Then, based on eyewitness accounts, the Gukurahundi entered Matabeleland in 1983 and proceeded to kill as many people as they could.
At first, chiefs and village leaders were executed by order of death lists drawn up by the militias. Others attended meetings arranged by Gukurahundi members, where many were beaten to death and piled into makeshift mass graves. Those lucky enough to be spared were then ordered to literally dance on the corpses of their relatives, friends and fellow villagers. Survivors who wept for the dead (thereby honoring a local tradition of shedding tears during mourning) were shot on the spot. Burial was also strictly prohibited, and soon the region was littered with rotting corpses. Roughly 2,000 people died within the first six weeks. But no one intervened, not even the UN, and the bloodshed lasted for years.
A damning account of the massacre corroborated by more than 1,000 eyewitnesses was finally released in 2005. Please be warned, the descriptions in the report are horrific and deeply upsetting (much moreso than those listed above).
The Matabeleland Massacre is merely the worst of Mugabe’s offenses. He was also instrumental in the widespread expulsion of white Zimbabwean farmers and the seizure of their property that began in the mid 1990s and reached its apex in the early 2000s. Hundreds of farmers were killed, and most of the survivors fled to South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and other, more hospitable neighboring countries. Mugabe championed this racial persecution as rebellion against colonial oppression. But when he commanded Zimbabweans to reclaim the land that was stolen from them, he didn’t consider that many of them weren’t capable of effectively managing their own plantation. By 2006, only 10 percent of the original white-owned farms were still operational; the rest had been burned to the ground or left to the weeds.
Mugabe’s disastrous farm reclamation idea was the genesis point of a economic plummet so severe that few depressions in history can rival it. In August 2000, the exchange rate stood at 100 Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. dollar; by January 2006, it was 100,000 Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. dollar; and by June 2006, it was more than 500,000 Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. dollar. At that point, Mugabe decided his country’s best option was to revalue their currency, and the ‘second dollar’ thereby replaced the ‘first dollar’ in August 2006. The new currency stood at 650 Zimbabwean ‘second’ dollars to one U.S. dollar upon its release; one year later, the exchange rate stood at 200,000 Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. dollar. Long story short, the ‘fourth dollar’ was devalued in February 2009; at the time, 3 trillion Zimbabwean dollars were equivalent to one U.S. dollar (yes, 3 trillion). Somehow, the country’s economy recorded a slight upturn between 2009 and 2011, but things have once again taken a turn for the worse in the last two years. In 2013, BBC reported that the Zimbabwean bank account balance stood at $217.
Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s bitterest political rival, has come closer to toppling the old man than anybody else. The two faced off during the Zimbabwean presidential elections of 2002 and 2008. During the first round of voting in the 2008 contest, Tsvangirai bested Mugabe by nearly five percentage points. This naturally led Mugabe to accuse his opponent of election fraud, and then demand a second round of voting. Tsvangirai warily accepted the challenge. Soon after the runoff election was declared, the United Nations and G8 raised concerns about intimidation and violence toward Tsvangirai’s supporters leading up to the second round of voting. Then came reports of ‘torture camps’ set up to hold Tsvangirai’s supporters — as well as a few low-level politicians — and beat them into submission. In at least two documented instances, the wives of Mugabe’s political rivals were brutally murdered in their homes. As the violence escalated, Tsvangirai reportedly brokered a power-sharing deal with Mugabe to restore peace; they have been somewhat aligned ever since, but Mugabe has refused to relinquish his presidential title.
In March 2013, Mugabe told ABC News that he was poised to “resoundingly defeat his opponents” in the presidential election that will most likely be held this summer and serve as Zimbabwe’s head of state for five more years. This declaration came on his 89th birthday, as he enjoyed a 40-pound cake; meanwhile, roughly 1 million Zimbabweans are officially starving. His electoral ‘prediction’ also came just days after the 12-year-old son of a rival politician died under very mysterious circumstances (he was set on fire).
Mugabe’s three-decade reign of terror has been well-documented, so it should come as no surprise that Zimbabwe earns top ranking on a list of the world’s most miserable countries. But how many of these writers have actually been to Zimbabwe? I only ask because I have been to Zimbabwe… sort of.
I spent roughly one year in Livingstone, Zambia, a dusty town on the banks of the Zambezi River. Just a few miles south of Livingstone is the Zimbabwean border; separating the two countries is an impressive metal bridge that spans the Zambezi River Gorge. On the other side of the border is the town of Victoria Falls, named for the breathtaking natural landmark that surges in the distance.
In terms of sub-Saharan Africa, both Livingstone and Victoria Falls are major tourist destinations. Unlike most Zambian or Zimbabwean towns, these two spots feature five-star hotels, high-end night clubs, and a wide selection of eateries, as well as accommodations for river rafting, bungee jumping, safari, and other adventurous outdoor activities. The only notable difference between the two towns is that one belongs to Zimbabwe and the other does not. For this reason, human traffic across the border is extremely one-sided.
My friends in Livingstone used to tell me about the Zimbabwean immigrants who crossed the border in droves and set up ramshackle settlements near the town’s outdoor market. Many of them brewed crude alcoholic beverages or baked pastries to sell, while others simply begged tourists for money. “All Africans are suffering”, one of my Zambian friends once told me, “but the Zims have it really bad”. That about sums it up.
I was under strict orders not to visit Zimbabwe during my time in Livingstone (‘too unstable’, my boss said). But when a friend invited me to come hang out with their visiting family in the town of Victoria Falls, I jumped at the opportunity to see Zimbabwe firsthand. What did I do during my trip to this impoverished, ‘miserable’ country? I spent the night in a comfy hotel bed, ate a three-course dinner, and enjoyed a cup of fresh coffee (ground beans, mind you, not instant) on the room’s balcony as the sun rose the following morning. Like I said, I’ve ‘sort of’ been to Zimbabwe. And I had a fantastic time.
But even in Victoria Falls, Mugabe’s legacy was still visible. Many of the storefronts near the hotel had large signs in the window, announcing they only accepted foreign currency — which is understandable, considering at the time more than 400,000 Zimbabwean dollars were equivalent to one U.S. dollar. At the border, a long queue of people filed into the immigration office and pleaded their case in the hope of entering Zambia; the line of folks crossing into Zimbabwe, by comparison, was much shorter. The border guard who stamped my passport looked a little concerned. “You’re not going past Victoria Falls, are you?” he inquired. I assured him that I was not, and he nodded approvingly. “Victoria Falls is a very nice place,” he said. “Have a good time.”
During my 24 hours in Victoria Falls, I couldn’t help but feel that each of the Zimbabweans who lived in that town had won some sort of lottery in the game of life. While the rest of Zimbabwe suffered under the dire economic and humanitarian conditions brought about by their sociopathic head of state, Victoria Falls remained a calm, idyllic little stopover. Jobs were far more plentiful compared to the rest of the country, thanks the the sizable local tourism sector, and the Zambian border was close by if expatriation at a moment’s notice was warranted. It was hard for me to grasp the idea that a pretty waterfall was the only reason why Victoria Falls fared far better than the rest of Zimbabwe. But when I returned to the border and joined the long line of people crossing into Zambia, it seemed pretty clear that this was where things stood.
The Yahoo! Finance article makes no mention of Robert Mugabe, and it certainly should have; rarely in history does the blame for widespread misery rest so squarely on one person’s shoulders. But regardless, there’s a bigger issue here — the perpetuation of the idea that certain nations (namely Zimbabwe, though there are plenty of others) are destitute places with little hope of ever catching up with the rest of the world. Surely we want the Zimbabwean people to restore their economy, elect a competent leader, and establish themselves as global leaders — but do we really expect this country to thrive after decades of pity (and little else) from the rest of the world? It’s not good enough to acknowledge their misery; we must also applaud their perseverence, understand their complex struggles, and recognize their potential to reverse this horrific situation.
Later this month, Zimbabweans will vote on a referendum to revise the country’s constitution; the presidential election is tentatively slated for July. Want to help the cause? Use social media to get your voice out there and express support for the Zimbabwean people during their upcoming election. If you’d like to get more involved, please visit Zimbabwe: A National Emergency (ZANE), Seeds of Africa Fund, HIV/AIDS Zimbabwe (HAZ), or other nonprofit organizations and charity groups working to improve living conditions for the people of Zimbabwe.