On April 18th, 1980, Southern Rhodesia, the richest nation in Africa, officially gained independence from the United Kingdom and established majority rule for the first time in its history. Anti-colonial freedom fighter Robert Mugabe became the new president and the country was renamed Zimbabwe. Keeping a hold on power through rigged elections, intimidation and violence, Mugabe subsequently ran the country’s economy, health and education sectors and food supply into the ground.
In 2000, the government introduced a fast-track land reform program in which war veterans and other Mugabe supporters marched on white-owned farms and seized the land, killing many in the process. Much of this land was redistributed not to the black poor as was intended, but to Mugabe’s cronies and other party supporters.
A large portion of arable land was destroyed and Zimbabwe, previously known as “the Breadbasket of Africa” became food insecure. By 2008, inflation had reached 11 million percent, the HIV/AIDS rate was 25%, and 45% of the population was malnourished. Edward Lanpher served there from 1982-86 and was Ambassador from 1991-95; Joseph G. Sullivan was Ambassador from 2001-04. They describe Mugabe’s psychological desire to be in the spotlight over Nelson Mandela, how the crisis came about, and the country’s wait until Mugabe finally leaves the scene. Lanpher and Sullivan were both interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning in June 2002 and January 2009.
Read an in-depth backgrounder on Mugabe.
Q: You were there on the arrival of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the peaceful takeover and change into South Africa. Did that have any effect in Zimbabwe?
LANPHER: Yes. […] It was quite interesting what Mandela’s ascendance to power did to Mugabe psychologically. I worried about this at the time, but my worries were confirmed to me after I retired and went back as a consultant to Zimbabwe twice in 2000. I tried to get to the bottom of the change in Mugabe. Three of my good black contacts said, “This change in Mugabe, much of it goes back to Nelson Mandela coming to power in South Africa.” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “While Mandela was in prison and apartheid was on in South Africa, Mugabe was, in effect, the coq of the walk in this part of the world. He was the hero. He was the person who the world looked to as the spokesman for southern Africa. He had liberated his country. Once Mandela got out, people forgot about Mugabe. Mugabe was president of a country of 10-12 million people of little real worldwide consequence. South Africa is a country of 40-50 million people….
This really got to Mugabe. He had gotten used to being feted around the world. The spotlight went off him. Psychologically, he couldn’t take it. He had to do something to get back in the spotlight.” Two or three of these fellows attributed the Zimbabwe entanglement, intervention, whatever you want to call it, in the Congo to this, that this was his way of getting back in the spotlight. There were other factors — corruption and profits. But I think the psychological thing can’t be underestimated. And I believe these black friends of mine who were talking discreetly and one-on-one.
Corrupt Land Reform = Food Insecurity
Joseph G. Sullivan
SULLIVAN: By the time I got there (in 2001) the majority of white farmers had been forced out. There were still individual cases in the process of being forced out and by now it must be 99 percent of them that have been forced out. I think there is an argument to be made that many of these white farmers had ignored the potential for problems in the future, particularly if they had bought the land since 1980. Since Mugabe came to power, it was necessary to obtain a certificate of no interest by the state in order to purchase the land and in almost all cases they got that. But that certificate did not protect them against Mugabe changing his mind and changing the courts as much as he needed in order to have his decision to take white farmers’ lands upheld.
But it is also true that a situation in which something like 20 percent of the most productive land being held by whites in a country in which whites were perhaps less than one percent of the population this was a future problem. The white farmers probably didn’t anticipate the potential problem very well. At least some of them had supported Mugabe with contributions to his favored causes, even political contributions to him. He also wanted them to stay out of politics, which for the most part they did. But at the end of the day, they were there when he needed a political cause, when he had already suffered one electoral defeat in a constitutional referendum and he made his political cause seizing the land of the white farmers, which won him some support among black Zimbabweans and other black Africans. By 2002, I am convinced that the majority of the population no longer supported him, but the land issue had become his political banner.…
Q: Were these farms taken over by essentially dispossessed people who just sat there or were they taken over by natives of the country who were getting something out of it?
SULLIVAN: I’ll go back a little bit to say that the Zimbabwean government had had a program of nationalization of property for benefit of black Zimbabweans and the British government to a small degree contributed to that and the international community also assisted. One of the reasons the international community didn’t play a larger role in that program was that previously expropriated land had wound up going in many cases to cronies of Mugabe. Some land did go to blacks in communally owned lands, but these lands were typically not given sufficient resources or agricultural extension support to do much effective raising of crops and the additional land was devoted largely subsistence agriculture.
Then what happened in the late ‘90s but certainly continued throughout my time there, was that the land that was taken was overwhelmingly given to cronies of Mugabe, army officers, later even army enlisted people, senior police and others to buy their loyalty. The majority of these people weren’t farmers themselves, they had come from a different background. Many of them were urban people looking to have a stake hold out in the countryside but they didn’t have the background and in most cases the resources that they were willing and able to put into the land to make it successful. The white farmers were universally recognized as highly efficient farmers of wheat, maize, tobacco and other products and they had wound up being replaced by people who by and large farmed the land very unproductively.
Consequently, the ability of Zimbabwe to feed its own people declined dramatically. Their ability to produce crops like tobacco for export to raise foreign exchange declined dramatically and you wound up with people who held the land not making efficient farm use of the land….
For the most part they’d go out and visit their farm on the weekend so it was a tragedy in many senses. For the most part the white farmers had been apolitical and in most cases the land holdings were not huge; we are talking a hundred or a couple of hundred acres. But they were very efficient in what they did. Instead those couple of hundred acres began to be almost totally unproductive. Zimbabwe used to be a bread basket of southern Africa and it no longer raised enough grain to feed its own people.
Q: How did it feed its own people?
SULLIVAN: Well a lot of it with international assistance. The World Food Program set up a major program to assist people and the US contributed, as did most western governments, to those feeding programs and they helped many millions of Zimbabweans survive, which caused ambivalent feelings on the government’s part. Nonetheless, the government mostly cooperated.…
Patiently Waiting for Mugabe to Go…
As is often the case in regimes like that, the most efficient operation that the state runs is its own security operations. Within ZANU-PF [Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front], loyalty to Mugabe was ambivalent loyalty at a certain point; there were a few people who broke with him but not many. So it was that inner circle that controlled the security forces, that inner circle that controlled access to Mugabe and there is a long debate about Mugabe and how much he’d changed and how much he was always this way, because in the independence struggle and afterwards, he was ruthless at a number of times; effectively ruthless.
It can be argued that’s the way a guerrilla leader has to be if he is going to succeed, but Mugabe conducted reprisals against black civilian populations that didn’t support him and forced them to support him. After coming to power, Mugabe also conducted a major military campaign in Joshua Nkomo’s stronghold of Matabeleland and reduced Nkomo from being a figure with his own following to being a powerless, nominal vice president to Mugabe. So Mugabe had a long history of ruthlessness but because he had been relatively amicable to the West, because he had allowed white farmers to stay on the land and talked about reconciliation, I think there was some hope in the West that prevailed in the end that this was somebody you could work with.
He used to win his elections with typically 95 percent support and that probably was relatively authentic because there was no significant opposition once he had eliminated Nkomo’s political base. But then once he faced a significant political challenge in the late 1990s he became ruthless again with that opposition, including with some of the civil society people that he used to have good relations with.
I can recall one very good illustrative story of Mugabe who prides himself on having, I think, seven doctoral degrees; some of them are probably not much better than those off a cereal box, but some of them are authentic and some of them were achieved while he was in jail. In Zimbabwe and, I think, Zambia and a couple other countries, the president of the country is often times the chancellor of virtually all the universities of the country and certainly all the state universities; Mugabe took that role with some pride.
I became good friends with somebody who had been the vice chancellor of the University of Harare in the mid-90s. This individual was a close, long time friend of Mugabe and he recalled the times when he was vice chancellor Mugabe, would invite him to drop by the president’s residence and chat on a Friday afternoon. They would talk for two or three hours on problems at the university. He would call him Robert and Robert would call him Walter and they would discuss the problems in a very open way. Then in the late ‘90s, when Mugabe began expropriating farms, Walter, who had diabetes and lost his legs and was no longer vice chancellor, asked to see Mugabe based on old time connections. Walter told him that he thought he was wrong in what he was doing and that he was going to bring the country to ruin and that it wasn’t too late to correct this and so on. Mugabe listened to him, didn’t comment, said goodbye and never spoke to him again.…
Q: Did we have or do we have now sort of a plan when Mugabe goes what we can do?
SULLIVAN: Well, I probably can’t speak for what we’d do now, but we did then have some serious ideas about what we could do. We did work very closely with the opposition and had excellent relations with them and currently there is a coalition government of sorts in which the opposition leader Tsvangirai is Prime Minister while Mugabe is President. Mugabe does not adhere very well to the coalition agreement; he declines to name some of the people that Tsvangirai has nominated to the ministerial positions, has kept the president of the central bank notwithstanding the provision that that he was to be changed, but notwithstanding this, the opposition has succeeded in reviving the economy a little bit.
Basically they’ve dollarized the economy and thrown out worthless Zimbabwean dollars, pay teachers in dollars at relatively reduced rates; I think it is about $100 a month but that’s better than worthless Zimbabwean dollars they were being paid before. Probably the economy more than anything else subsists on the remittances sent in from Zimbabwean immigrants living abroad. That said, Zimbabweans are very well educated people, very industrious, when given the opportunity and, I think, it could come back relatively quickly if and when Mugabe goes and if and when there is a reasonable government…
There are many black Zimbabweans who have farmed for generations. Even though the system of communal land under which many black Zimbabweans farmed is a dependency-inducing phenomenon in which people don’t have land in individual title, but only as part of a community, they do have farming skills. In the right circumstances, if black Zimbabweans were to receive land in a system in which the system designed to foster more productive farming and provide them with the means and the capital to do such, I believe many of them would succeed. Zimbabweans have written many excellent plans for how to do just that, but the Mugabe government has been making land distribution decisions on political grounds rather than on the basis of agricultural productivity.…
Q: Often with embassies you end up with the senior officers, the ambassador, DCM and all you’ve been around the block you say okay this too shall pass and then you get junior officers who say for God’s sake let’s do something. Did you find that kind of split?
SULLIVAN: Not really. I think that to the degree there was that phenomenon at the time I arrived, there had been a major and very activist AID mission very involved in democracy building, society building, etc., but in some ways doing their own thing without much coordination. I think we effectively implemented a system of a much more coordinated effort. That, notwithstanding, there were at least some individuals within that mission who were out on the edge, and the usual result of that would be that they would put themselves in situations where either people they were supporting would get arrested and we would try to intervene to prevent the worst. I wouldn’t call it a policy dispute it was more differences over how to implement policy effectively.
Human Rights Abuses and Assault on Diplomats
We as an embassy were also fairly aggressive. We had one set of officers, who were documenting human rights abuses. They were out in the countryside and they were in effect rounded up by some so-called war veterans under the guidance of Mugabe’s security apparatus. They amounted to sharp troops under Mugabe’s political control. They came up and set upon our people, they beat an individual from an NGO who had brought our people to the site to talk to people. They laid a few blows on our embassy driver and instructed our group to follow them. Who knows what would have happened, but our embassy driver was wise enough to only follow them for a little and then speed off in the other direction. Our embassy people escaped the situation, but we faced viciousness like that fairly frequently.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, for instance, was being charged at one stage on trumped-up treason charges so we and other embassies insisted on witnessing that trial and even forcing our way into the court room, not physically but by our presence. At the end of the day, those charges were dropped and our having insisted on our ability to witness the trial, as provided in Zimbabwean law, helped assure there could not be a secret judgment against him. There were certainly frequent circumstances of human rights abuse and most of what we could do was bear witness to it, document it in our human rights report, complain of it, and seek to have the United Nations pass resolutions condemning such violations. Some of those positions were being undercut by the failure of many Africans to speak out.
Q: What sort of human rights abuses were there?
SULLIVAN: Well there were a couple people killed, not high numbers but probably in the tens of opposition activists killed. Many tortured, many beaten as well as failure to abide by the commitments that Zimbabwe had made in their own constitution and elsewhere to have a fair judicial system, fair civil procedures and humane prison treatment; much of that became politically manipulated.…
There’s been perhaps a slight improvement since [his departure in 2004] in that the opposition has joined the government and, at least, introduced some elements of economic rationality. But Mugabe turns 87 this year and doesn’t think it is time for him to retire nor to prepare his succession. So it’s a sad situation and I’m afraid the Zimbabwean people will continue to suffer until he does go, one way or another. There is supposed to be a new election within another year; whether he will do that or ever agree to a fair election, I am dubious. We did have discussions with a number of people within his own party who wished that he would go, one of whom actually did put himself on the ballot as an independent candidate for president in the most recent presidential election about three years ago and received some modest support. But at the end of the day, most ZANU-PF leaders are unwilling or unable to break with Mugabe. ZANU- PF, Mugabe and his security forces are willing to use whatever force is necessary and whatever fraud is necessary in order to continue in power.