By Jonathan Manthorpe,
At the stroke midnight on April 17, 1980, at Rufaro soccer stadium in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, Prince Charles lowered the Union Jack and the last British governor of what had been Southern Rhodesia, Lord Christopher Soames, leaned over to speak in the ear of incoming Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe (left) signs into law the Zimbabwe’s new constitution next to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (right) at the State House in Harare, on May 22, 2013. The 89-year-old, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, signed the document two months after it was overwhelmingly approved by Zimbabweans in a referendum.
“This is a wonderful little country I’m giving you,” said Soames in the tones of imperial paternalism that came so easily to him. “Don’t muck it up.”
Thirty-three years later, Mugabe, still the country’s leader, recalled that moment of Zimbabwe’s birth – though not Soames’ admonition – as he signed a new constitution into law on Wednesday.
As well as promising fundamental human and political rights, the new constitution envisages fresh elections, probably in September, that Mugabe promised will be fair and free of the violence that marred the last vote in 2008.
There was an air of new beginning in Harare as Mugabe signed the document, an air of hope that began to unfold in March when 95 per cent of Zimbabwe’s three million voters approved the charter in a referendum.
The hope is the new dispensation will draw a line under more than a decade of state-sponsored violence, political repression, economic collapse and social chaos.
For mucking it up does not begin to describe the scorched earth tactics Mugabe meted out on his country, beginning in 2000, to try to destroy, at birth, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the first viable opposition to his ruling ZANUPF party.
Mugabe struck out at the land owned by the 6,000 white farmers who stayed on in Zimbabwe after 1980. Farms were attacked and seized by gangs of thugs employed by ZANU-PF. Many of the farmers and their families were killed.
The gangs claimed to be veterans of the war of independence in the 1970s, the Chimurenga — though almost all were too young — and that their aim was to remove the last vestiges of colonialism. The land stolen by colonial settlers should be returned to the people, they said.
Much of the rest of the world saw it differently.
Europe, the United States, Canada and others saw a murderous and illegal grab aimed not at redistributing land to the landless, but at enriching Mugabe and his closest cronies. Indeed, it was regime leaders who installed themselves in the spacious bungalows of the evicted or slain farmers.
Targeted sanctions on Mugabe and his senior henchmen began to be applied as the country’s once bountiful agricultural industry collapsed.
Then things started to get really bad.
Mugabe destroyed the country’s credit rating by stopping payments on an International Monetary Fund loan.
To compensate, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe began printing money at a phenomenal rate. The inevitable happened. In 2007, inflation reached over 11 million per cent a year.
The price of a restaurant meal multiplied several times over between the appetizers and the dessert.
Economic life became untenable. About four million Zimbabweans – a third of the population – fled to neighbouring countries, especially South Africa, where their superior education and job-worthiness caused violent local reactions.
In this firestorm, the opposition MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai became the hope of countless Zimbabweans.
There is little doubt that if the 2008 election had been free and fair, Tsvangirai would have won the presidency and formed the government. But hundreds of people were killed as Mugabe’s ZANU-PF loosed its militias on opposition supporters and the ballot counting was largely fraudulent.
The European Union, the U.S. and others imposed ever more stringent sanctions on Mugabe and his cronies.
This pressure, together with appeals from neighbouring African capitals, forced Mugabe into a tense and finely balanced coalition with Tsvangirai and the MDC.
This partnership defied the odds and this week produced the new constitution which even highly critical international human rights organizations have blessed and say is a solid reason for hope for Zimbabwe’s future.
With a degree of political stability has come steady economic growth for the past two years. Would-be foreign investors are beginning to look covetously at Zimbabwe’s substantial mineral reserves and agricultural potential.
International sanctions have been steadily withdrawn since the March referendum and the final embargoes will be lifted if the election is conducted as promised.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mugabe characterized the new constitution as the final blow to what he believes were the economic inequities enshrined in the old charter that gave birth to Zimbabwe in 1980.
Perhaps now Mugabe, who is 89, will see his 40-year liberation war finally at an end and retire.
But the new constitution, which introduces a limit of two five-year terms for the presidency, means he can try to remain in power for another 10 years if he has a mind to. firstname.lastname@example.org