Zimbabwe: impoverished after Mugabe’s long rule

Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe looks on during a press conference at his private residence nicknamed "Blue Roof" in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018.
Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe looks on during a press conference at his private residence nicknamed "Blue Roof" in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 29, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Zimbabwe was ruled by Robert Mugabe from independence from Britain in 1980 until he was ousted last year, leaving behind a country in economic ruin. Here is some background about the southern African nation as it goes to the polls Monday to elect Mugabe’s successor.

British settlers moved up into the region from South Africa in the late 19th century, attracted by its mineral wealth and farming land. Among them was mining magnate Cecil Rhodes who gave his name to what became in 1923 the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

In 1965, the colony’s rulers declared unilateral independence from Britain, forming a white-minority regime similar to that in apartheid South Africa. Black nationalists launched a war for liberation in 1972, which claimed at least 27,000 lives. Negotiations under British auspices led to a ceasefire and elections in 1980 that culminated in independence, the country renamed Zimbabwe. Mugabe took the reins of power as the prime minister in 1980, becoming president in 1987 after a change to the constitution.

He was ousted in 2017, then one of the longest-running leaders in Africa and, at 93, the oldest head of state in the world. His much-criticised stint in power saw repression of the opposition, economic mismanagement and allegations of corruption. Mugabe initially reached out to the white minority but in 2000 encouraged squatters and so-called veterans from the independence war to expropriate farms from the white minority, who fled in their thousands.

A 2002 election that gave him another term was marred by violence and denounced as irregular by international observers. He won controversial elections in 2008, in which his rival quit citing severe intimidation, and again in 2013. Mugabe was pushed out last November after a military takeover in response to his efforts to position his wife Grace as his successor. Emmerson Mnangagwa completed the presidential term and is favourite to win Monday’s election. Southern Africa’s former bread basket, Zimbabwe’s agricultural production plummeted after the land seizures, which saw once-productive farms to fall into ruin.

It triggered hyperinflation and GDP nearly halved between 2000 and 2008. The Zimbabwean dollar collapsed and in 2009 was abandoned for the US dollar and the South African rand, with a little-trusted token currency known as “bond notes” introduced two years ago.

The crisis led to mass unemployment with nearly nine out of 10 of the active population out of work, the collapse of many public services and the scarcity of cash. Nearly three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s 16.15 million people (2016) live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Economic growth improved from 0.7% in 2016 to 3.4% in 2017 but is advancing more slowly than population growth and worsening poverty, it says.

The country is however rich in minerals, such as platinum, gold, diamonds and nickel, which may attract investors. Zimbabwe’s wildlife is a draw for tourists as well as trophy hunters from the United States, Europe and South Africa.

Perhaps the best-known game park is Hwange, on the border with Botswana, where the killing with a bow and arrow by an American hunter in 2015 of a much-loved lion called Cecil caused worldwide outrage. Another tourist draw is the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, on the border with Zambia.

The country is also recognised for its sporting talent, including in cricket and swimming, with Zimbabwean Kirsty Coventry a double Olympic and multiple world champion.

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