Friday, 5 December 2008

5 December 2008

I wrote last week that we journalists aren’t very good at dealing with stories that move slowly, over a long period of time. Well, today I’m going to put that right: Zimbabwe has been slowly disintegrating for nearly a decade now, and it’s time to put it back at the top of our agenda.

We’ve reported three times this week on the ever more appalling crisis there: on Monday we had a remarkable eye-witness report from Harare on how soldiers had gone on the rampage; on Tuesday, we reported on the worsening cholera outbreak; and last night, we had an interview with the Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, who called on fellow African governments to “push Mugabe from power”. (All programmes are still available via Listen Again on the website.)

If you’ve missed the latest developments, here’s a taste: the central bank has raised the cash withdrawal limit from banks from the equivalent of 18p a day to about £34 a week. It’s issued new 50 million and 100 million dollar banknotes (they’re worth about £17 and £34 respectively). And remember, these are the “new” dollars that were introduced in August, when 10 zeros were knocked off the old ones.

No wonder everyone uses US dollars or South African rand instead if they can. The official inflation rate is now said to be 231 million per cent, although how anyone can calculate that is quite beyond me.

So let’s forget the figures. The shops are empty, the hospitals, by the admission of the health minister himself, are “non-functioning”. More than 500 people have already died of cholera, more than 10,000 others have gone down with the disease – and there’s a chronic shortage of water-treatment chemicals so that for a period this week, the capital, Harare, was without water.

I’m not sure anyone ever really believed after the elections earlier this year that President Mugabe would agree to share power with the opposition MDC. But for months, as Zimbabweans struggled to feed themselves and their families, the diplomats tried manfully to come up with a deal that would save Zimbabwe from total destitution. They failed.

The MDC seem to have decided there’s no point in continuing with the pretence. Within the next few months, Jacob Zuma will become President of South Africa, and they expect him to take much tougher line with his neighbour to the north than did Thabo Mbeki. We’ll see what happens, if Robert Mugabe is still in power then.

When I was in Harare in 2000, to report on parliamentary elections, people told me: “Mugabe won’t be here for much longer, he can’t go on for ever.” (He’s now 84.) The so-called land reform programme was already well under way, and most white farmers had already been forced to leave. It was the beginning of Zimbabwe’s long slow descent into economic collapse, as food production dwindled and investment dried up.

For years now, Zimbabwe’s neighbours – and others – have waited for the country to reach a tipping point, a moment when the whole rickety structure that has kept Mugabe in power for so long comes tumbling down. After the first round of the presidential election last March, it looked for a time as if that moment had arrived. But his forces regrouped, reimposed their will by sheer brute force, and he survived.

Now is another potential tipping point. The army is restive, disease is spreading, and the very basics of human life – food, water – are disappearing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mugabe was gone by the end of the year.

By the way, our editor, Alistair Burnett, has written a piece on the BBC Editors’ blog this week about how we try to balance our coverage of foreign and UK news. Should we, for example, have done more about the Baby P case on Monday, or the Shannon Matthews story last night? You can read his thoughts here -- and we’d very much appreciate your view.

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