From African jewel to basket case: Looking back at Mugabe's Zimbabwe
ROBERT Mugabe, who has ruthlessly ruled Zimbabwe without interruption since it won independence 30 years ago on Sunday, likes to court controversy.
Seven years ago, after he started seizing his country's white-owned farms, the former school teacher eagerly compared himself to Adolf Hitler.
Speaking at the funeral of Chenjerai Hunzvi, a thuggish cabinet minister who led the "war veterans" group that spearheaded violent seizures of white-owned farms, Mr. Mugabe noted Mr. Hunzvi had adopted the nickname "Hitler" because he admired the Nazi dictator's use of force and despised the British.
"I am still the Hitler of the time," Mr. Mugabe boasted.
"This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources."
"If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold," he went on. "Ten times, that is what we stand for."
In fact, after 30 years in power, Mr. Mugabe has presided over the most dramatic collapse of any country in history since Weimar Germany.
He has turned one of the most beautiful and bountiful lands in Africa into a disaster zone that mixes corruption, mismanagement, violence and human rights violations on a scale that almost ranks alongside the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.
An aura of hope clung to Zimbabwe at its birth. Reggae rock star Bob Marley performed at an Independence Day concert in Harare and Prince Charles came to watch Southern Rhodesia morph into Zimbabwe.
The new country was presented to the world as a new model for Africa and Mr. Mugabe was hailed as a statesman who offered reconciliation to its white minority, telling them, "If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend."
Having endured nearly a decade of guerrilla warfare in which 30,000 people were killed, the new government promised to temporarily guarantee seats in Parliament for whites, while seeking a new partnership to build a new state.
But Mr. Mugabe's penchant for crushing all possible dissent didn't take long to surface.
In 1983, the Zimbabwean army's North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, killed up to 20,000 Ndebele dissidents, members of a rival liberation group led by Joshua Nkomo, in Operation Gukurahundi, a Shona phrase for "the early rain that washes away the chaff."
Over the years, as Mr. Mugabe struggled to stay in power, he endorsed one-party rule and increasingly relied on censorship and intimidation.
He adopted a catastrophic policy of land seizures in 2000, after he lost a referendum that had aimed to entrench his power in a new constitution. Resuming the fiery rhetoric of the liberation struggle, he promised to "correct the colonialist legacy" by giving white-owned farms to landless blacks.
Once the bread basket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe became a basket case, as productive white-owned farms fell into the hands of members of Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwean African National Unity-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.
It soon had the world's highest inflation rate - 231 million per cent a year - 90% unemployment and shortages of everything.
As government incompetence led to disaster, Mr. Mugabe blamed Zimbabwe's nightmares on Britain and "white settlers," whom he described as "thieving colonialists."
A quarter of Zimbabwe's population fled. Now, one in three families depends on remittances from relatives abroad and the UN's World Food Program feeds nearly three million Zimbabweans. Still, Mr. Mugabe continues to rule as if Zimbabwe were his personal fiefdom. He has manipulated the political process through violence and intimidation, and crushed his opposition.
In 2005, after ZANU-PF lost control of Harare to members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he launched Operation Murambatsvina (Clean Up Filth). This destroyed 92,460 homes of squatters, rendering 700,000 people, mostly MDC supporters, homeless.
Two years later, when Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, became a vocal critic of Mr. Mugabe, government-controlled media outlets broadcast a secretly taped video of the bishop in bed with a woman. The bishop resigned.
Two years ago, Zimbabwe faced political deadlock, when MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes in the 2008 presidential elections, but was unable to avoid a runoff.
Mr. Mugabe claimed victory three months later in a June runoff, after Mr. Tsvangirai dropped out because of the violence aimed at his supporters.
Zimbabwe fell into chaos, facing famine and economic collapse. The country's red $500 bills were nicknamed "Ferraris" because they lost their value so quickly.
With millions running short of food, the bankrupt government found itself unable to cope with a cholera epidemic that killed more than 2,000 people.
The international community, led by South Africa and the Southern African Development Community, stepped in and pressured Mr. Mugabe to form a unity government with Mr. Tsvangirai.
Under a power-sharing agreement that went into effect 14 months ago, Mr. Mugabe remained president, while Mr. Tsvangirai became prime minister; ZANU-PF took 15 cabinet seats, while the MDC got 13; and an MDC splinter faction led by Arthur Mutambara got three.
The parties were supposed to govern jointly, introducing reforms that would pave the way for a new round of elections.
But 14 months into the experiment, little has changed.
"Torture, harassment and politically motivated prosecutions of human rights defenders and perceived opponents have persisted, while villagers in parts of Zimbabwe have suffered ceaseless intimidation by supporters of former ruling party ZANU-PF," says a recent Amnesty International report.
Mr. Mugabe treated the power-sharing agreement with disdain. He arbitrarily handed powerful ministries, including Defence, Justice, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs, which controls the police, to his supporters. He also swore in two vice-presidents, both from his party.
Nonetheless, the unity government has restored some economic stability, scrapping Zimbabwe's currency in favour of the U.S. dollar and using foreign aid to re-float the government, and put civil servants, school teachers and doctors and nurses back to work. But little has been done in the line of political or constitutional reform.
"The transitional power-sharing government is a sham," says Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"From a human rights perspective, nothing has changed for the better. Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF are still fully in control."
In fact, Mr. Mugabe is preparing to tighten his hold. Last month, he promulgated a new law under which all companies valued at more than $500,000 had until last Thursday (April 15) to submit proposals on how they plan to sell 51% of their shares to black Zimbabweans over the next five years.
At the last minute, Mr. Tsvangirai said the new "indigenisation law" was "null and void" and will be sent back to parliament for further debate.
Mr. Mugabe insists the law will go ahead after a brief period of "consultation."
Critics claim it is "pernicious racist legislation designed to facilitate the theft of property by an avaricious and venal ZANU-PF-affiliated black elite."
"With lucrative white farming enterprises no longer available for distribution as largesse (the resource having been depleted), the regulations create the conditions for a new source of patronage for the ZANU-PF elite and a weapon against businesses and individuals perceived to support the MDC ahead of the next elections," says Derek Matyszak, a researcher with the South Africa-based Institute for Democracy in Africa.