You can take advantage of your people only so long. Eventually they rise up in protest. That is what is happening now in Zimbabwe, where the tide of discontent runs high.
The protesting Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions is saying "enough is enough." It sponsors successful stay-aways from work. Other urban dwellers have taken to the streets in militant protest. Squatters are occupying white-owned farms. A fledgling opposition party is forming. And mutiny is the much-feared talk of the Army.
President Robert Mugabe, in power for 18 years, must go. That's the message of the streets in Zimbabwe, as well as of the diplomatic corridors. It's time Mr. Mugabe heeded the call, and spared his people more turmoil.
His strong-arm rule is the triggering complaint. He has governed Zimbabwe coercively since independence in 1980, running roughshod over intimidated opposition parties and his own Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Elected overwhelmingly and regularly, he first foisted state-dominated socialism on Zimbabwe. More recently, he has vacillated between opening up to market forces and maintaining the core of centralized control.
State domination, widespread corruption, the failure to sell off state controlled enterprises, and Mugabe' s own oft-voiced disdain for the private sector, has resulted in GDP annual growth increases that lag behind population increases, steadily falling standards of living, inflation approaching 50 percent this year, and unemployment approaching 50 percent.
Zimbabwe's dollar has fallen a third against the United States dollar since November 1997.
Zimbabwe's workers might have understood why prices of imported fuel had to increase 67 percent along with the costs of bread, cooking oil, the staple maize meal, and bus fares - up 100 percent. But not when they learned that Mugabe was building expensive mansions for his young second wife, that the mayor of Harare, the country' s capital, was constructing a $1.5 million house when luxury houses in the city cost a mere $130,000, that the city of Harare could not pay for a $685,000 water pump and so the city suffered serious shortages of water, and that the president had sent the Zimbabwean Army to fight an expensive war in the distant Congo.
No one in Zimbabwe can understand why its troops have been sent to defend President Laurent Kabila's continued dictatorship in the Congo at a time when Zimbabwe is desperately short of cash, and the Congo has none to offer.
Leading Zimbabweans speculate that the president has cut a lucrative deal: troops for a personal slice of the Congo' s mineral wealth. Given the constant talk in Harare about Mugabe's crony capitalism (his nephew Leo Mugabe has won a number of lucrative contracts), nothing the president does astonishes corporate leaders or their employees. This month he also took a 16-day trip to Libya and Europe despite the crises at home.
Greed on the part of politicians is taken for granted. That is in part why Zimbabwe's 8,000 professional soldiers, fighting a war deep in the inhospitable reaches of the eastern Congo, have threatened mutiny.
Greed, and the cynicism it engenders, has also eliminated the possibility of foreign investment, even in the potentially rich local mining sector. The government' s attempt to appease discontented Zimbabweans by seizing 841 white-owned farms without immediate compensation, and on 30-day notice, has made economic matters worse. About 18 percent of Zimbabwe's GDP, and 30 percent of its export earnings, are the result of the tobacco, horticulture, and maize produced by commercial farmers. Those farmers are hardly willing to continue investing in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe isn't up for election again until 2002, and Parliament not until 2000. ZANU controls 157 of 160 seats in Parliament. So one path to change would follow a split in ZANU, defying the wrath of the president's secret police. Or Margaret Dongo, the only independent member of Parliament, could succeed in starting a new party capable of providing an alternative to the president's tight-fisted rule.
Otherwise, Mugabe could be driven from office by urban protests fueled by continued economic discontent, cascading Army mutinies, and the alarm of even the many intimidated members of his Cabinet. President Nelson Mandela of South Africa would not be sorry to see his neighbor ousted. Nor would Washington and London.
Whether Mugabe exits gracefully, or is hustled out of office by his opponents, it is time he went.
* Robert I. Rotberg is coordinator of the Southern African Program at the Harvard Institute for International Development, in Cambridge, Mass.