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Mugabe takes Zimbabwe further into void

Zimbabwe is descending further into the chaos caused by President Robert Mugabe's inept, corrupt, and authoritarian regime. For a year, the country has been sliding economically, its currency depreciating against the dollar by 100 percent, its annual rate of inflation rising to 60 percent, its unemployment levels soaring over 50 percent, and its investment levels nearly nil. Annual GDP growth rates have been under 3 percent.

Last week, bus fares in Harare went up 60 percent. And stores ran out of the staple food, maize meal. The immediate cause of the scarcity was a government decision to reimpose price controls when inflation and devaluation compelled grain millers to try to raise maize meal prices.

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Now the laws of supply and demand have caught up. The government might have been able to blame its economic failures on Asian or global troubles if Mr. Mugabe had not made the very unpopular decision late last year to send 4,000 Zimbabwean soldiers to fight for President Laurent Kabila in the Congo. That decision is costing millions of dollars each week.

Moreover, the president's well-publicized, lavish spending on overseas travel and purchases in Europe, the perception of heavy corruption throughout his government, and his decision in October to confiscate white-owned farms without compensation have further eroded the trust of Zimbabweans in their government.

And late last month, Mugabe's people grabbed two journalists, tortured them, and refused to let them go when the high court ordered their release. The men, editor Mark Chavunduka and reporter Ray Choto, work for one of Harare's three independent weeklies. The government controls the daily press, and the nation's radio and TV. Mr. Chavunduka and Mr. Choto had reported an attempted coup in the Army. It has also been reported by intelligence sources that some of Zimbabwe's troops in the Congo mutinied in December.

Both the blatant torture of the journalists and the military's flouting of judicial orders unnerved professionals in Harare. In the last week of January, hundreds, both black and white, marched on parliament in protest and were tear-gassed. Others told me in Harare that they were personally anxious, fearing arrest and torture.

Additionally troubling was the military response. Minister of Defense Moven Mahachi first said that the talk of torture was "all lies." Then he said that the two journalists must have "scratched themselves." He defied the court order for several days.

Meanwhile Mugabe remained silent even after the black and white justices of the country's Supreme Court petitioned him formally to affirm the rule of law and denounce torture. Their pleading, and the strong diplomatic protests of the United States, the European Union, Britain, and South Africa have so far availed little.

The International Monetary Fund - on which Zimbabwe depends for balance-of- payments support and structural-adjustment funds - has more leverage. Washington is urging the IMF to withhold a pending release of $53 million.

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The Zimbabwe government has had only two responses to date to its growing crisis of legitimacy. The first consists of threatening opponents and warning the independent press off sensitive issues. The second, bizarrely, is the formation of a task force to "polish the government's battered image." Perceiving that Mugabe's dictatorial decisions, his refusal to accept criticism, and the government's blatant torture of opponents might somehow have tarnished the image of the government, the task force is charged with improving "the credibility of the nation abroad."

No task force can cover up the mess in which Zimbabwe now finds itself. Mugabe's regime has become increasingly erratic and dictatorial. Only his replacement or departure can bring back respect for the rule of law and economic rationality.

*Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass. He returned last week from Zimbabwe.

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