Success in a rough neighbourhood

It is amazing how fast a country can heal under the right hands. A return to the economic prosperity of the mid-1990s, or even the early 1970s, may take time; Zimbabwe can come right.

People often cite Mozambique and Zambia as examples of basket cases that have been turned around, but I have not been impressed by either. The Portuguese, for all their errors, turned Mozambique into a major producer of cashews. They established world-class national parks and a good network of roads and railways. The late Samora Machel destroyed all that.

His successor, Joachim Chissano, worked hard to undo the damage, but the country still falls way short of its potential. Corruption is rampant, from village officials demanding bribes for cattle permits to big amounts changing­ hands for government contracts in Maputo. Mozambique has improved on the disaster created by Frelimo in its early days, but it is hardly an example to others.

Zambia was dragged down by the bumbling one-party state of Kenneth Kaunda. From 1992, his successor, Frederick Chiluba, corrupted what had been an honestly incompetent public sector. President Levy Mwanawasa is doing his best to make up for almost four lost decades since independence. By the end of his term in 2011, we might see Zambia as a new model for Africa to follow, but the jury is still out.

If I sound like an Afro-pessimist, nothing could be more wrong. There are countries that serve as examples of what can be achieved in a new Zimbabwe.

In 2004, I was in Kigali to report on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. It was my first visit to Rwanda. What a surprise!

It’s easy to imagine that the 10 weeks of slaughter in 1994 were the time when Rwanda collapsed, but the previous 32 years since independence from Belgium had been a disaster. Colonial infrastructure decayed, roads washed away, the forests were cut down. Rwanda quickly became a dictatorship with few economic prospects. The media fell under state control and personal freedoms withered.

In July 1994, Paul Kagame’s forces overthrew the government in Kigali and stopped the genocide. They took command of a failed state—littered with corpses. Today you would hardly know it. Step off the street into a call box and the phone rings out. Tarred roads link all parts of the country, investment is growing faster than anywhere else in East Africa, and the currency is stable.

As early as 2000, GDP had jumped by almost 50%. Rwanda is an easy place to do business and probably the most crime-free country in Africa.

These are the decisive factors in the transformation wrought by Kagame:

  • depoliticising the police and public service;

  • bringing talent home from exile;

  • punishing corruption;

  • creating a relatively transparent government;

  • fostering growth in the private sector;

  • minimising demands for “local ownership”;

  • lifting most restrictions on foreign exchange; and

  • healing old wounds through legal trials for human-rights abusers.
These are all challenges that face Zimbabwe.

Rwanda is almost a textbook case to follow—but not entirely. Kagame’s biggest error has been to jail political opponents on spurious grounds. He has sought to limit freedom of the press by passing two acts of repressive legislation, provoking genuine resentment of his heavy-handed tactics.

There is a risk that these laws could undo Kagame’s government. The example of Singapore suggests that authoritarian rule can last if there is sufficient prosperity so that people don’t care. Not in Rwanda. At least a third of the country’s population live on less than $1 a day. But, in spite of these mistakes, Kagame has forged a template for rebuilding a nation from scratch.

The other example is less known, but even more impressive. The former British Somaliland achieved independence in 1960 and, a week later, joined with Italian Somaliland in the south to create Somalia.

The marriage was a disaster, with southerners in Mogadishu dominating the government. Under the one-party rule of president Siad Barre, festering resentments culminated in genocide in the north of the country. When a coup dislodged Barre in 1991, warlords took over the south, and the country became partitioned.

Somaliland seized the chance to declare unilateral independence, on May 18 1991. To this day, no other nation formally recognises the government in Hargeisa. But most countries accept their passports. At Ghana’s celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of independence of March this year, Somaliland President Dahir Riyale Kahin was received with full honours accorded a head of state.

Somalilanders are rightly proud of their achievements. Whereas in Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, you can barely move without finding your path obstructed by an AK-47, the only rifles I saw in Hargeisa were in the hands of soldiers. They were courteous, disciplined and well turned out.

As in Rwanda, the phones work and roads are reasonably good. Private capital is pouring in, mostly from Somalilanders living abroad. Somaliland has a GDP more than double that of Somalia, which is, geographically, four times as large.

I was struck by the example of sound governance and administration in Somaliland when I covered its general election of September 2005. If only Zimbabwe could have an election like that—with parties free to campaign, a total absence of intimidation, daily newspapers and even a TV station in private hands.

The achievement is especially striking, given the country’s brutal history. On the sandy banks of the Maroodijeex River that runs through Hargeisa, I walked among thousands of human bones. These are the skeletons of men, women and children gunned down by Barre’s troops.

Today those war criminals have retreated south of the Somaliland border. Unlike Rwanda, there have been few trials. The absence of justice leaves an air of unfinished business. Zimbabwe too will have to bring the killers and torturers to justice before lasting peace can be found.

There are other serpents in Somaliland. The environment has been ravaged. Read the accounts of district commissioners from the 1920s and Somaliland claimed a profuse variety of forests, savannahs and wildlife—including the Big Five—to rival Kenya.

Today almost the entire country has been stumped, top soil has washed into the Gulf of Aden and you would be lucky to spot a rabbit on the barren plains. Ironically, perhaps, Somaliland is luring displaced Zimbabweans to settle and set up an agricultural sector.

Doctors are in chronically short supply. Literacy rates are improving, but still below 50%. In common with Rwanda and Zimbabwe, research suggests that much of the population suffers from post-traumatic stress—a measure of the brutality they have either witnessed or experienced.

Press freedoms are fragile. Earlier this year, Somaliland’s leading independent daily newspaper, Haatuf, was closed down and four of its journalists jailed. Haatuf had published allegations of misuse of government property by the president and his family.

The journalists were “pardoned” after an outcry by human rights groups, but the incident has damaged the country’s standing. Even so, political life in Somaliland is more democratic than in many Africa states. Administration is effective. From all I saw, the territory has a great future.

A new Zimbabwe can learn from these examples. There will need to be a return of exiles and their money and a rush of new capital. To achieve this, there must be freedom—both political and civil, an end to corruption, a new police force and space for the media to operate without interference.

Can Zimbabwe be rebuilt in the short term? Yes, definitely yes! Rwanda and Somaliland are proof.

Geoff Hill is bureau chief Africa for the Washington Times and author of What Happens After Mugabe? (Zebra-New Holland)



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