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Zimbabwe > Background on Zimbabwe

Previously known as Rhodesia, Zimbabwe declared its independence from the British in 1965, when white colonial ruler Ian Smith rejected crown rule. In the civil war that ensued, 30,000 lives were lost, and guerilla warfare, led by multiple groups representing the country's black majority, was conducted from Zimbabwe's surrounding nations, eventually resulting in the rise of a freedom fighter named Robert Mugabe.

After Zimbabwe's first elections were held in April 1980, Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party emerged victorious. He was named Prime Minister and since then, has held office continually—as either Prime Minister or President. Mugabe's leadership has been characterized by anti-Western positions, acts of aggression against any perceived or legitimate opposition, and an extensive patronage system that rewards a circle of loyalists while much of the country's basic infrastructure collapses. Once a model of economic progress in the region, today Zimbabwe's inflation rate soars beyond 231 million percent; unemployment sits at 94%; national schools, hospitals, roads, and sewers are largely closed or in ruin; a cholera epidemic has infected over 91,000 people; HIV/AIDS is estimated to affect nearly 25% of the adult population; and life expectancy has plummeted from 62 years for both genders in 1990 to 36 years in 2006.



By early 1983, Mugabe had removed his longtime nemesis, Joshua Nkomo, from office and launched a five-year effort to dismantle the opposition stronghold in the western Matabeleland region. He deployed the controversial Fifth Army Brigade, which operated under a different command structure than the national army, and remained above the law. According to extensive eyewitness accounts, over 20,000 were killed, often in public executions, in what some in the region call a genocide campaign against the Zulu-descendant Ndebele minority by the Shona government and its soldiers. A peace accord with Nkomo was negotiated in 1987. That same year, Mugabe was elected Zimbabwe's first President.

Since then, Mugabe has continued to respond to opposition issues with community displacement, torture, and threats via a group of loyal lieutenants known as the Joint Operations Command (JOC). In the ensuing years, the country has seen a steady deterioration of basic civil services including access to food, clean water, healthcare, sanitation, education, and other social services—many of which were once effective.

By 2000, Mugabe and the JOC reignited in earnest the reform program originally started under his 1992 Land Acquisition Act, divvying up large, white-owned farms into smaller parcels owned and operated by largely untrained black Zimbabweans. Beginning in the 1990s, confusion and inefficiency dominated the country's previously robust commercial farming sector, which was once an exporter providing 70% of the country's employment and 45% of its foreign currency. Despite traction for the moral argument supporting reacquisition, many blame Mugabe's actions for the collapse of the agriculture-based economy in Zimbabwe. Today, Zimbabwe is forced to import its grains, and more than half of the country's 13 million people require food aid to avoid starvation.

During Operation Murambatsvina, an urban slum demolition program begun in 2005, the UN estimates that some 700,000 citizens lost homes or jobs because of razing that some said targeted areas of government opposition. Mugabe's officials simultaneously claimed that the project was an effort to clear illegal settling and spark redevelopment.

Basic infrastructure in Zimbabwe has also seen a dramatic decline. Broken sewer pipes and severe water shortages in August of 2008 have been blamed for the start of a cholera epidemic that has now spread nationwide. The outbreak remains one of the largest ever recorded, with over 4,000 dead. Health services have been dismantled to such a degree that no public-sector critical care beds were operational by December 2008. As of 2003, it is estimated that over 550 new adults and children are infected with HIV per day. Citing Mugabe's mismanagement of funds, the EU imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002, and the US followed with its own in 2003.



Amid accusations of manipulating food supplies, employing youth squads to terrorize opposition forces, and arresting rivals under false charges, a 2008 round of elections saw Mugabe's ZANU-PF party lose to Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Despite this, Mugabe's government ultimately agreed only to a power-sharing coalition government with the MDC. Tsvangirai, who had refused to join the new government until arrested MDC loyalists were released and leadership terms were clearly outlined, eventually conceded to an agreement in February 2009 that saw him sworn in as Prime Minister while Mugabe stayed President.

Tensions between the two parties remain high. Tsvangirai's nominee for agricultural minister, Roy Bennett, was arrested two days after the inauguration, and a March 2009 car crash that injured Tsvangirai and killed his wife was thought by many supporters to be an assassination attempt. Nevertheless, Tsvangirai has promised to launch more detailed investigations of past atrocities and reinstall basic services that languished under Mugabe. The MDC has succeeded in coaxing many of the country's educators back to work with basic pay—in dollars—with the promise of more.

International bodies continue to monitor the coalition government, while foreign donors are faced with the challenge of how to offer critical aid for improvements while ensuring that funds are not redirected or corruputed.

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