Zimbabwe's Mugabe Is Out, But the Policies That Destroyed Zimbabwe Are Still In

Bad policies make bad men more dangerous.


Belal Khaled/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

Robert Mugabe finally resigned as president of Zimbabwe this week, leading to celebrations in the streets. But those celebrations are likely to be short-lived: Mugabe may be gone, but his authoritarian system of government remains firmly in place.

Zimbabwe's military did not force the 93-year-old dictator from office because of the human rights abuses and disastrous economic policies that marked his 37 years of rule. It acted because Mugabe replaced his longtime vice president and presumptive successor, Emmanuel Mnangagwa, with his 52-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe.

Mnangagwa is on his way back to Zimbabwe and is expected to be sworn in as president Friday.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claims that Zimbabwe now has an "extraordinary opportunity to set itself on a new path." But Mnangagwa, whose aides call him Comrade and whose nickname is The Crocodile, is unlikely to offer a substantially different sort of rule. As Todd Moss of the Centre for Global Development pointed out to Australia's ABC News, "Zimbabweans know Mnangagwa is the architect of the Matabeland massacres and that he abetted Mugabe's looting of the country."

Mugabe's signature move was seizing land from white farmers and claiming to redistribute it to poor blacks. (In fact he used the land to reward his allies and supporters.) He crippled the economy with hyperinflation, imposed tariffs that dried up trade, and increased government spending from 32.5 percent of GDP in 1979 to more than 44 percent in 1989. Meanwhile he capped interest rates and borrowed liberally to cover his spending, fueling more inflation and making capital hard to access for those not favored by the regime. His labor rules made it virtually impossible to fire workers, which hurt independent businesses but didn't keep the official unemployment rate from reaching 60 percent. Indeed, his party went out of its way to suppress the creation of independent African businesses, fearing that they would threaten its political power. With the economy devastated, Zimbabweans have had to rely on black markets to stay afloat.

Back in 2002, Reason's Ronald Bailey laid out how a government could centrally plan itself into poverty. A couple of years ago he noted that Mugabe had seemingly taken it as a playbook, bringing millions of people to the brink of starvation.

Sadly, ruinous policies like Mugabe's remain popular. Earlier this year, South Africa's Jacob Zuma expressed interest in accelerating "land reforms" that redistribute farmland to his allies. Even in the West, the kind of policies that ruined Zimbabwe—nationalization, redistribution, protectionism—persist.

Mugabe was a bad man, but his policies were even worse.