Zimbabwe is expiring, again. More banks are failing, beer sales – a key indicator – have slumped dramatically since 2013, tourist arrivals are down, and the business confidence index is at lowest ebb since the wildly inflationary days of 2008. Most tellingly, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe in January told civil servants to be patient - he “hoped” that they would soon be paid their monthly wages on a regular basis (something which had not happened often in 2014). President Mugabe also told soldiers to leave their bases on alternative months so that the government would not have to provide food and other services for them every month.

            According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe is the third poorest country in Africa with a GDP per capita about $250. Other analysts assert that Zimbabwe, on a per capita basis, inflation adjusted, is functioning economically at 1953 levels. Nearly 3 million (of 12 million) citizens have fled to South Africa and other neighboring countries. Hospitals are barely functioning. Students lack teachers, textbooks, and classrooms. Roads are full of potholes. If a civil war were to occur, Zimbabwe – once among the wealthiest and best educated of African countries – would be a classic failed state.

            Plunder has led Zimbabwe to this parlous state.  President Mugabe and his many cronies have grown immensely wealthy by taking contract “cuts,” controlling diamond and platinum concessions, stealing farms from previous (mostly white) owners, arbitraging currency (during the inflation days of 2006-2008), and giving “permits” to shady entrepreneurs.  Zimbabwe was always corrupt, but corruption began to flourish about 1995 and has grown exponentially in scale ever since.  Corruption oils the wheels of patrimonial rule and thus keeps Mugabe in power.

To access the full version of this article, please visit the Africa Program Blog, Africa Up Close.

Robert I. Rotberg is a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Founding Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.