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Excerpt: 'A Billion Lives'


Tents Are for Arabs

Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe looks older and frailer than I remembered him from photographs and film footage. He moves slowly and is thinner. He leans on the right arm of his chair for support as he speaks. As someone who campaigned against apartheid during my student years, I am slightly in awe of the hero of the liberation struggle against Ian Smith's white minority regime as he peers at me through thick glasses. I feel like a student undergoing an examination by an eminent professor.

The president is notorious for keeping people waiting and I think we have done quite well to see him by 9:15 a.m. this rainy Tuesday, December 6, 2005, after only fifteen minutes in an anteroom of the presidential palace in Harare. I know this will be one of my most difficult missions and meetings ever. Nearly three years earlier, my predecessor as UN relief coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, a more polite and diplomatic envoy than me, had been kept waiting for hours in the presidential antechambers before being lectured for an hour about UN shortcomings. This time, probably because of the international publicity surrounding my mission, we do not have to wait and it seems I will be allowed to speak uninterrupted. It is a unique opportunity to speak truth to power.

Zimbabwe was called "the jewel" and "the bread basket" of Africa after its liberation from white minority rule in 1980. The economy, the infrastructure, and the educational system were among the best on the continent. Twenty-five years later it is synonymous with economic collapse and political repression. It started at the end of the 1990s. Large and productive farms were nationalized and white farmers were forced to hand over their estates to ill-prepared veterans from the liberation struggle and political activists from Mugabe's party, the Zanu-PF.

The need for land reform in a country where a few white colonizers had claimed the best farming land is indisputable. But reform was brutally enforced in the worst possible manner for the farmers, the agricultural sector, and the population at large. Production plummeted, the black farm laborers lost their jobs, and little food made it to the markets or to foreign exports. A country that had had a large food surplus could not feed itself, and had to rely on foreign emergency aid and remittances from the growing number of Zimbabweans who have to leave the country to make a living.

As both domestic and foreign investors fled the country, a general breakdown in the rule of law fueled the economic crisis. Mugabe's government was however undeterred and continued to fund ambitious public programs that principally benefited the political and tribal groups that supported the government. To cover the enormous state budget deficits the National Bank was instructed to print additional money that created inflation, and later hyperinflation. Today the Zimbabwean economy is arguably more mismanaged than any other in peacetime.

I am primarily going to discuss the massive homeless problem Mugabe has created almost overnight through his "Operation Restore Order," a brutal eviction campaign that began seven months ago. I spent hours yesterday walking among some of the seven hundred thousand destitute and homeless people who are living under makeshift plastic sheeting or in the open after being evicted from shantytowns across Zimbabwe. The evictions were not only particularly brutal and chaotic in the way they spread throughout the country, but profoundly political, turning out many who did not support the government party and leaving urban areas to regime supporters who would like cleaner and leaner cities and less competition for jobs. Those evicted were not only among the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, many were sick with AIDS or tuberculosis.

I saw and spoke to dozens of families who had lost everything when their tiny "illegal" brick houses were bulldozed, or their small vending shacks burned and torn apart by security forces in an operation that began in May.

The presidential office is smaller and nicer than the grotesquely oversized staterooms that so many African presidents preside in. As planned, I start our discussion by describing the shocking scenes I saw in the slums of Hopely Farm, and the Whitecliff and Hatcliff suburbs on the outskirts of Harare. I explain that we need to discover how we can most rapidly and effectively help with food and shelter for the homeless.

President Mugabe carefully enunciates each syllable in his academic En­glish as though addressing someone who does not speak his language. He is immediately on the defensive. While acknowledging his awareness of "a problem," he seems intent on downplaying a situation that has scandalized the world with its callous indifference to human suffering. His most outrageous comment comes as I try to impress upon him the urgent need for emergency shelter for the thousands of families with children who are at great risk with no shelter, no food, and no income. The UN is willing to supply tents immediately as a short-term answer to the problem.

As I press, the tenor of Mugabe's calm, lecturing tone rises. There is a hint of barely repressed anger as he says, "We do not feel comfortable with the term 'shelter.' Shelter has connotations of impermanency and we build for permanency." As I seek to return to the need for immediate action he is clearly angered. "Keep your tents, we do not need them. Tents are for Arabs!" Stunned, I ask him to repeat what he said. "We want to give real houses to our people. Tents are for Arabs," he says again. It is a phrase that in its absurdity will reverberate through my office.

"We may have an accommodation problem," Mugabe continues, "but the 700,000 figure is exaggerated. People can be sheltered by their families." He embarks on a semantics lecture, suggesting the term "shelter" sends the wrong meaning: "The word connotes impermanency. We want permanent housing here. In terms of humanitarian needs it is not even as bad here as in South Africa. The South Africans have sent delegations here to learn from our housing programs.

"When I was a boy herding my godfather's cattle and it rained I looked for 'shelter' where I could find it — under a tree or in a nearby hut. That is shelter. You can provide food if you want to and build permanent houses with us, but not provide 'shelter' in the form of tents."

It is one of those situations when you do not know whether to cry, laugh, or shout. With the UN resident coordinator Agostinho Zacarias and my OCHA colleagues Agnes Asekenye-Oonyu and Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, I am failing to get the head of state to admit the gravity of the situation in his country — that his people are in desperate need of precisely the things we offer. Through the UN agencies, the International Organization for Migration, and excellent local and international NGOs, we can help meet acute emergency needs. But instead of saying "How can we help you help our people," the man wants to lecture me about the shortcomings of official UN terms and concepts!

I try to explain that there is no money for any form of more permanent housing since the donors are reluctant to help even with temporary shelter. They regard Zimbabwe's problems as the direct result of Mugabe's evictions, and his agricultural and economic policies.

"Donors will only pay for temporary shelters. They think it's indefensible that there are no tents allowed. Disaster victims accept tents in Louisiana, Florida, and in Europe. Why not here?" I ask.

"The UN is politicized," Mugabe says. "You want to provide an image of refugee camps here. Our attitude to tents is negative." Nodding from the nearby black leather sofa in Mugabe's small, white-walled office are the permanent secretary of the President's Office and the ministers of foreign affairs and defense. It is difficult to know whether he believes what he is saying because the nodding ministers never seem to tell him what he does not want to hear.

The UN is politicized, Mugabe says, because it is dominated by Britain and its stooges — among whom I, a Norwegian, am soon lumped. Mugabe is particularly angry with the UN because a field visit several months earlier by Anna Tibaijuka, the African head of UN Habitat, our organization for urban issues and housing, had first alerted the world to the full extent of Zimbabwe's housing disaster.

He suggests that Tibaijuka would be better advised to visit Nigeria, which has a far greater "cleanup" program under way than Zimbabwe. "It is clear to us that the UN is being used by Britain for political purposes," he repeats. "That is why we are sensitive to your own presence."

Mugabe's body language and that of his ministers express their profound skepticism about the motives behind the UN's work in Zimbabwe. Mugabe speaks slowly. "We are beginning to lose confidence in the United Nations and even the secretary-general."

Urban renewal campaigns and removal of unauthorized buildings and squatters take place all the time all over the world. I had, however, called Zimbabwe's eviction program "the worst possible thing at the worst possible time" when it was at its brutal height in May, June, and July. I had no interest in castigating the government of Zimbabwe. Apart from protesting against apartheid, I supported our Scandinavian assistance to the liberation struggles against the white minority regimes of both Rhodesia and South Africa. But we have to tell the truth about what is taking place in the country that President Mugabe rules.

I lean forward, seeking eye contact, and try again: "The purpose of my mission on behalf of your fellow African, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is to discuss how we can more effectively contribute to meet humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe. The challenges here are, as we all know, daunting: There are more than three million who need food assistance. There are one million orphans caused by AIDS. We are willing and able to assist the people if we know whom you will cover and if you will do more to enable the work of the humanitarian organizations. We are less effective here than in most other places due to all the restrictions on our work. We use tents in the emergency phase for the homeless in Europe, America, and Asia. Tents will only be one of the ways we would like to provide shelter to the most needy of the hundreds of thousands who are homeless. I saw thousands yesterday who have nothing. Your government housing programs are small and still not completed. Those who live under plastic sheeting or out in the open want the tents that we can provide."

"Yes," he says, fixing me with a challenging stare. "Kofi Annan is an African, but he and the organization are being used politically, or, more specifically, manipulated by Britain and Blair. Even the innocent Prince Charles is now being manipulated."

Mugabe says his government embarked long ago on a "massive housing program" at a time when people were living in shanties and housing was scarce.

"Everyone in Zimbabwe has somewhere to go, everyone is rooted somewhere in the country, in rural areas. Harare is never a permanent home and those who come from outside behave like people from other countries. We have a situation here but even in terms of humanitarian aid our needs are not as bad as South Africa's. South Africa sent a delegation here to look at our housing program," he repeats.

I tell him that I spoke to an old woman yesterday who was looking after her daughter's children because their mother had died of AIDS. I met the old lady in a hut made of plastic sheeting and branches that she had built with her grandchildren on the same spot where the security police had bulldozed her brick house. Operation Restore Order had failed to send her back to "where she came from." She had nowhere else to go. His campaign had only managed to raze the result of a lifetime's toil.

Mugabe is tired of discussing the eviction campaign and moves on. "The food system is under control. All we need," says the president of a country that was once the breadbasket of Africa, "are the agricultural imports. The situation is not as severe as people make out. We give food to everyone despite the propaganda stirred up by NGOs for political reasons. We can organize food for our people although perhaps not always of the kind that they like the most," he says. "We even provide assistance to others. We also have cattle. We sent beef to Europe..."

When I urge that his government enable the work of the essential NGOs, Mugabe remains unimpressed. "The problem with NGOs is that they cannot accept that Zimbabwe can do it better. They want to bring in their own people, outsiders, and we don't like outsiders. We have invested a lot in education and have the most highly skilled workforce in Africa."

My mission has been planned in detail with Kofi Annan and Ibrahim Gambari, former Nigerian foreign minister and currently UN undersecretary-general for political affairs. If in the course of my visit, progress can be made on providing assistance to the victims of eviction, Annan might later visit Zimbabwe to deal with political issues. At first Harare had rejected my mission, but Gambari spoke to Mugabe at an African Union meeting in October and managed to convince him to agree to see me in Zimbabwe.

Relations between the United Nations and the government are at an all-time low. Anna Tibaijuka's report concluded that the eviction campaign had made more than 110,000 families, or close to 600,000 people, homeless. More than 100,000 others had lost their principal source of income, leading to the widely quoted figure of 700,000 victims of the operation.

Relations between the donor nations and Mugabe are even frostier. The United States, United Kingdom, and other Western nations have had repeated diplomatic rows with the government. In my meeting with the ambassadors of donor countries two days earlier there was resentment against government policies. Some of the longest-serving ambassadors were even expressing a deep personal anger against the government. "We will not give any money, ever, to build housing for the evicted people," one ambassador said. "Why should we pick up the bill for the atrocities committed by the government?"

The donor meeting concluded that we could have money for tents, but not for permanent housing. Again, we humanitarians find ourselves in a political crossfire: Mugabe will not agree to tents, and the donors will only fund tents!

Ignatius Chombo, Mugabe's minister for local government, was even more blunt when I met him yesterday in my hotel: "Anna Tibaijuka is nothing but a tool in the hands of those who want to undermine us. The report is a fabrication of facts. It is the same people who attack us for taking land from the rich." The meeting with Chombo in my hotel had been an open confrontation. He refused to admit any problems when I insisted that the Tibaijuka report was the official UN line based on available facts and that the situation would only deteriorate unless there was a government policy change.

After an hour and a half in ­Mugabe's office, we are running out of time. We are due this afternoon to meet church leaders in the southern city of Bulawayo, where opposition to government policies has been strong and suppression of dissent brutal. I ask the president for a few private minutes, to which he agrees immediately. As his ministers and my UN colleagues leave, Mugabe leans forward for the first time to listen to me. "The situation is very bad and it is my impression that it will get worse unless you move from confrontation to finding common ground and new policies between yourself and international actors, including donors and the U.K. Can we in the UN help facilitate such a dialogue under the leadership of the secretary-general?"

In private Mugabe becomes less a headmaster and more a real interlocutor. "We did not want confrontation, neither with the U.K. nor with other Western powers," he says. "If you in the UN or other international actors can help provide dialogue among equals, we want to make progress." In the next few minutes we agree to set up a task force of the government, UN agencies, and selected donors to look at the reasons for Zimbabwe's disastrous food production. We agree to facilitate access for humanitarian agencies, and to start a pilot program for 2,500 temporary shelter "units" for the evicted. It is not what I had hoped for, but it is a step toward a working climate that can only improve.

I have a final issue to raise: "As you know there has been a lot of interest in my mission. I have avoided speaking to international media while here in Zimbabwe. Tomorrow in Johannesburg I will, however, have to report on what I have seen to a press conference. You may subsequently find the coverage tough, but I hope the improved dialogue to seek policy change can continue?"

"As long as you speak the truth and do not undertake the errands of others it is all right," Mugabe says. We have been talking for thirty minutes. He rises to shake my hand.

My journey to Bulawayo in a tiny single-engine plane is a nightmare as we fly through intense turbulence, falling through deep air pockets in driving rain. I arrive exhausted to a scene of misery as bad as anything I saw in Harare and accompanied by an atmosphere of suffocating political oppression. As I am meeting courageous priests and spokesmen for the homeless and poor in our hotel, my local UN contacts interrupt us with a message: "The authorities say that we must either allow them to sit in on the meeting or they will send the police to break it up."

We quickly agree that I will leave by the back door, and the clergymen will go out through the front door. In this way, I hope to avoid putting them at risk by appearing with me.

The media attention for our mission and the political fallout will soon be even greater than expected. The following day, we travel to South Africa and urge the South African deputy foreign minister to do more to encourage and enforce policy change in Zimbabwe.

Before I fly back to New York, the OCHA regional office sets up an international press conference at Johannesburg Airport. Forty journalists, including from all international news agencies and most large television networks, are in the room as I enter. As always, and as I promised Mugabe, I try to tell the simple truth, what I saw, heard, and smelled: the dramatic realities of Zimbabwe.

There is a freefall in life expectancy from more than 60 years in the early 1990s to between 30 and 40 today. The eviction campaign and the agricultural policies of the government have been "the worst possible things at the worst possible time" and have contributed to changing the country from being the breadbasket of the region, with admirable standards of living, to a place of widespread starvation — unless there is massive international assistance. I try to end my remarks on a note of optimism: "I believe the country has a real chance to turn the corner as there is more awareness nationally, regionally, and internationally, but we have to work together to change the situation."

I am then asked to characterize the social decline. I reply that the halving of life expectancy can only be described as a "meltdown." I repeat this word in a long interview with the BBC, which has set up a temporary studio next door. Harare has banned the BBC from reporting inside Zimbabwe and I know that Mugabe will not like what he hears on its television and radio broadcasts.

The president is indeed unhappy with the next ­day's banner headlines in the international and South African media: "UN envoy: Zimbabwe in meltdown." Two days later, in a stormy address to activists in his Zanu-PF party, Mugabe calls me "a liar and a hypocrite." "He came here to see our achievements, we receive him, and then he goes away telling lies about Zimbabwe to Western media. He did not even speak proper En­glish," he says in a parting shot at my Norwegian accent. Several thousand party activists stand to cheer with raised clenched fists.

The public shouting match notwithstanding, my colleagues in Harare afterward report increased dialogue on policy change in the failed Zimbabwean agricultural sector, and improved access for humanitarian organizations, including to the victims of the eviction campaigns. The World Food Programme continues its very effective and well-funded food distribution and South Africa engages more actively in helping Zimbabwe improve its dialogue with international financial institutions. But hard-liners remain in control of most policies and neither the evictions from unauthorized housing nor the equally disastrous evictions of many farmers from their well-organized farms has stopped. Kofi Annan did not go to Zimbabwe.

"I see you called it a 'meltdown,' " the secretary-general says when I call him to report. "Yes, it was actually a term that a leading Zimbabwean diplomat had used to describe the situation in his country. I thought it was a good word, considering what has happened," I answer.

Since my visit to Zimbabwe, the deep social and economic crisis has continued to worsen, while Robert ­Mugabe's regime has solidified its grip. It is the only peacetime economy that has suffered a dramatic decline of some 30 percent in recent years. Inflation has grown from 100 percent in 2003 to several thousand percent in 2007. Perhaps as many as three million have fled the economic turmoil to seek work in South Africa, Europe, and elsewhere. When I visited a clinic for people with AIDS in Zimbabwe in December 2005, I was told there are more trained Zimbabwean nurses in Manchester, En­gland, than in Harare.

The political opposition has for years been harassed, persecuted, and detained. But the political parties are also weak because of infighting that prevents the formation of any real alternative to the Zanu-PF and Mugabe. This former hero of the struggle against white minority rule has succeeded in maneuvering so that neither the African Union nor the Southern African Development Community (SADC) can or will challenge the terrible governance in Zimbabwe. In mid-2007, when its mismanagement was glaringly evident for all to see, the summit meeting of the SADC in neighboring Zambia concluded that Mugabe was doing his best to solve the problems of Zimbabwe. Since then the Zanu-PF "unanimously" selected the eighty-three-year-old Mugabe to be the only candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in 2008.

Zimbabwe is thus yet another case where those who could press for positive change, its African neighbors, look the other way. Conversely, those who once refused to support the struggle against apartheid, and still have little moral authority in this part of the world, the U.K. and the U.S., are spearheading the attacks against Mugabe. At the 2007 summit between the EU and Africa, U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown was alone in boycotting, while the African leaders felt compelled to "stand by" the symbol of Africa's inability to get rid of its worst rulers.

The international paralysis and the internal rivalries among opposition groups signal continued crisis and collapse in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is greeted with applause in many African countries because of his image of "standing up" to unpopular and rich Western powers and white estate owners. Only a united, effective, and democratic national opposition movement, supported by principled African neighbors in the SADC, and international organizations such as the AU and the UN, can foster real change. Only then can Zimbabwe regain its position as the jewel and breadbasket of Africa.

Copyright © 2008 by Jan Egeland

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jan Egeland