Hornbill Unleashed

December 28, 2009

Zimbabwe, Tale of a Failed State

Filed under: Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:01 AM
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By Kenny Gan

Rhodesia was a British colony in Southern Africa until Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965 and ruled as its first Prime Minister, heading a white minority government. In 1980, power was handed over to the natives after a bruising civil rebellion which took 30,000 lives. In that year, Robert Mugabe’s party won the elections and he went from rebel leader to its first President. The country was renamed Zimbabwe, meaning “great houses of stone” in the Shona language.

The Jewel of Africa

The newly liberated country had many advantages left by its former white masters, including excellent infrastructure, transportation and banking systems and the best health care and education system in Africa. The Z$ was stronger than the US dollar. It had the highest literacy rate in Africa which reached 85 percent at its peak.

Zimbabwe also enjoyed bountiful natural resources, with rich minerals including platinum, gold and diamonds. It is the home of Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It contains vast game reserves, which attracts tourists. With the most fertile farmlands in the continent, agriculture became the mainstay of the economy, and the country became the breadbasket of Africa exporting wheat, tobacco, corn, sugarcane and beef to its neighbours and beyond.

Agriculture destroyed

Robert Mugabe acknowledged that he had inherited the “Jewel of Africa” and vowed to keep it that way. However he did not keep his promise. The country went slowly downhill from corruption, misgovernance, a pogrom against the rival Ndebele tribe and a senseless war with Congo which bled the country. But Zimbabwe still held up well until 2000, when Mugabe’s popularity began to slip and he lost an important constitutional vote. In his efforts to cling on to power, the country slid into the gutter.

Mugabe blamed the white farmers for supporting the opposition and immediately undertook fast-track land reform in 2000. This literally meant confiscating the best farms from white farmers and giving them to Mugabe’s cronies, few of whom had any interest in farming. As a result, agriculture virtually collapsed in a few short years, leaving a trail of economic destruction. From the fastest growing economy in Africa, Zimbabwe became the fastest shrinking economy in the world, beating many war-torn countries in the process.


The government’s tax base collapsed in tandem with agriculture. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe tried to make up the deficit by printing money. This led to the predictable effect of hyperinflation. Inflation reached 1000% in 2006, 10,000% in 2007 and quickly escalated beyond any attempt to quantify it. The Zimbabwe currency became worthless, with the citizens having to carry sacks of cash around for common goods. The government responded by first removing 3 zeros from its currency, then 10 zeros, then 12 zeros, before finally abandoning it officially in favour of foreign currencies.

Beyond the hyperinflation figures is a tale of sordid human misery and abject suffering. Crippling fuel and electricity shortages due to the lack of foreign exchange dealt further hammer blows to the economy and made life difficult. Water supply in even the largest cities shrank well below user requirements due to lack of money to buy water treatment chemicals. Water shortages resulted in sanitation problems and a cholera epidemic.

Healthcare and education collapsed. Unemployment reached 90% and those who still had jobs were commonly earning less than the cost of transport to get them to work. An estimated 50% of the population left the country to work illegally in neighbouring countries, and took with them most of the skills which the country badly needed.

The government tried to legislate against inflation by imposing price controls and goods disappeared from the shelves.  Zimbabweans had to cross the border to buy groceries or obtain them from the black market at high prices. To compound the suffering, the public was only allowed to withdraw a meagre amount each day from their bank accounts which often covered little more than their transport. Long queues formed daily outside banks before dawn. Many who could not access the money in their accounts for medical emergencies died.

Those who did not have access to foreign currency or did not have somebody outside the country supporting them starved. Nurses stole food from hospital patients and teachers sold trinkets or turned to prostitution to supplement their income. Malnutrition, previously unknown, became widespread and only the effort of international aid agencies prevented a major human catastrophe. From the highest life expectancy in Africa, Zimbabwe plunged to the lowest, at 34 for women and 37 for men.

Unity government of last resort

How did the 87 year old Mugabe hold on to power, while Zimbabwe declined from the bread basket of Africa to a basket case? Of course he could not do it alone. He had the assistance of an inner circle of ministers, commanders and administrators whom he pampered with the good life even as the people starved. He ran a huge secret police called the CIO to intimidate and oppress dissidents. Open violence was inflicted on opposition supporters by a youth militia and the violence escalated during elections. The government controlled all the mass media and food and grain were also used as election chips.

Despite the violence and the sham, Mugabe somehow managed to lose the parliamentary majority to the opposition in the 2008 election and did not manage to win the Presidential contest outright. As none of the Presidential candidates won at least 50% of the votes, a second run-off was required which Mugabe won by default after his opponent withdrew to save his supporters unspeakable violence.

Aware that the country was on its last legs, and with the civil service on the point of collapse, Mugabe agreed to a unity government brokered by the SADC, a loose alliance of nine governments in Southern Africa. He held on this his post as President while his political rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who yielded the Presidential contest to him, was appointed Prime Minister.

However the opposition in the unity government have little power and the wily Mugabe still controls all the strings, while using the unity government to scour aid from the West to prop up his regime. Goods have returned to the shops but only for those with foreign currency. As for parliament, Mugabe is striving to wipe out the opposition’s thin majority by dragging opposition MPs to court on trumped up charges.

Lessons from Zimbabwe

Although we may view the fall of Zimbabwe from the most promising nation in Africa to a failed state with fascinated horror, it must come with the chilling realization that no country, however prosperous, is immune to ending up like it, through bad governance.

Zimbabwe had a democratic system of parliamentary elections and a vibrant middle class. Within a space of only six years, the middle class was wiped out and impoverished, leaving only the desperately poor and the rich elite. It happened so fast that people still retain fresh memories of the good life before the calamitous fall.

Mugabe used the state apparatus to intimidate the citizens from rising up against him. But he was aided by the fact that Zimbabweans are probably the most docile people in the world, who accepted the most painful government edicts with stoic resignation. Such suffering inflicted on the public in most other countries would have led to riots and a change of government long before things got so bad, irrespective of the instruments of intimidation used.

The seeds of the Zimbabwe tragedy were sown by the breakdown of the rule of law, the bastardization of the institutions of democracy to serve the ruling party, unchecked corruption by the elite and wanton plundering and wastage of national resources. The people were ruthlessly exploited by a ruling elite who had no intention of giving up power or their luxurious lifestyle. Does this sound familiar in Malaysia?

We must be aware that a President or Prime Minister who is too powerful can wreak untold damage on his country. A system of checks and balances is critical to control a leader who is drunk on power and unable to give it up. If such a system is weak or non-existent, the country is in danger.

The best defence that a country can have against ending up like Zimbabwe is the vigilance of its citizens and the strengthening of the rule of law and democratic institutions. By far the best way to maintain a healthy democracy is a robust two-party system, where the ruling party has to compete for the votes of the citizens to remain in power.

Malaysia is no Zimbabwe, but nobody should think we are immune from suffering Zimbabwe’s fate.


  1. Malaysia dreams the Zimbabwe dream.
    40% of the nations budget comes from oil and in 2014, malaysia will become a net importer of oil. Zimbabwe became a basket case, when it primary commodity stopped making money ie agriculture. In malaysia’s case it is oil.

    So 2014 will mark the end of the malaysian dream.

    Comment by PoliticoCat — January 10, 2010 @ 6:56 PM | Reply

  2. […] Zimbabwe, Tale of a Failed State By Kenny Gan Rhodesia was a British colony in Southern Africa until Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from […] […]

    Pingback by Top Posts — WordPress.com — December 30, 2009 @ 8:09 AM | Reply

  3. Malaysia will not become another Zimbabwe unless the BN govt does something really stupid and drastic like confiscating businesses from Chinese or printing money wantonly BUT….

    …there is 90% chance that we will become a poverty stricken maid exporting country like Indonesia and Philippines if BN continue to rule for the next 20 years.

    IMO almost impossible to escape this fate under BN.

    Comment by Kei — December 29, 2009 @ 1:35 PM | Reply

  4. It is impossible for a BN government to prevent Malaysia from becoming another Zimbabwe. Some leaders are trying hard to stop the rot but the cancer is too deep and widespread.
    The best hope for Malaysians is to change the government by voting the opposition but the road to recovery will be hard and painful.
    So we have a choice – stay with BN and become the next Zimbabwe or change the government and hope the majority of the civil service and the police will accept the change without sabotaging the new government.

    Comment by HJ Angus — December 29, 2009 @ 1:07 AM | Reply

  5. Mugabe practises divide-and-rule with an expertise the bumbling Brits could only dream of. He deliberately destroyed the middle class and left only a tiny élite and a large class of desperate poor. This is the Burma model also. I think we Malaysians have hope, because our middle class is hardly naive in politics, and they have a lot to defend. I would call a Dayak with two acres of rubber-trees a stakeholder who has a lot to lose by bad governance.

    Comment by 'Nother fellow — December 28, 2009 @ 8:19 PM | Reply

  6. I wish the BN’s leaders read this article!!!

    Comment by chan ching — December 28, 2009 @ 2:25 PM | Reply

  7. Malaysia and Zimbabwe have strong common bond. Besides both being ex-British colonies, the countriess are linked by finest timbers. hope the latter country’s collapse is not caused by the termite-infested timber which the Malaysian strongman sent to the African country to build palace.

    On a serious note, had it not because of presence of oil Malaysia might also had gone down the same way. Malaysia now depends on more than 40% on oil revenue. Unless we wake up, sooner or later we might be down with Zimbabwe. The Chinese has a saying: “Sit and EAT, the Mountain Will Collapse.”

    Comment by Concerned Citien — December 28, 2009 @ 1:48 PM | Reply

  8. […] 28, 2009 Never write anyone off. The Malaysian political landscape has changed dramatically ever since 308 and this is due to the persistence of Anwar Ibrahim in his quests to be the next Prime Minister of […]

    Pingback by Anwars”Political Whirlpool” Voon and Philip….??” « Audie61’s Weblog — December 28, 2009 @ 11:44 AM | Reply

  9. So, there is 1 day that most of the non-bumi left the malaysia like Zimbabwe. How will Malaysia look like after that. Imagine, 90% of shops & hypermarket outlets are running by non-bumi, now become emtpy. When you go to the street, you feel very quiet, even can hear a lot birds singing. When you go to Jusco, you can only see few outlets open, where you will go out immediately because nothing to be shop anymore.
    When you go to factory area, you will only see few giant company like Intel, Proton, Flextronicx are still operating, others closed.
    When you go to second hand car sales outlet, you will cars are fully parked, with Honda Accord may sale for rm5k because the market has totally collapped.
    You will only live is still ususal in Kelantan & Terengganu. Why? These states are still depends on agricultural sectors, and bumi is consists of 90% of the population. So, not much changes in these states.
    So, this may be the situation if the non-bumi, especially the middle class have been wiped out.
    Oh! sorry, i’m igamine too much already…….

    Comment by vp — December 28, 2009 @ 11:40 AM | Reply

    • u forgot about: all u can see is burger stalls and goreng pisang stalls…. kakakakakakaka

      Comment by LJ — December 29, 2009 @ 5:43 PM | Reply

    • Reply to comment no. 10: Don’t you worry! When the non-Malays migrate overseas leaving their businesses behind, Malays will happily take over those businesses and run them even better. Make makes you think the Malays are stupid?

      Comment by datuk bendahara — February 23, 2013 @ 1:33 AM | Reply

  10. The road to Zimbabwe begins with a breakdown in the rule of law. With our judiciary in shambles we are well advanced on that road.

    Yes there are many aspects of Malaysia that is similar to Zimbabwe. All our democratic institutions have been severely compromised. The police and MACC serve the ruling party. Corruption is rampant and no serious will to rein it in. We are wasting money on useless projects which are vehicles for the elite to siphon public money.

    In Zimbabwe, the steep slide began when agriculture was destroyed. In Malaysia will we start sliding when oil runs out? In 2008 40% of the govt’s revenue came from Petronas. Will BN start to debase the ringgit by printing money to finance its deficit and plunder?

    God help us! But God did not help Zimbabwe so it may be up to Malaysians to make a difference. If Malaysians are as docile as Zimbabweans we will suffer Zimbabwe’s fate.

    Comment by KB — December 28, 2009 @ 11:02 AM | Reply

    • those kampung bumis – wake up and stop voting for BN.

      Comment by LJ — December 29, 2009 @ 5:45 PM | Reply

  11. Nothing Suprise, Mahathir good friend…..Mugabe.

    Comment by beegees — December 28, 2009 @ 10:09 AM | Reply

  12. It is not too late for Malaysia. Each one of us can still make a difference. Collectively, each person’s individual action can force change for the better. Do something positive, no matter how humble. Do get all your friends, and your friends’ friends, to register to vote for GE13. Remember, we must not be taken for granted by our politicians, no matter from which side of the divide. Kenny Gan is dead on target. Politicians must compete for our vote and for that, they had better look after our interest first. Not their own selfish ends. BN or PR, the best political coalition is the one that has the people’s interest at heart, not one that takes us for a ride. Vote for a 2 party system that provides check and balance.

    Comment by clearwater — December 28, 2009 @ 9:10 AM | Reply

    • Those who are saying it’s not too late are either too afraid of the consequences or don’t know how bad the situation is.

      1. Malaysia stays afloat, for now, mainly because of the oil.

      2. When oil dries up, and it is drying up very fast, Malaysia won’t have anything to fall back to.

      3. Do you know how much we are still owing the world community?

      4. If you factor up everything you would know that the value of RM is not RM3.50 to 1.00USD, but around the vicinity of RM35.00 to 1.00USD.

      5. What would happen if the real truth comes up tomorrow? How many of our people can tahan the sudden hyper-inflation? How much riots will ensure? How many people have to die in the violence?

      6. And the end result is more talented people of all race will move out, leaving behind retards and half-retards. And by the end of the day, Malaysia will become a basket case.

      Comment by kalambong — December 28, 2009 @ 10:00 AM | Reply

      • kalambong,
        Some choose to stay and fight for a better day for themselves, their children and their fellow Malaysians. Some have little choice but to stay, whatever they may feel. If the situation is as bad and hopeless as you believe it to be, by all means do move out if you can and have not done so. I believe things are bad but not beyond redemption and this country and its people are worth fighting for and a basket case scenario is not a forgone conclusion. In the late 80’s there was a spike in migration for well documented reasons but many who left came back to Malaysia. It is a personal choice, staying or leaving, and a choice that should be respected for the sacrifices that it demands.

        Comment by clearwater — December 28, 2009 @ 11:46 AM | Reply

  13. That is why many are leaving the country. Malaysia is sliding towards that of Zimbabwe. All the signs are there.

    Comment by ExResident — December 28, 2009 @ 5:32 AM | Reply

  14. If UMNO/BN continue to rule for another 10 years, Malaysia will be the next Zimbabwe. It has been on its way to be the next Zimbabwe for the last 20 or so years, so Mahathir’s vision 2020 of Zimbabwe will be achieved at the present rate of progress.It’s time to start stocking up on foreign currencies. UMNO’s elite has been transferring millions overseas for decades. Even the MB for NS has been squirreling away his ill gotten wealth in another country.

    Comment by mycuntree — December 28, 2009 @ 3:44 AM | Reply

  15. To save Malaysia please Vote UMNO/BN out…!!

    Comment by abu sayab — December 28, 2009 @ 2:46 AM | Reply

  16. Zimbabwe has a fan. Malaysia.
    We’re doomed.

    Comment by Billy Tan — December 28, 2009 @ 1:13 AM | Reply

  17. Malaysia is no Zimbabwe but not very far off!! You can see for yourself the similarity of the nepotism , cronyism, the racism and all the supposedly independent government institution. Locking up government critics without trial. Persecuting political opponents with trump up charges, Murdering witness under interrogation, falsify evidence ect……….If the UMNo continues to rule then we will reach there sooner than you may think!

    Comment by StevenO — December 28, 2009 @ 12:57 AM | Reply

  18. Chilling and scary! It took just six years of corruption and bad Governance to bring a country down to its feet and to bring untold sufferings to its people.

    What Malaysia is going through at this point of time is exactly what happened to Rhodesia. No wonder educated Malaysians like Constitutional Law Expert,Abd Aziz Bari had qualified that Malaysia is Zimbabwe. That too they did not have the missing jet engines! Altantuya, TBH, VK Lingam, PKFZ and the list goes on……..

    It means in just a matter of time, let us put it three to four years, Malaysia will be in the same league? Scary, scary, because everything that occured in Rhodesia is so similar to Malaysia. First the brain drain, more than 300,000 left last year. Is it the signal for more to come? What will middle class Malaysia be? Is there a chance for Malaysia to escape this catastrophe? Will electing the opposition help? What if the current PM is like Mugabe? Is there hope for Malaysia? Oh…. just too similar, what is happening in Malaysia is just too similar to what happened to Zimbabwe. We were blessed with so many natural riches but we squandered them all through whatever means. Our education system is sick, our judiciary is tainted, our police and Macc is so suspiciously similar to those in Zimbabwe. What will happen? It is for all to see.

    Comment by 1Malaysia — December 28, 2009 @ 12:56 AM | Reply

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