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By Global Public Square staff
Zimbabwe's finance minister made a remarkably honest disclosure last week. Tendai Biti told reporters that his government had very little money left in its public account, $217 U.S. to be exact; no, not $217 million or billion, $217.
Zimbabwe has made these kinds of headlines before. At one point in 2008, annual inflation hit an estimated 96 sextillion percent. This the number 9 followed by 22 zeros. The Central Bank was forced to print a $100 trillion note which now sells on EBay for a few U.S. dollars.
But once Zimbabweans adopted American currency as legal tender, hyperinflation stopped and the economy stabilized. According to the International Monetary Fund, GDP grew by more 6 percent in 2009 and then nearly 10 percent for each of the next two years.
It is now projected to grow around 5 percent per year through 2014. So, despite the seemingly robust growth, why does this nation of 13 million people have $217 in its state coffers? What in the world is going on?
We should add that Zimbabwe’s finance minister later clarified that $30 million had been added to the government’s account since he last spoke. But even that amount is a pittance for a modern state.
It is, however, a telling symbol of Zimbabwe's status. Imagine asking a multinational company to invest in Zimbabwe. Transparency International puts this country at 163 in the world in its latest corruption rankings. The World Bank ranks it 172 for ease of doing business. Zimbabwe has gone from being Africa's breadbasket to its basket case. The country’s basic problem is not economic, but political.
Zimbabwe has known only one real leader in all its existence – Robert Mugabe, the man who helped the country gain independence in 1980. Mugabe will be 89 this February and he’s made clear he wants to contest elections once again this year. The man who could challenge him, opposition leader, Moran Tsvangirai, is currently the prime minister, a post that was created in the last election in a power-sharing deal. But Tsvangirai’s power and influence is severely limited.
Mugabe and his ZANU PF party control many of the most important ministries as well as the police and military. As with the last election, many observers expect violence, threats and bribery to influence how people to vote.
Meanwhile, the ruling party continues to steal this poor country blind. In November, a Canadian watchdog alleged that more than $2 billion worth of diamonds have gone missing in Zimbabwe since 2008.
And it's not just diamonds. Tendai Biti, the same guy who raised the alarm about the state’s finances, told a newspaper last year that the mining sector produced exports totaling $2.5 billion in 2011.
But only $150 million of that went to the government's official coffers. That’s 94 percent of revenue missing, and even the country's finance minister doesn't know what happened. Where does this money go? Average Zimbabweans hear reports of how $1 million was spent on President Mugabe's lavish 88th birthday last year. Meanwhile, the national per capita income is barely more than a dollar a day.
If elections this year were truly free and fair, we could expect big changes. But don't expect fair elections this year, unless the world polices it very carefully. Zimbabwe has disappeared from the front pages, but the tragedy in that country continues.