If I ran the world, or a popular television network (same thing, right?), I would give Zimbabwe its own series. I think it's a really interesting place.
Interesting how? Let me count the (Zimbab)ways:
1. When the United Kingdom granted Zimbabwe full independence in an April 18, 1980 ceremony, the first official act of the nation was a Bob Marley concert. Unless Las Vegas secedes from the United States with a Celine Dion concert that ends with her being eaten by one of Siegfried & Roy's white tigers, no country ever will top that.
2. Zimbabwe's first head of state was a man called President Banana. His first lady? Janet Banana. They speak English in Zimbabwe. They totally know how funny that is.
3. No country's name is more enjoyable to say. Say it out loud. Zimbabwe! It's like a party in your mouth. Zimbabwe!
Djibouti used to be my favorite country name, but booty is such a played-out word, I got tired of it. I also like the South Sandwich Islands a lot, but they're still a British protectorate, not a country.
If that's not enough to sell you on why Zimbabwe is worth paying attention to, the current state of its politics is also quite interesting — if less cheerful.
After 28 years of badly running the country (first as prime minister, and since President Banana's departure in 1987, as president), it looks as if 84-year-old Robert Mugabe is loosening his grip on power. Not losing. Just loosening.
On March 29, Zimbabwe held presidential and parliamentary elections — the first since 2002.
As of press time, the outcome of the elections is unclear. The government won't release the full results.
If Zimbabwe were a real democracy, the outcome would not have been in doubt. Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party would have been tossed aside and probably prosecuted. They've spent this century destroying Zimbabwe's economy with their greed, power lust and incompetence.
In 2000, Mugabe and his party rewrote the country's constitution to allow Mugabe to run for two more terms. He was 76 years old and, basically, he was rewriting the constitution to legalize his desire to be president-for-life.
The constitution also allowed the seizure of land, without compensation, from Zimbabwe's white farmers. These farmers were left over from Zimbabwe's days as a British colony.
In the 1980s and '90s, Zimbabwe's largely white-run farms were quite productive. Zimbabwe was a net food exporter and agriculture was its economic engine. That's not to downplay the horrific moral, political and economic costs of European colonization. It's just that land redistribution needed to be done sensitively and smartly to avoid wrecking the economy.
Needless to say, it was done hastily and stupidly. Mugabe handed productive farm land to his supporters — regardless of whether they actually knew how to operate a farm.
Surprise! Zimbabwe's agricultural production plummeted. A food exporter in the 1990s, today roughly 1/3 of Zimbabweans rely on food aid donated from overseas to live. Since 2000, no country's GDP has shrunken more than Zimbabwe's. Roughly 25 percent of the country's population has left.
The Mugabe regime has compounded the problem. It keeps printing money, which has triggered mind-blowing inflation. Zimbabwe's currency is worthless. Inflation in February 2008 in Zimbabwe was 100,000 percent. A British journalist who arrived in Zimbabwe on election day says the exchange rate was 20 million Zimbabwean dollars for each U.S. dollar. Four days later, it was 40 million. A loaf of bread in Zimbabwe costs 7 million Zimbabwean dollars.
The government admits the opposition won a parliamentary plurality, but won't release the results of the presidential vote. Mugabe is going to claim that no one won a majority in the presidential vote, so there will be a second vote.
Expect Mugabe's armed goon squads to rough up opposition leaders and supporters before that vote. The best hope for a peaceful transfer of power is if Mugabe's party reads the writing on the wall and dumps him. It's possible, but don't bank on it. Mugabe hasn't stayed in power for 28 years by being a pushover.