Things are getting bad in Zimbabwe. Really bad. As if the collapse of the economy or the rigging of the elections by Mugabe wasn't bad enough, now the one-time breadbasket of Africa is being stricken with an outbreak of cholera. 565 people have died so far, and the government is reporting 12,500 infected; clean water is unavailable in the capital city of Harare and the government does not have the chemicals necessary for purification. The deteriorating health conditions, along with the general mess that is the economy -- the inflation rate currently stands at 231 MILLION %!!! -- led more than 100 health care workers to march on the capital, demanding better pay and working conditions. The march was broken up by police wielding batons; several protesters were beaten, at least 15 were arrested. Perhaps even more troubling are reports that Zimbabwean troops are beginning to join the protests:
So far, despite how bad conditions have been inside of Zimbabwe, the government has been able to maintain order. But it looks as if even that may be at an end. A government relies on a mix of force and legitimacy to maintain order. For a democracy, legitimacy is more an important; for an authoritarian regime, it's force that matters more. But all governments need both. When legitimacy collapses, it becomes necessary to use increasing levels of force to hold on to power and maintain order. But as levels of force rise, it becomes even harder to maintain legitimacy, even with the police and soldiers being used to exert force. At some point, the soldiers become unwilling to use force against their fellow citizens and families. For different regimes, this point comes at different times. China was willing to use large levels of force to hold on to power during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, while the governments of Eastern Europe collapsed without so much as a whimper of protest.
To add to the chaos, soldiers, angered at the meagerness of their deflated pay, on Monday rampaged through central Harare, breaking windows, looting stores and robbing the money changers who deal in foreign currency. Armed police had to disperse the marauding troops with tear gas.
If the civil order essentially breaks down as cholera spreads and people are unable to get money for food or basic health care, the army, the police, and the government will have to decide how much force they are willing to use to hold on to a crumbling state. I certainly don't know how far Mugabe will go to hold on to power. Or to put it more precisely, how much will police and army will be willing to do. But, reports such as these indicate that the end of Mugabe's reign may be near. And while the collapse may be ugly, it can't come too soon.
It's not clear what will happen if the regime does, in fact, collapse in the near future. Even if opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is able to take power, what can be done at the point? It's time for the international community -- most likely the UN working in conjunction with the Southern African Development Community or the African Union -- to place Zimbabwe into some kind of receivership. It will be messy, lots of people will likely die in the regime's death throes, and between the collapsed economy, the political turmoil, and the disease, there's not much on which to build. But there's not much choice. Zimbabwe's collapse will mean disaster for southern Africa. Immigrants, disease, ethnic violence...all are likely if swift action isn't taken. The UN should be readying a peacekeeping force now for immediate deployment to Zimbabwe to take control of the situation if and when the government collapses.