How Failed States Emerge Amid Delusional Rhetoric

By Brezh Malaba
IF anyone ever thought the Zimbabwean crisis is a strictly local affair and has no implications for the southern African region, they better think again.

Rival groups of Zimbabwean protesters on Wednesday put up a spectacle outside the Cape Town Convention Centre, venue of the World Economic Forum. The Zimbabwean crisis has consequences for the rest of Africa.

The grotesque irony is that anti-government protests have been banned by the increasingly repressive authorities in Zimbabwe. It is utterly ridiculous that people have to travel thousands of kilometres just to exercise their rights to free expression, association and assembly. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s special brand of politics was laid bare when he “advised” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to “apply a bit of force” in quelling the afrophobic violence which rocked that country this week.

But beyond the pious and self-serving condemnation of the black-on-black violence in South Africa, there is a question which most people — Mnangagwa included — are conveniently avoiding: Why are some nations rich and others poor?

Why are seven million Zimbabweans facing starvation, yet people rarely die of hunger in the desert-nation of Botswana? How come a country that brags about the highest literacy rate in Africa and a treasure trove of more than 40 precious minerals has become the biggest producer of economic refugees in this region? Is it about natural resources, geography, climate or culture? It cannot be. Botswana relies largely on one mineral — diamonds –and a bit of tourism. The Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, boasts of the most impressive array of precious minerals on the planet — but poverty and famine have pulverised the country into a catastrophic wasteland.

James A Robinson, a political scientist and an economist, is a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago. He is expected to attend a policy dialogue meeting in Harare soon. Robinson co-wrote with Daren Acemoglu, a professor of economics at MIT, the critically acclaimed Why Nations Fail, first published in 2012.

Failed nations create what the authors describe as “extractive” institutions, while the successful nations have “inclusive” policies and institutions. In this dichotomy, “inclusive” institutions are responsive and accountable to the citizens, while “extractive” institutions are deliberately rigged to enrich a chosen few and for power retention.

It is politics that shapes economic practices and institutions. This explains why President Mnangagwa — no matter how colourful he fancies his scarf to be — cannot revive Zimbabwe’s comatose economy, as long as there is a stark disconnect between his high-sounding rhetoric and the government’s autocratic crackdown on civil liberties in Harare.

In today’s Zimbabwe, the rapid rise of mafia-like cartels which are extending their tentacles throughout the economy is directly linked to a toxic brand of politics whose twin objectives are self-enrichment and power retention.

Why has Zimbabwe failed? The answer is clear: extractive political institutions plus extractive economic institutions amid governance failure equals economic disaster.

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