HARARE, Zimbabwe — After presiding over this impoverished country in southern Africa for more than three decades, 91-year-old strongmanRobert Mugabe has a new plan for prosperity: exporting highly educated workers.
Authorities here recently asked millions of unemployed citizens with college degrees to register their skills with the government so that officials might secure them jobs elsewhere in the region.
It’s a desperate bid to occupy citizens who have become increasingly restive as Zimbabwe’s economy and political system have atrophied under Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled the country since it secured independence from Britain in 1980.
The Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency recently estimated that the country’s unemployment rate is 11 percent. But trade unions say the actual rate is slightly above 85 percent, a figure that corresponds with the most recent international statistics available. The country has about 16 million people.
Labor and opposition groups argue that the job export plan is another example of the Mugabe government hollowing out the economy with wrongheaded schemes. Since 1980, the Mugabe government has seized farmland, nationalized industries and devalued the country’s currency.
“More than 20,000 workers have lost their jobs in the past month alone following a Supreme Court ruling that says an employer can fire workers without any benefits,” said Japhet Moyo, general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. “Close to 700 companies have shut down [since the 2013 elections] as the business environment continues on a downward trend.”
In 2013, after winning a seventh presidential term in elections that were roundly criticized in the West, Mr. Mugabe terminated a power-sharing agreement that had allowed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to serve as prime minister.
Mr. Tsvangirai had garnered more votes than Mr. Mugabe in the first round of Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential election, a remarkable event that underscored voters’ discontent with the incumbent as he approached his twilight years.
But Mr. Tsvangirai declined to run in the second round after widespread violence and alleged government intimidation led to the deaths of 200 people, opting instead to become premier.
His ouster two years ago led to a decline in domestic business confidence and foreign investment that have battered the Zimbabwean economy.
“What needs to be done to resolve the problems that Zimbabwe is facing is a return to democracy,” said Mr. Tsvangirai. “For as long as Mugabe’s legitimacy is in question, no one will want to engage us as a nation. We need to hold free, fair and credible polls.”
‘A poor and depressing option’
Mr. Mugabe blames his country’s woes on Western sanctions imposed on him and his inner circle for alleged human rights violations and electoral fraud.
“Those illegal sanctions should be removed unconditionally because they are hurting our people,” Mr. Mugabe said at a recent event, adding thatMr. Tsvangirai’s political party, the Movement for Democratic Change, also was to blame. “The MDC invited those sanctions, and they should campaign for their lifting.”
John Robertson, an independent economist in Zimbabwe, said the country’s problems stem from Mr. Mugabe’s chaotic land reforms. Launched in 2000, the reforms displaced thousands of white commercial farmers and their laborers, wiping out a formerly productive sector of the economy and scaring off foreign capital.
“There is [a] need to ensure that those who bring in foreign direct investment are respected, but authorities are responding by crafting harsh laws, such as the black empowerment regulations,” said Mr. Robertson. “For as long as property rights have not been restored, we can as well forget about the coming in of the much-needed investors to jump-start the country’s ailing economy.”
The stalled economy has resulted in citizens like Chiedza Mahiya, 34, turning to illegal street trading to make ends meet.
“I completed my studies four years ago, and I have never worked at any company or organization since I graduated,” said Ms. Mahiya, a mother of two who said she has a degree in economics. “I have turned to selling tomatoes and secondhand clothes in the central business district so that I can be able to feed my children.”
Authorities have cracked down on street vendors, often with violence that resembles the beatings police dole out to peaceful pro-democracy activists.
To make matters worse for Ms. Mahiya and other street traders, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa recently announced a ban on the importation of secondhand clothing to reduce the country’s trade deficit. Opposition members and even some lawmakers in Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front oppose the ban.
“We have a lot of people who are surviving on selling secondhand clothes,” said ZANU-PF legislator Justice Mayor Wadyajena. “To say that we are completely banning their importation is being insensitive to the plight of our poor people.”
About 4 million Zimbabweans, or one-quarter of the population, have fled the harsh economic conditions and political unrest and sought greener pastures in Botswana, Britain and South Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration.
They’re not always welcome. In South Africa, Zimbabweans have been victims of xenophobic attacks by locals who claim they are stealing their jobs.
“We are still developing our human export policy,” he said.
But Mr. Robertson, the economist, says exporting labor will have serious ramifications for the future, adding that remittances from abroad are no substitute for economic growth.
“This is a poor and depressing option for Zimbabwe,” he said. “If we export our workforce to other countries, those people will never come back to Zimbabwe, where they would be expected to pay taxes to thegovernment. Instead, they would just be sending money to their relatives, which would not be enough to sustain the country.”