Zimbabwe and Leaders’ Global Responsibilities
It’s among the worst places in the world to live. In recent years the situation’s gone from very bad to even worse. And in recent months it’s hit rock bottom.
Among the different countries on the African continent, Zimbabwe is, or should have been, among the most advantaged. After it gained independence – formerly it was Rhodesia – there was reason for optimism. The English had left behind a good infrastructure, arable land was plentiful and producing surplus for export, and natural resources were in abundant supply.
Instead, under the ghastly leadership of Robert Mugabe, the now 84-year-old liberation hero who has been in power for almost three decades, Zimbabwe has dropped slowly but certainly to the bottom of the heap. Since 2000 well over five million people have left the country. There is nearly nothing to eat and no work to be had. Despair and decay are everywhere. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world (mid thirties). Inflation is the highest in the world. And there are more orphans per capita in Zimbabwe than anywhere else on the planet.
Moreover in his old age, Mugabe has gone mad. How else to describe a leader who is so desperate for power that he will do whatever it takes to keep it, up to and including murder and mayhem. As the New York Times summarized the situation, the presidential runoff election scheduled for Friday has been preceded by “a calculated campaign of bloodletting meant to intimidate the opposition and strip it of some of its most valuable foot soldiers.” Things got so bad that Mugabe’s main rival quit the race, saying he could no longer take part in the “violent, illegitimate sham of a process,” nor could he ask of others that they risk their lives on his behalf.
But this grim and grisly story is much less about Mugabe, who is a fiendish freak of nature, than it is about other leaders, who years ago should have weakened and even disabled him. Highest on the list is South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, who stood by and watched as the situation next door deteriorated. To be sure, Mbeki was in good company – other African leaders did no more. But South Africa is the strongest country by far in the region. So Mbeki’s passivity sent a signal to those who ended up his equally passive counterparts: Being a bystander is being presidential.
Western leaders – presidents, prime ministers, cabinet secretaries – followed suit. To a person they flunked leadership. Oh sure, there’s been lots of tut-tutting. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently that it was time for the “leaders of Africa to say to President Mugabe that the people of Zimbabwe deserved a free and fair election.” England’s Prime Minster Gordon Brown went on to caution that the “eyes of the world” were on Zimbabwe. And United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon insisted just a few days ago that the election in Zimbabwe would not be credible unless the government brought to a halt its harassment of the opposition.
Meantime more anti-Mugabe activists have been killed, more injured, and more jailed. No getting around it: While Zimbabweans burned, others fiddled, none more achingly than those at the top.
Leaders and managers in government and business tend to mind their own business. They occupy themselves with those who are, most obviously, their followers, their subordinates, their constituents. But in this day and age, when the planet has shrunk, and when the technology is such that everyone knows everything, that’s just not good enough any more. The time is now for a more expansive view, for a view of leadership that transcends the group or organization for which we are directly responsible. In the mad, sad case of Zimbabwe such inter-group leadership, exercised in a smart and timely manner, could have made all the difference.
Read the original here, by Barbara Kellerman @ Harvard Business Publishing