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Zimbabwe crisis

Updated: Fri, 1 Jan 2010

At A GlanceBack to top

Zimbabwe is recovering from its worst humanitarian crisis since independence. Hit by drought, HIV/AIDS and economic meltdown, hunger and poverty are a daily reality for many.

  • Agriculture devastated
  • Plunge in life expectancy since 1990
  • Zimbabwean dollar replaced by foreign currencies

Twenty years ago the country was hailed as an African success story and dubbed the "breadbasket" of southern Africa, with one of the best health and education systems in the region.

Life expectancy in 1990 was 61 years. Now Zimbabwe has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, and a large proportion of its population is dependent on food aid.

The backbone of Zimbabwe's economy - agriculture - has been crippled by the combined effects of drought, HIV/AIDS and controversial government land reforms.

Unemployment is sky-high and many cannot afford basic foodstuffs, fuel, health care and school fees. Health and education systems are near collapse.

Hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted at the height of the crisis, either fleeing to neighbouring countries or displaced within Zimbabwe. Many have not yet returned home.

In 2009, President Robert Mugabe ceded some of his powers for the first time in nearly three decades, when he and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai formed a coalition government. Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister - Mugabe remains president.

Since then, the humanitarian and economic crises have eased but the government still faces huge challenges.

In DetailBack to top

imbabwe has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. A large number of Zimbabweans in the rural areas are dependent on food aid and the economy is in tatters.

It hasn't always been like this. Zimbabwe was once viewed as the breadbasket of southern Africa, with some of the best health and education services in the region.

The causes of Zimbabwe's crisis are hotly contested.

Most agree that drought and the HIV/AIDS pandemic are partly to blame. A regional drought in the mid-2000s caused massive crop failures across southern Africa. And over the past two decades, HIV/AIDS has cut down the country's youngest and strongest people and, together with a massive brain drain, has weakened Zimbabwe's economic and agricultural infrastructure.

But President Robert Mugabe's political opponents and many in the international community say it is his controversial and often violent land reform programme that has wrecked the most havoc on the country's once strong agricultural base.

Another drain on Zimbabwe's economy was its 1998-2002 involvement in the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hyperinflation spiralled in the 2000s - the International Monetary Fund estimated it peaked at 500 billion percent in December 2008. The meltdown drove an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans into neighbouring countries. Those who remained faced food shortages, unemployment and crises in both health and education.

Hundreds of thousands were displaced inside the country by the government's policies and actions, and the majority are still uprooted today.

Following elections in 2008, a power-sharing government sworn in in 2009 managed to stabilise the economy and brought inflation under control when it abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar in favour of foreign currencies in 2009.

Supermarkets are well stocked again and fuel is no longer a rarity. But unemployment and poverty are still rife, and many still cannot afford essentials.

International media and aid agency access to the country has improved, but obstacles remain.

The once-thriving health and education systems have been decimated.

Food shortagesBack to top

Millions of Zimbabweans suffer chronic hunger, and many rely on food aid, according to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

About a third of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, according to a nutrition survey carried out by U.N., nongovernmental and government agencies and published in July 2010.

The government's food aid programme is run by the Grain Marketing Board which sells maize at subsidised prices. The government says everyone has access to the programme.

However reports from human rights groups like the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) say known supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party are denied both government aid and food distributed by local charities. The MDC was the main opposition until it joined the coalition government in 2009.

ZPP says it has found examples of names being removed from food registers and lists for donors.

In the lead-up to elections in 2005 and March 2008, Human Rights Watch said the government had tried to buy votes with food and threatened to cut off aid to people who supported the opposition.

The international response is managed by WFP and, to a lesser extent, a group of non-governmental organisations called the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Emergency (C-SAFE), which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The previous government imposed tight controls on aid agencies, and assessing needs was difficult - the government rarely revealed the size of the country's food stocks.

Although aid workers' ability to reach people has improved under the coalition government, working in Zimbabwe is still not straightforward. Access is sometimes refused, and some agencies have problems obtaining temporary employment permits. And in 2008, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe froze aid agency funds. These have not been returned, affecting operations.

HealthBack to top

The country's health system - once hailed as one of the best in Africa - was decimated in the 2000s, and has struggled to cope with the devastating AIDS epidemic, as well as regular outbreaks of measles, cholera and typhoid.

These outbreaks are partly caused by the collapse of the sanitation and water systems which has forced residents to drink from contaminated wells and streams.

A cholera outbreak that started in August 2008 killed over 4,000 people and left nearly 100,000 ill. There were few medical professionals to cope with it - even the main government hospitals in the capital Harare had been closed. The epidemic was officially declared over in July 2009.


Zimbabwe has historically had one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, but has been hailed in recent years for its success in reducing its infection rates.

The estimated HIV prevalence rate has fallen by more than half since 2001, when 34 percent of people aged 15-49 had HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, the lead U.N. agency fighting the global pandemic.

This is thought to be partly due to preventative programmes changing sexual behaviour.

It's a success story that was eagerly promoted by Mugabe's government, which was one of the first to take the pandemic seriously, setting up a National Aids Control Programme in 1987 to lead the response.

In 1999 Zimbabwe became the first country in the world to introduce a 3 percent levy on taxable income in order to pay for preventative measures and treatment.

However, the government has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for restricting people's access to treatment. Aid agencies say deaths caused by HIV/AIDS have created hundreds of thousands of orphans.

Migration and displacementBack to top

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have left the country to seek a living abroad.

Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced within Zimbabwe as a result of government policies and actions, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). They consist of farm workers who lost their homes and jobs during land reforms, and people uprooted by arbitrary evictions in Zimbabwe's towns and cities.

Up to 700,000 people were made homeless or lost their jobs in a 2005 crackdown on illegal traders and shantytowns. Another 2.4 million people were affected in some way by the operation, according to the United Nations.

Police bulldozed homes and market stalls in cities across the country in what the government said was an attempt to flush out blackmarket traders and clean up cities. Mugabe said the operation was part of a plan to build up to 1.2 million new housing units, and help small and medium-sized businesses expand.

But many of those who were displaced are still homeless, living in resettlement camps or struggling to survive without food, safe water or sanitation.

Politically motivated violence and government campaigns against informal mine workers have also displaced thousands.

The situation for aid agencies helping the displaced has improved since the previous government, which did not acknowledge the existence of internal displacement in the country.

The coalition government has called for a national survey to assess the numbers and needs of the displaced, and stated that all should have access to aid.

Despite this, humanitarian access has only improved slowly. It often has to be negotiated with district administrators and local authorities on a case-by-case basis and - especially in cases of people displaced as a result of new farm invasions - access has frequently been denied, says IDMC.

DiamondsBack to top

Zimbabwe is rich in diamonds, but many are smuggled out of the country illegally.

The country's finance minister, Tendai Biti, said in March 2010 that no revenue from the large Marange diamond fields had reached state coffers. Human Rights Watch says there is so little proper regulation of diamond mining that vast sums are leaving the country unaccounted for.

Mugabe's ZANU-PF political and military elite "are seeking to capture the country's diamond wealth through a combination of state-sponsored violence and the legally questionable introduction of opaque joint-venture companies", natural resources advocacy group Global Witness said in June 2010.

The army, which controls the Marange diamond fields, has inflicted appalling abuses on civilians and the mines have been plagued with violence in recent years, says Global Witness.

Elections and violenceBack to top

Until it joined a coalition government in 2009, the main opposition in Zimbabwe was the MDC. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, blamed Mugabe for the country's collapse. Mugabe in turn said Tsvangirai was a puppet of the West.

The country's crisis deepened in March 2008 when the two men stood for president. Official results showed Tsvangirai beat Mugabe, but not by enough votes to win outright, forcing a run-off. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party also lost its parliamentary majority.

Violence escalated ahead of the presidential run-off vote in June. The MDC said Mugabe's party deployed security forces, veterans of the independence struggle and youth militia in a campaign of violence and dirty tricks to cripple Tsvangirai's chances of victory.

Scores of MDC supporters were killed and thousands more beaten up, according to the opposition. Police detained Tsvangirai numerous times and arrested opposition legislators, officials, activists, union leaders and journalists.

Tsvangirai pulled out of the race, saying a free and fair poll was impossible and that his supporters would be risking their lives if they voted.

African countries joined Mugabe's Western critics in voicing anger over the bloodshed. The U.N. Security Council also condemned the violence against opposition supporters, although it did not explicitly blame Mugabe's government. Mugabe denied his supporters were responsible for the bloodshed.

The government banned foreign aid agencies from working ahead of the election, despite widespread food shortages. The opposition and human rights groups accused the government of using access to food as a weapon to try to sway the vote. The government for its part said the aid groups were using food to persuade people to vote against Mugabe - an allegation they denied. The ban was lifted in August 2008.

Mugabe, Tsvangirai and the leader of a breakaway MDC faction, Arthur Mutambara, eventually signed a power-sharing deal in September. Talks over the allocation of key ministries were deadlocked for months but a final agreement was reached in January 2009 under strong international pressure.

Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister in February 2009, and Mutambara became deputy prime minister. Mugabe remains president with control over security services. But he relinquished some powers for the first time in nearly three decades of rule - including the health, education and finance ministries.

Tensions remain between ZANU-PF and MDC over power-sharing issues in the government, and incidents of political violence continue.

Land redistributionBack to top

Mugabe has said in the past that he wants to stay in power until he's sure it will be impossible to reverse his seizures of white-owned farms.

Zimbabwe has a long history of white farmers forcing black farmers off the best agricultural land. This began under British colonial rule and continued when a white minority government declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965.

Land was an important issue in the ensuing war for independence from white rule. And after a British-brokered peace deal in 1979, the new black government led by Mugabe began a long-term land redistribution programme.

But by 1999, some 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of the best land were still in the hands of about 4,500 white commercial farmers, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2000, Mugabe introduced new laws that gave the government greater powers to seize land without compensating former owners. The government took over thousands of white-owned commercial farms after backing often violent land invasions led by veterans of the country's 1970s struggle against white rule.

By 2003, about 200,000 black farmers had been given new land, according to the government. Much of the land ended up in the hands of Mugabe's allies and supporters. Few of the new owners had farming experience or the capital to buy farming equipment.

Critics say the process has been poorly managed and underfunded. They say much of the land ended up in the hands of Mugabe's allies and supporters, and many of the new owners lacked the money, expertise or state support necessary to farm the land.

According to Refugees International, many of the new settlers were forced to turn to fishing, gold panning and sex work to feed themselves.

Most of the wealthy white farmers who had produced the bulk of Zimbabwe's farm exports have left Zimbabwe, taking with them knowledge and capital.

Zimbabwe's commercial agriculture plummeted, hitting exports and helping cause the food shortages that have gripped the country since 2001.

The loss of export earnings meant Zimbabwe's gross domestic product shrank by almost a third between 2000 and 2004.

Mugabe denied responsibility for the country's out-of-control inflation, saying the economy was deliberately undermined by his domestic and foreign opponents in retaliation for his land reforms.

LinksBack to top

General/political background

For detailed background, the site of the International Crisis Group is a useful place to look. It also has good reports on land reform and past elections, as well as the current crisis.

If you want to dig deeper into Zimbabwe's politics, two starting points are the websites of the ruling party ZANU-PF (although this wasn't working when we last looked) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

For information about upcoming parliamentary bills and Hansard reports of parliamentary debates, visit the Zimbabwe Parliament website.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International track human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

Humanitarian needs

The World Food Programme website has information about food needs.

Our maps show regions affected by food shortages and drought, as well as humanitarian access.

For the latest information about displacement, check out the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

On health, the best place to look is the World Health Organisation - particularly its database of health statistics for Zimbabwe. The U.N. Children's Fund also has good statistics as well as general information about the situation for children.

Finally, for information about food security, health, sanitation and so on, visit the website of the U.N. Development Programme in Zimbabwe.

AIDS charity AVERT has information on HIV in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean civil society

To find out what local non-governmental organisations are saying, check out the website of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, the voice of civil society in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is an umbrella group of national NGOs that helps victims of organised violence. Its site contains lots of good reports and useful links to each of the organisations. is an online community for Zimbabwean activists.


The main government-owned newspaper is the Herald.

There are several independent media outlets. These include:

  • The Zimbabwean, edited by former Daily News chief Wilf Mbanga. The Daily News was closed by the government in 2003.
  • SW Radio Africa is an independent Zimbabwean radio station broadcasting from London.
  • ZimOnline, which describes itself as Zimbabwe's independent news agency, carries analysis and opinion pieces as well as news.
  • The U.N. news agency IRIN has regular reports from Zimbabwe.

TimelineBack to top

1830s - Southern African Ndebele people settle in Matabeleland, joining the Shona tribe that had lived in the area for hundreds of years

1889 - British government awards colonisation mandate for the area to the British South Africa Company (BSA) run by Cecil John Rhodes

1890 - Rhodesia - later Zimbabwe - formed as white settlers begin to congregate around what will become the capital, Salisbury - later Harare

1893 - Ndebele uprising against BSA crushed by white authorities

1922 - After end of BSA rule, Rhodesia's white minority opts for self-government

1930 - New legislation forces many blacks into wage labour after their right to own land is restricted

1930-1960s - White colonial rulers under increasing pressure from black opposition

1964 - Ian Smith becomes prime minister and asks London to grant Rhodesia independence

1965 - After talks with London end in failure, Smith unilaterally declares independence from Britain. International sanctions imposed against Rhodesia

1972 - Guerrilla war breaks out in December after a white farm attacked

1978 - Smith, under international pressure, agrees to negotiate a settlement, but country remains in the grip of civil war

1979 - Peace agreement and new constitution guaranteeing minority rights signed during British-brokered talks in London

1980 - Veteran pro-independence leader Robert Mugabe and his Zanu party win British-supervised independence elections. Zimbabwe independence on April 18

1980s - Mugabe and allies crush opposition in Matabeleland and Midlands regions, accusing Ndebele people there of plotting against him. Tens of thousands killed, according to rights activists

1998 - Country gripped by economic crisis, which sparks series of riots and strikes

1999 - New opposition party formed, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Economic crisis continues to worsen

2000 - Mugabe tells a rally that white-owned land can be taken and given to landless blacks. Hundreds of thriving white-owned farms seized by squatters

2001 - Western agencies withhold aid in protest at Mugabe's land seizure policy. Government admits economy in crisis, saying foreign exchange reserves have run out and warns of severe food shortages


Mar - Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe after violence mars presidential elections

Apr - Worsening food shortages lead to a state of disaster being declared. World Food Programme blames crisis on disruption to agriculture caused by land seizures

Jun - 3,000 white farmers given 45 days to leave their land

Nov - Government says 35 million acres of white-owned land have been seized


Mar - Brutal security service crackdown on general strike

Dec - Zimbabwe leaves Commonwealth


May - Government begins a "clean-up", demolishing tens of thousands of shanty houses and street stalls. By July, U.N. experts say up to 700,000 have lost their homes or income

Dec - U.N. head of humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, says Zimbabwe is in "meltdown"


Apr - World Health Organisation reports that Zimbabwe has the lowest life expectancy in the world: 34 years for women, 37 for men. Inflation rises above 1,000 percent


Jan - Doctors and nurses strike for higher pay, followed by teachers and university lecturers

Mar - Opposition leaders badly beaten in police custody

State media reports that drought has decimated food crops across the country

June - Zimbabwe imposes price freeze, halving prices of basic goods. Shoppers panic buy and business executives are arrested for defying freeze

Oct - Government steps up drive to expel 600 white farmers after expiry of Sept 30 deadline to leave the country, according to South African media reports

Nov - Zimbabwe's chief statistician says impossible to work out the latest rate for the country's galloping inflation due to lack of goods on the shelves

Zanu-PF and MDC provisionally agree draft constitution negotiated by South Africa. Timing of 2008 elections is key obstacle to full agreement

Nov - South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki declares he's confident that talks he has been mediating between Zanu-PF and the MDC will lead to a solution to the political crisis

Dec - Mugabe attends the EU-Africa summit. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown boycotts summit over Mugabe's presence

Mugabe endorsed as Zanu-PF candidate for forthcoming elections


Jan - Inflation tops 100,000 percent

Mediation efforts between government and MDC collapse after Mugabe announces March 29 as date for polls. MDC had called for elections to be delayed until new constitution adopted

Independent monitoring group Zimbabwe Election Support Network reports problems with voter registration and education

Feb - EU extends sanctions for another year

Former foreign minister Simba Makoni launches election challenge to Mugabe and is expelled from Zanu-PF

Mar 29 - Zimbabwe presidential and parliamentary elections

Apr - Results show ZANU-PF loses parliamentary majority for the first time since independence. MDC says Tsvangirai won presidential election and calls on Mugabe to concede

May - Electoral body says Tsvangirai won most votes, but not enough to avoid a run-off against Mugabe. Run-off set for June 27

Jun - Police detain U.S. and British diplomats after halting their convoy north of Harare. Government bans international aid groups. Violence escalates. Scores killed, thousands beaten up

Mugabe wins election run-off after Tsvangirai pulls out, saying his supporters would be risking their lives by voting. U.N. Security Council condemns pre-election violence

Aug - Ban lifted on aid groups

Sep - Mugabe and opposition agree power-sharing deal

Oct - Mugabe unilaterally claims all key ministerial posts as talks fail to break political deadlock on the issue

Nov - Aid agencies say political impasse is creating humanitarian crisis. U.N. warns 4 million face starvation by January, cholera epidemic spreading. Elders group of former statesmen meet regional leaders to discuss the situation after being refused entry to Zimbabwe

Dec - Tsvangirai threatens to quit talks unless authorities release activists and MDC supporters. Acute hunger spreads and over 1,500 killed by cholera


Jan - Final deal on power-sharing government, including allocation of key ministries

Feb - Tsvangirai sworn in as prime minister

Mar - Tsvangirai's wife is killed and Tsvangirai injured in car crash. Several schools open for first time in over a year, but most hospitals remain closed and cholera cases continue to rise. U.S. and EU donors decide to increase humanitarian aid. Tsvangirai calls for arrest of those responsible for forcible seizures of privately-owned farms

May - IMF announces resumption of limited technical assistance. WFP reports ongoing food shortages likely to be compounded by poor harvest

Jun - U.N. launches appeal for Zimbabwe, amid spike in hunger levels and number of cholera cases. Constitutional review begins

Jul - Kimberley Process review team visit Marange diamond fields, reporting "horrific" violence against civilians by security forces and illegal mining by military

Sep - Regional trading bloc SADC calls for removal of all Zimbabwe sanctions. IMF provides $400 million support as part of G20 agreement to help member states


Jan - High Court rejects regional court ruling against land-reform programme

Jun - Commercial farmers say they are under a renewed wave of attacks

Jul - U.N. and nongovernmental agencies say about a third of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished

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