Mugabe And The Deadly Motorcade: How Zimbabwe?s Potholes Became A Serious Problem

ANALYSIS

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Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe
Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe

For the third time in a mere two weeks, the motorcade of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has been involved in a fatal accident.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the sirens were blaring. Mugabe's motorcade, which includes motorbikes, high-security vehicles and a bullet-proof limousine, was winding through the town of Zvimba when a bus driver allegedly failed to heed the siren's warning.

The leading car in Mugabe's brigade struck the bus head-on, according to Agence France-Presse, killing one passenger and injuring 15 others. Mugabe, several vehicles behind, was unhurt.

The other two recent accidents both occurred during a single trip on June 6. First, a veering motorbike ran into a homeless man and killed him. Then, a burst tire resulted in the flipping of an armed truck, killing a member of the presidential guard.

Three fatalities in short order certainly look suspicious, causing some to wonder whether the motorcade drivers are purposefully careless -- or, conversely, whether the civilians involved were on a crash course by design. The dictatorial Mugabe is, after all, feared and reviled by much of Zimbabwe's population.

But such conspiracy theories are unlikely. Each accident was different, and there were fatalities on both sides. These were accidental deaths-- tragedies, but not murders. Recklessness is to blame.

Losing Control

Governmental recklessness has led to tragedy in more ways than one. Choosing better motorcade drivers and training them to observe the rules of the road is one short-term solution. But in order to prevent similar accidents that occur all over Zimbabwe on a regular basis, a more comprehensive approach is necessary.

The missing link: governmental investment in public infrastructure. In order to prevent accidents, the first step is to fix the roads.

Traffic accidents are more than a presidential problem; the past few months have seen too many civilian deaths on Zimbabwe's roads. In March, 18 people died when a driver lost control of a bus and ran into a stone wall. In mid-April, 21 people lost their lives when another bus overturned on a highway. In late May, a minibus rammed into a tree and killed 13.

The Guardian reports that Zimbabwe is notorious for impossible roads. The streets are pocked with potholes, forcing drivers to swerve, often onto the wrong side of the street. Traffic signs and signals are often absent, broken or outdated.

The problem is endemic, and everyone suffers. Even Zimbabwe's Prime Minster Morgan Tsvangirai lost his wife Susan in 2009, when a lorry smashed into their vehicle.

Susan Tsvangirai was well-liked by the people of Zimbabwe; she was known for being a quiet humanitarian, not often in the limelight but dedicated to helping the country's poor and, unlike Mugabe and his wife Grace, averse to flaunting wealth.

Morgan Tsvangirai himself is also considered a champion for many of Zimbabwe's people. He leads the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is opposed to Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Tsvangirai ran for president against Mugabe in 2008, and the polls had him in the lead. But ZANU-PF waged a campaign of vote-rigging, violence and intimidation. Tsvangirai eventually dropped out, and Mugabe claimed victory.

A subsequent ruling from the Southern African Development Community resulted in a power-sharing arrangement; Mugabe now acts as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. But this coalition has proven unstable. Tsvangirai and many MDC members in Parliament have reported being harassed, persecuted and even arrested by forces loyal to ZANU-PF.

Behind Tinted Glass

Tsvangirai might offer some hope for Zimbabwe's faltering infrastructure, but so far he hasn't gotten the chance to lead his country.

Mugabe was first elected president of Zimbabwe in 1980. Back then, he was a public hero due to his prominent role in the nation's independence struggles during the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, Mugabe's reputation is one of mismanagement, ruthlessness, violence and corruption. Zimbabwe has made little developmental progress since its independence; poverty and hunger are widespread throughout the landlocked country. Zimbabwe has huge mineral assets, including diamonds, which could be used to finance the public sector and necessary infrastructure projects. But reports indicate that these funds are regularly embezzled by ZANU-PF officials.

The benefits of the diamond sales go primarily to allies of the president, said Mike Davis to the New York Times. Davis is a researcher at Global Witness, an organization that monitors Zimbabwe's mining industry. He described this graft as part of a wider attempt by people around Mugabe to seize the diamond wealth for their own political purposes, which in the short term means beating and cheating their way to another election.

While Mugabe rides the streets of Harare in glittering motorcades, and while ZANU-PF finances superfluous projects including the planned construction of a new luxury, high-security mansion in the South African resort town of Ballito, Zimbabwe's citizens are left with a spotty electrical grid, poor sewage systems, and chronically potholed thoroughfares.

A World Bank report last year found that infrastructure investments are far below what they should be, though things began auspiciously.

Zimbabwe made significant progress in infrastructure in its early period as an independent state, building a national electricity network with regional interconnections, an extensive and internationally connected road network, and a water and sewer system, said the report.

But the country has been unable to maintain its existing infrastructure since it became immersed in economic and political turmoil in the late 1990s.

Patching Things Up

If his past record is any indication, Mugabe seems unlikely to address his country's infrastructure problems in any real way. His allegedly poor health doesn't help matters; the president is 88 and is rumored to suffer from prostate cancer. There are even reports that he is no longer mentally fit to lead Zimbabwe.

But if Mugabe is not in power, then who? The president is pushing for 2012 elections, which would be ahead of schedule. Some suspect that he wants to get through the campaign season before his health declines further. ZANU-PF has already asked the supportive military to campaign on its behalf, a bad sign considering past election-season violence. And even if Mugabe himself falls from power, recent meetings with -- and high-profile diplomatic assignments for -- ZANU-PF former spy chief Emmerson Mnangagwa suggest that this close ally of Mugabe is being groomed for succession to the presidency.

Meanwhile, MDC officials including Tsvangirai hope that this next round of voting finally puts an end to the reign of ZANU-PF. Otherwise, Zimbabwe's citizens could be in for more of the same. Infrastructure will keep deteriorating without better oversight of government funds, and the failing roads that result in so many preventable deaths will continue to crumble. 

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