Ian Smith was right – Jimmy Carter

As president, I worked actively with African leaders and the British to change the apartheid regime of Rhodesia into a democratic Zimbabwe in 1980.\r\n

Eight years later, The Carter Center established one of our first agriculture projects in Zimbabwe, at that time known as a breadbasket for the region and setting an example in economic stability, education and health care.

Now, after almost three decades of governmental corruption, mismanagement and oppression, Zimbabwe has become a basket case and an  international embarrassment. A group of leaders known as the Elders, to which I belong, have monitored this crisis, while realizing that its resolution  must come from within Africa. Time for action is now running out, a reality forcefully conveyed to me on a recent five-day fact-finding trip to the region.

There is great aversion among even the most enlightened African leaders to "interference" from former colonial powers and their allies, including the United States. However, these same leaders have been reluctant to assume responsibility for resolving the political stalemate and the escalating humanitarian catastrophe.

I joined former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graça Machel, women’s activist and wife of Nelson Mandela, in South Africa on Nov. 21 with the intention of traveling on to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. However, when we met with former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the facilitator designated by other African leaders to mediate the political dispute in Zimbabwe, he delivered a message from Harare that our visas were denied and we could not proceed.

We had anticipated this possibility and held a series of comprehensive discussions in Johannesburg with delegations that came from Zimbabwe to meet us, including executives of international nonprofit and governmental agencies and a wide range of other stakeholders including leaders of Zimbabwe’s civil society. What we learned of the situation was even worse than our expectations. We also met with Botswana President Ian Khama,  South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC Party President (and prospective South African President) Jacob Zuma, and Zimbabwe’s opposition party leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.

The current political and humanitarian crisis originated with a fraudulent presidential election in March 2008, with Tsvangirai probably winning an actual majority against President Robert Mugabe. Orchestrated violence and brutal persecution of Tsvangirai and his supporters forced him to withdraw from the forced runoff and leave the country. Mugabe then declared himself president. African political leaders largely ignored reports of fraud by their own election observers, and eventually negotiated a power-sharing agreement that Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed on Sept. 15. Unfortunately,Mugabe has not ceded any real power to his opponent and the trend toward a national tragedy has accelerated.

The official inflation rate is now 231 million percent, and actually 2,000 times greater. Thousands of people stand in line daily to receive a tiny allowance from their own bank accounts – approximately 2 cents – an amount that is insufficient to buy even half a loaf of bread. Meanwhile, top government officials and other privileged people can exchange Zimbabwe money at a favorable rate and profit greatly from these transactions. They shop inspecial stores.

Schoolteachers receive only one U.S. dollar a month, and cannot afford transportation to work. Attendance has dropped from 85 to 20 percent, with attending students mostly wanting to obtain a morsel of food. All universities are closed.

A planting shortage of seed and fertilizer will result in a failed harvest, and the World Food Program estimates that 50 percent of the population will need food assistance before April 2009. Relief agencies report thatavailable food supplies are channeled to ruling party loyalists, deliberately starving opposition party leaders.

All major hospitals and most emergency clinics no longer operate, and police have clashed with doctors and nurses who insist on treating their patients.

Uncontrolled sewage and lack of clean water has resulted in cholera outbreaks in all 10 provinces.

Zimbabwe is battling a nationwide cholera epidemic that has killed 425 people since late August and infected more than 11,000, according to government statistics.

As many as 4 million people have left Zimbabwe, seeking food, medical care and freedom from abuse, and the cholera outbreak has made neighbouring nations increasingly wary of accepting immigrants. There are courageous people in Johannesburg who with limited means are helping alleviate the immense suffering. We visited Central Methodist church, where Bishop Paul Verryn feeds and houses 2,000 refugees in the church’s rooms and corridors each night.

Without a political solution, the economic and social fabric of society will continue its free-fall. When Mugabe cannot pay his army and enormous civil service, the result may be a resort to internecine violence and a failed state, similar to Somalia.

African leaders, especially in the neighboring Southern African Development Community, must confront Mugabe and force him to comply with negotiated political agreements and share real governing authority with Tsvangirai and the opposition party. If action by these leaders continues to be ineffective, the African Union and the United Nations must take action. A first step, short of intercession, could be to send independent fact-finding teams to Zimbabwe to obtain information directly from major donors, international relief agencies, medical doctors, teachers, farmers and other
citizens who have described their experiences to us.

In the meantime, there is a desperate need for food, medicine and cash contributions to established humanitarian agencies including CARE, World Vision and Save the Children – or to Bishop Verryn. It is counterproductive to contribute money that can be confiscated by the Zimbabwe government.

*Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, leads The Carter Center.