With Introduction by Hopewell Chin’ono
An Eritrean diplomat friend sent the attached letter to me last night and I was blown away by how prophetic it was to Zimbabwe’s situation, and how if Robert Mugabe had applied the advice given to him in the letter by a Comrade, Zimbabwe would have been completely different from the sorry state that it is today.
The letter essentially and prophetically cuts through what became of the once dubbed “breadbasket of Southern Africa” that Robert Mugabe and his ZANUPF political party inherited and turned into a basket case.
A former Tanzanian cabinet minister and one of Africa’s revered scholars, Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, wrote the letter (attached below) to Robert Mugabe in 1980.
Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu who died in 1996 is regarded as one of Africa’s foremost thinkers, he wrote the letter, as an open document to Mugabe who then had just became Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister at the inception of independence.
The letter’s clarity will shock you and leave you wondering why Mugabe didn’t take the advice, if only Mugabe had listened, Zimbabwe would have been elsewhere!
Babu wrote the letter when he was now an economics professor in the United Kingdom after having been jailed by Julius Nyerere when they politically fell out.
The letter underpins what many of us have said about sanctions and also about the chaotic land reform program that Mugabe used at a time when his political grip on Zimbabwe was being loosened, as a result of his incompetence to govern and rampant corruption accelerated by his patronage system.
It exposes the laziness to think and the incompetence in Mugabe’s successive governments in dealing with the issue of sanctions and how the land reform program should have been dealt with had the ruling elites in ZANUPF been genuine and progressive.
It exposes the reality that the land reform program was more of a political accessory that Mugabe and ZANUPF chose to use to push back a resurgent opposition movement that had tapped into a people’s aspirations but more importantly, an opposition that had rode on the tragic failure of the Mugabe led Zimbabwean government resulting in a frustrated citizenry.
It confirms the tragedy of how African countries got independence but didn’t change anything to the colonial system that had been used in governing their countries.
The system protected the colonial elites and yet the postcolonial governments led by people like Robert Mugabe, simply produced a wealthy and prosperous 0.5% of the entire population from within the black political elites and their surrogates, consigning the rest to abject poverty if they couldn’t leave the country.
It shows how the sanctions argument is an excuse and political ruse to mask gross incompetence and rampant corruption, the letter gives an example of how the Rhodesians used sanctions to inwardly industrialize their economy.
Ironically Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu wishes that the whole of Africa had been sanctioned at some point during the liberation stages as he argues that this would have helped those African countries to develop their local knowledge bases as the Rhodesians did.
When the Japanese suffered at Hiroshima and had sanctions imposed on them, they saw it simply as a hurdle and not as an existential crisis that entirely confirms defeat and failure.
So the Japanese, the Rhodesians and the Afrikaners in Apartheid South Africa responded to sanctions with grit and applied their intellectual stamina as opposed to the current sanctions wailing tune.
This could be because those societies were not built on gross incompetence, our response to challenges exposes our laziness to think especially by those in power and it also exposes a breathtaking incompetence made worse by clan based nepotistic appointments that seek to advance crude accumulation of wealth.
The failure to resolve the sanctions and even the land reform mess is an answer to anyone who doubted clarion message that we are in this political and economic mess due to incompetence, clan based nepotism and above all corruption, all this is defended with emotional and incoherent political diatribes that have been sung since 2000, instead of applying the mind to dealing with the problems as other nations have done.
The letter to Robert Mugabe by former Tanzanian cabinet minitsre and renowned scholar and thinker, Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu.
“Dear Comrade Mugabe,
Warm congratulations on your victory and comradely salutations from your admirers!
In the last five years or so since you took over the reins of ZANU you have shown magnificent qualities of leadership – resolute without being dogmatic, daring without being adventurist, and flexible without being lax.
But above all, you have revealed yourself during this period as an outstanding strategist and tactician both in political organisation and in war.
With all these rare qualities it would be presumptuous even to attempt to tell you and your gallant comrades-in-arms what is to be done in independent Zimbabwe.
Moreover, you know better than any outsider the concrete situation in the country.
This letter does not claim to tell you anything you don’t know; it only seeks to reemphasise some salient points which we may lose sight of in the euphoria of freedom.
The enemies of Africa are anxious to prove that every new African country is doomed to failure and, to ensure that this does indeed take place, they will want to entangle you deeply in their world system so as to destroy you.
Proof? Look at what is happening in practically all sister countries: economic chaos, shortage of food and other basic necessities, corruption, and so on, is the order of the day.
You, as a revolutionary, will be a special target particularly because of Zimbabwe’s proximity to South Africa.
You are, however, fortunate in that Zimbabwe is the last but one arrival into the world arena, as a proud, free country, and so you can learn from the mistakes of other countries that have preceded you.
This is the purpose of this open letter. If you have thought about the problem along the lines discussed below then this letter is redundant.
If you don’t agree with it, then it is irrelevant. In either case, it will still be worth our whole to repeat to ourselves all the points raised if only to keep them fresh in our minds.
The other reason for this exercise is that we owe it to Africa and to history to share our past and present experience in order to arm ourselves against possible pitfalls which are all too common in the challenging period of national reconstruction.
We have been struggling and continue to struggle against many odds, natural and man-made, and we need not be ashamed or scared of making mistakes.
We learn through mistakes. Our task is to minimise them when we can, and this we can do by reminding ourselves again and again of the obvious ones.
This is the spirit of the letter.
Unlike many developing countries, you are taking over a country with considerable potential.
Let me give some comparative statistics. Kenya, a fairly “prosperous” country, has double the population of Zimbabwe (14m to your 7 m) and yet its Gross Domestic Product is only $2 900m compared to your $3 560m (1976 World Bank figures), or a per capita income of $220 to your $550. (
Incidentally when the bourgeoisie took over France in 1792 the country’s per capita income was just about $600.)
Zimbabwe has a fairly solid industrial base most of which was made possible thanks to the “sanctions” which forced the country to look inward.
It was what you might call a blessing in disguise. (Looking back, one wishes that sanctions had been imposed against all African countries soon after independence.
What a happy people we would have been! It was “aid” that proved to be the kiss of death.) Your agricultural base, too, is fairly healthy.
From this level Zimbabwe has an excellent chance to move rapidly to a self-sustaining development.
As a socialist you will no doubt want this development to be accompanied with social justice.
And here is the crux of the matter.
How do we restructure an economy whose social basis was to exploit the majority for the benefit of the minority?
Seemingly the easiest way is to take over the “commanding heights” of the economy and transform it into a popular based one.
But this is easier said than done, with enormous potential dangers.
We often tend to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and consequently fail to raise the most essential, most basis question: Where to begin?
While it is impossible for outsiders to know the concrete situation without a thorough investigation, there are, nevertheless, generally acceptable principles that may be applicable to any country at a given level of the development of its productive forces.
If the latter are at a low level then it is imperative that their development be regarded as top priority, even over that of the relations of production.
In Maoist terms, development of the productive forces in this case becomes the principal aspect of the contradiction with production relations as a secondary one.
This strategy has variously been called the New Economic Policy, or N.E.P, or the New Democracy, in which capitalist relations are allowed to co-exist with socialist ones.
And this was done for very practical reasons: to allow maximum opportunity and facility for the productive forces to develop as rapidly as possible without in the meantime causing economic dislocations and subjecting the people to unjustified hardships.
It cannot be over-emphasised that people are our most precious capital and, therefore, they must eat well, be housed and clothed well.
This, then, is our starting point. The economy must be so structured as to provide adequate food, good housing and cheap but good clothing.
In the course of providing these the economy will also develop a good agricultural foundation, together with engineering and extensive textile industries.
All these will create vast employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people currently un- or under-employed, who in turn will help expand the home market- essential for further industrial and agricultural development.
For this to take place, one will of course need to generate investible resources or accumulation for investment.
One of the most unfortunate experiences of developing countries is that they all sought these resources from external sources, either in the form of loans or aid, which has led to heavy and unbearable debt burdens (bankruptcy, you might say) which now threaten our very survival as sovereign states.
To avoid this monumental pitfall, it is essential for a country to generate its investible resources internally, first and foremost.
How? There are two ways: by taxing (but not over taxing) the private sector; and by utilising for this purpose the surpluses that will come from future state enterprises.
At this level of development it may be advisable to allow maximum (but disciplined) play of individual initiative in economic activity guided by the principle of “utilise, win over and control”.
You utilise the existing private skills and resources for rapid development of the productive forces; you win over through education and persuasion all good elements to serve social rather than individual ends; and you control private sector incomes through fixing the sale prices of their products (allowing, of course, for proper incentives); tax their profits, control its repatriation and encourage ploughing back.
It could be made into a principle that at least 50 % of the accumulation from this source should go into state productive investments annually and the rest can go into paying recurrent expenditure and the building up of economic and social infrastructures.
This principle will discipline the bureaucracy and prevent them from indulging in unnecessary low priority expenditure while, at the same time it will help to build step by step the state industrial sector that is nonexistent at the moment, for example, iron and steel industries, machine tool industry, metallurgy, petrochemical industry and so on; in short, heavy industry or Department No.1.
It will not be worthwhile to pay serious attention to such pundits as Rene Dumont1 and their like who urge us to concentrate on small-scale production on the argument that small is beautiful.
No country in history has developed on that basis. But given our condition of uneven development in Africa, perhaps the best way will be to combine large-scale and intermediate production.
Where, for instance, you already have large farms you either expand them where necessary or you maintain them at their present level and thereby enjoy the benefits of large-scale farming.
Where production is still peasant based you may want to develop it to an intermediate level with producers cooperatives as their basic units.
Experience elsewhere has taught us that the taking over of ongoing viable farms has invariably led to almost total collapse of agricultural production and has forced the countries concerned to incur heavy foreign debt to import food.
As foreign borrowing without repayment cannot be sustained for a long time the countries are forced literally to beg for food on an international scale.
This is undesirable from both the economic and political standpoints, to say nothing of national dignity.
It is a painful history fact that in Zimbabwe such large-scale farms are owned by white settlers, some of whom are liberal and others incorrigibly reactionary.
To expropriate them will amount to economic disaster, at least in the short run.
To allow them to continue as before will amount to perpetuating a national injustice.
This is a serious dilemma. Probably you and your party have already made up your minds on how to tackle it.
To an outsider it will seem possible to avoid both of these undesirable consequences by:
*where possible, surrounding all these settler farms by producer agricultural cooperatives;
* making obligatory for the settler farms, as a condition for their existence to share their facilities (farm implements, expertise, marketing, dispensary service etc.) with the newly established cooperatives.
This will help; first, to develop viable cooperative farms at a minimum cost and make maximum use of the existing stock of agricultural implements in the country.
Secondly, it will help diminish the imbalance between settlers’ and people’s production and thereby correct the existing situation in which the settler farms are isolated like prosperous islands in the midst of mass poverty.
Thirdly, it will help distinguish between good elements among the settlers who are genuinely willing to work with the new government in improving the living conditions of the people, and the diehards.
It will then be possible to win over the first group and isolate and eventually ease out the latter.
Fourthly, and this is most important it will help consolidate people’s as opposed to individual production without any large-scale economic dislocation (and its attendant consequences) during the transition.
The rising rural incomes entailed in this strategy will expand the home market for industrial consumer products as well as broaden the tax base.
It will then be possible to accumulate from the latter to pay for further development of the former, which means not only the development of nationally integrated, independent industrialisation but also the rapid rise of the proletariat.
All this, of course, is based on the assumption of a planned and proportional development of the national economy.
Going by your public statements since you took over, it appears that this is broadly what you have in mind.
If so, you are definitely on the right track; and all well-meaning people will back you in your obviously very difficult task.
We will all wish you the very best.
Hopewell Chin’ono is a Zimbabwean journalist and documentary film maker. He has won numerous awards in journalism and has worked in both print and broadcasting journalism.Hopewell did a fellowship at Harvard as part of winning the CNN African journalist of the year.