If anyone is still looking for evidence of the disconnect between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and reality, his recent remarks at a regional trade summit are pretty damning. After taking the reins of the Common Market for East and Southern Africa, or COMESA—a trade bloc representing 19 countries and nearly 400 million people—Mugabe offered some helpful guidance for portfolio managers in these uncertain economic times:
Our message to investors worldwide and to those of our region is clear: we have a regional market for you, come to COMESA.
Earth to Bob: Based on the economic performance in Zimbabwe over the last several years, (remember when inflation hit 13.2 billion percent per month?) investors might be a tad wary of putting faith in your stewardship of Africa’s largest trade bloc.
To its credit, COMESA is seeking to eliminate trade barriers between its member states to stimulate flagging economies. But the sad truth is that investors’ reluctance in countries like Zimbabwe has less to do with restrictions on trade and more to do with corrupt and vicious leaders like Mugabe himself. Many business people might remember Mugabe as the guy who seized their assets and redistributed them to his friends. Indeed, Mugabe and his inner circle have driven one of Africa’s most promising economies into the ground and routinely commit grave human rights abuses against ordinary Zimbabweans in their bid to maintain power. The country, whose health system was once the envy of Africa, is now struggling to deal with the continent’s worst cholera outbreak in 15 years. And despite all that the Mugabes still find time to go shopping.
But Bob remains oblivious. “To the whole world,” he told visitors to the conference in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, “we want to say…that we are serious as a region.”
The irony of Robert Mugabe touting the region a solid investment is not lost on investors. One might think that other COMESA states might look elsewhere for leadership. Then again, Mugabe is not the only abhorrent leader to attend the summit. As we mentioned earlier, he invited Sudanese President and fellow dictator Omar al-Bashir, an international fugitive wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
If COMESA member states really want the world to believe that the region is serious, they might have used the summit as a forum to condemn Mugabe and Bashir and pressure them to step down.