By Joel Brinkley

When Catherine Bragg, a senior United Nations official, ended a three-day visit to Zimbabwe this week, she warned that the humanitarian situation there remains extremely fragile.

There's a bit of diplomatic understatement if I've ever heard one.

Trying to determine who is the world's most destructive national leader might seem like a daunting assignment. There seem to be so many to choose from. But look at the facts, and you'll find only one perfectly obvious choice: Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, where the unemployment rate, the CIA says, stands at 95 percent -- the highest in the world. That means fewer than 500,000 of the state's 12 million citizens hold jobs.

That's just one of many superlatives Mugabe has achieved during his three decades in power. No leader anywhere has so assiduously destroyed a nation, leaving its people with nothing.

In 2000, the United Nations adopted what it called the Millennium Declaration, urging every nation to reduce poverty and improve the lot of its children. Almost every state I've examined, even the most impoverished and truculent, has seen at least small improvements -- every nation but Zimbabwe.

As an example, for more than 30 years Ali Abdullah Saleh was president of Yemen, another impoverished dictatorship. There, the number of children who died before they reached age 5 stood at 125 per thousand in 1990 -- but 66 today. That's typical. Well, in Mugabe-land, the number went up, from 81 in 1990 to 90 today. Unicef says the rate of infant mortality has increased, too.

But there's more. So much more.

The seed for much of this was Mugabe's destructive land-redistribution campaign 12 years ago, when he kicked the nation's white commercial farmers off their land. Those farms provided the basic structure for the nation's economy, and the farmers' departure pushed the country into destitution. Mugabe first tried a massive stimulus/aid program, which threw the country deep into debt. That sent the nation down the path to another superlative. Today Zimbabwe has the highest debt ratio in the world The national debt stands at 231 percent of the gross domestic product.

These economic woes gave Mugabe another first-in-show honor. For a good while Zimbabwe had the highest inflation rate in the world, at one point pegged at 231 million percent. Then, three years ago, Zimbabwe abandoned its own worthless currency and began using the U.S. dollar instead. One record fell away.

But as the 2000s proceeded and the number of students leaving school outnumbered the available jobs by nearly 10 to 1 some years, thousands of young people fled, giving Mugabe still another "honor" -- the highest emigration rate in the world.

His neighbor, South Africa, has been loudly complaining that Zimbabwe emigres are taking all the jobs. South Africa and Mozambique built border fences, but just recently a South Africa newspaper reported that its fence was "full of holes." The Harare Daily News reports that, to survive, more than half of Zimbabwe's urban dwellers rely on remittances from relatives living abroad.

Zimbabwe claims still another record: the world's highest rate of population growth. High birth rates are usually found in countries that suffer unusually high child mortality, like Zimbabwe. Since nearly one of every 10 children dies before reaching age 5, mothers have more and more children, hoping some will survive.

The shame of it is that, properly managed, Zimbabwe should be prosperous. It's home to magnificent wild life and Victoria Falls -- magnets for tourism. But the State Department reports that Mugabe has allowed every manor of infrastructure -- roads, trains, water systems, telephone and electric service -- to fall into near-dysfunctional disrepair. So no one visits.

Among the deteriorating public services is health care. Right now typhoid is ravaging the country, almost like a plague. The cause, according to the U.N.: fecal matter in the dilapidated water system. Three years ago a cholera epidemic infected 100,000 people, killing 4,000 of them, further discouraging tourism.

The state also is home to rich diamond mines, but Mugabe nationalized them and seems to be stealing all the money. Photos of his mansion show overwrought, gold-crusted baroque splendor beyond imagining. How did he pay for that? Zimbabwe law requires any foreign-owned firm worth more than $500,000 to forfeit a 51 percent controlling interest to the state -- to Mugabe.

So can Zimbabweans hold out any hope? Maybe. On Feb. 21, Mugabe will turn 88 years old -- this in a country with the world's eighth-worst average life expectancy: 49.6 years.

More likely than not, the world's most destructive national leader will soon pass away.


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