Only winner from migration of professionals is Mugabe

The Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has smashed his own noble legacy of a true black African middle class, and the country's only real hope is that they decide to return.

The Zimbabwean president has smashed his own noble legacy of a true black African middle class and the country's only real hope is that they decide to return

If you are unlucky enough to end up under the wheels of a London bus, the chances are it will be a black Zimbabwean nurse who tends to your battered body as you lie in your hospital bed.

For the first 20 years of his rule, Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, engineered a quiet revolution, creating Africa's first true black middle class of well-educated professionals. Then he destroyed it.

In spite of its self-engineered economic crisis, Zimbabwe still has the highest literacy rate on the continent, having recently taken the top slot from Tunisia, the UN Development Programme says. Medical graduates from its universities are welcome anywhere in the world, as are its teachers and technicians.

Much of the credit should go to Mr Mugabe. The former schoolteacher turned revolutionary recognised early that Zimbabwe's future depended on a broadly educated population. That he eventually chose to undo what would have been a fine legacy is tragic.

For much of Mr Mugabe's rule, the economy grew on an average of 4.5 per cent, fuelled by agriculture, mining and a fast-expanding service sector. UN figures show per capita GDP rose from US$1,330 (Dh4,884) at the time Mr Mugabe took office in 1980, to $2,600 at the turn of the century, when Zimbabwe's self-immolation began.

In 2000, he supported land grabs by his supporters, driving white commercial farmers from their property. It was a move designed to shore up his waning popularity.

After two decades of unbroken rule the reigning ZanuPF party was out of ideas. It also faced a drubbing in looming elections. Ironically, the newly emergent black urban professionals that Mr Mugabe helped to create were especially likely to vote for the opposition.

A new generation, the so-called born frees who entered the world after liberation, was coming of age. And thanks to the fine education system, they were unlikely to vote according to tribal alliances or be swayed by the stale revolutionary war rhetoric the ruling party likes to employ.

The temporary boost to Mr Mugabe's popularity was soon eclipsed by the economic disaster that befell the country. By 2005, inflation was running at more than 2 million per cent and Zimbabwe had to import food for the first time in decades.

It was the plight of white farmers that drew global focus as the country degenerated from breadbasket to basket case. Black professionals began to flee in droves.

Zimbabwe's army, one of the finest in Africa, was decimated by the loss of its officers, many finding better paid jobs as security guards in neighbouring South Africa.

Medical professionals were welcomed in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Teachers, lawyers and engineers found their skills easily transferable across national boundaries.

By 2006, 50 per cent of all professionals had left, according to the Zimbabwean government's own estimates. This has surely grown in the interim. Numbers are hard to come by but analysts broadly agree that about 3 million, or a quarter of the population, have fled the country to date.

But while their skills are lost to Zimbabwe, their earning power is not. Remittances to Zimbabwe now run at $1 billion from exiles in Britain alone, the UN estimates.

In a sense, it was a double victory for Mr Mugabe. He has rid himself of the uppity middle class urbanites who threatened his rule, but they continue to bankroll his dictatorship through the money they send home to relatives.

Their loss to the country remains huge, in spite of the cash they remit. The civil service is a shadow of its former self, having lost almost all its skilled technocrats. About 45,000 teachers, the genesis of the middle-class revolution, have left the country, according to Zimbabwean government figures. Only about 7,000 remain.

Hospitals remain so in name only, with few doctors and nurses to tend the sick.

Zimbabwe, which once could claim to be the Singapore of Africa, has now reverted to a country of peasant farmers. Until the exiles see fit to return, little will change.