Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (R) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (L) announce the conclusion of the constitution making process at State House on January 17, 2013, in Harare. / Getty Images
(CBS/AP) - Zimbabwe's finance minister made a startling admission to reporters in Harare on Tuesday, according to multiple reports.
"Last week when we paid civil servants there was $217 in government coffers," Finance Minister Tendai Biti said, according to The Telegraph. "The government finances are in paralysis state at the present moment."
That last admission was an understatement not because of his assessment of paralysis, but because he implied the problem is only a recent one.
The country that was once considered southern Africa's "breadbasket" for its fertile lands and rich mineral deposits has been experiencing slow but certain ruin due to more than three decades of largely despotic rule by President Robert Mugabe.
While he allegedly shares power with Morgan Tsvangirai as part of an international agreement stemming from a 2008 political crisis, few international observers believe Mugabe is not the man in charge.
Last year, Finance Minister Biti complained that government coffers had not received the promised $600 million in diamond revenues from a recently discovered rich deposit. Biti said that only one-fourth of that pledge has been received.
Overall, at least $2 billion worth of diamonds have been stolen from Zimbabwe's eastern diamond fields and have enriched Mugabe's ruling circle, international gem dealers, and criminals, according to an organization leading the campaign against conflict diamonds.
In addition to the lost mineral wealth, about a decade ago Mugabe began a program of seizing farm land from white land owners and handing it over to black tenants, many of whom are either cronies of his or are in his party. That policy has, to say the least, done little to improve Zimbabwe's rich agrarian heritage and economy.
The U.N. has said Zimbabwe will require at least $131 million in aid this year, the bulk for food assistance after a failed farming season left nearly 1.7 million people facing hunger, the Guardian reports.
Adding to the woes of the country is the fact that there are supposed to be elections this year. For most democratic states, that is good news -- a welcome chance to purge government of bad actors. However, if history is a guide, Zimbabwe will be beset with waves of violence, hunger, and the flight of thousands of refugees.
Writing in an op-ed for The Guardian, human rights lawyer Dewa Mavhinga said: "There is little point in holding elections that, in essence, will be without choice, and that can only result in another round of bloodshed and destruction."