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Zimbabwe: three reasons why it’s all going so wrong for Mnangagwa

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Zimbabwe’s president

How did things turn so bad for Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa? He won the disputed elections in August 2018, but even before the results were officially announced, protesters were being shot in the street, with the security forces laying into the protesters in front of the world’s press and international election observers.

If those observers were contemplating a reluctant and muted endorsement of the results, then the shootings served to ensure that endorsement was not forthcoming.

Riot police armed with tear gas also threatened to storm the Bronte Hotel where many observers were staying – to prevent a press conference by the leader of the opposition, Nelson Chamisa. I witnessed this as I was staying at the very same hotel.

Once again, their threatening posture was filmed and broadcast in real time, and many observers – senior figures in their own countries – standing near me were pushed about by the security forces, as was I. And so Mnangagwa’s mantra of Zimbabwe being open for business began to wilt away right from the outset.

But more was to come. In January 2019, riots broke out to protest a huge hike in the price of fuel. Mnangagwa announced the price rise before leaving the country to visit Eastern Europe to seek investment and address the World Economic Forum event in Davos.

It was as if he was unaware of the fury a doubling in petrol costs would trigger. With former defence chief General Constantine Chiwenga in charge as acting president, the protesters were met with a furious militarised response.

The response was so radical that police officials secretly showed The Guardian journalist Jason Burke documents directly implicating the military.

The government claims that those involved in the shootings and beatings were gangsters in stolen uniforms seem highly unlikely.

Mnangagwa hurried back without making it to Davos and promptly promised that those who had killed, beaten and raped citizens would be punished.

But he must know what to do so he will have to take on Chiwenga – and many Zimbabweans are convinced that Chiwenga, a hard military man rumoured to have the army behind him and never convincing in a civilian suit, seeks the presidency for himself.

He would likely relish a confrontation with Mnangagwa as a prelude to deposing him or forcing him to resign.

What next?

Three things are clear as Zimbabwe enters what looks set to be a troubled 2019.

First, there is a divided leadership – whether rumours of palace coups are real or not. This is partly because no one knows how to lead Zimbabwe out of its economic mess.

And, as things become more chaotic, many in the ruling ZANU-PF party think there is no choice but to brazen out the economic meltdown by ruthlessly squashing any political protest.

As it is, Chiwenga – who reportedly is now receiving medical treatment in India – probably can’t move against Mnangagwa while Cyril Ramaphosa remains president of neighbouring South Africa.

Ramaphosa, who recently called for sanctions to be lifted on Zimbabwe, has made it very clear behind the scenes that he will not tolerate a coup – and the meagre liquidity which does seep into Zimbabwe comes in large part from South Africa.

Squeezing Chiwenga dry by economic means is well within Ramaphosa’s capacity.But while both Mnangagwa and Chiwenga are unwilling or unable to move against each other, Zimbabwe is left with a divided government, a stalemate that means even less agreed action on the economy.

Second, the president is genuinely unable to gauge the mood of the people or to understand how deeply they are affected by economic malfunction while they watch the financial malpractice of so many in the ruling elite.

It is as if the material comforts of protected suburbs such as Harare’s Borrowdale Brook insulate the ruling oligarchic elite from any sense of what deprivation means.

Third, the much-touted “technocratic” finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, is out of his depth. Faced with an informal money market where government bond notes were rapidly losing value against the US dollar, and where there was a huge shortage of US dollars, small business operators in Zimbabwe turned to electronic cell phone transactions – establishing a kind of rough and ready but robust virtual economy.

But Ncube’s decision to tax these cell phone transactions immediately knocked the confidence out of that form of exchange. The textbook says you must broaden the tax base and the new tax did just that. But it was also naïve in the extreme, as it broke the back of any vibrancy left in the Zimbabwean street-level urban economy.

Fuelling the fire

Ncube’s naivety was again seen in the fuel price hike. There is no fuel because the country has insufficient foreign exchange to import the petrol needed.

Again, the textbook says that when supply fails to equal demand you must do one of two things: either increase supply, which is impossible in Zimbabwe or dampens demand.

The price rise sought to achieve the latter, but it brought the possibility of economic life for a huge number of ordinary people to a standstill.

The price of transport into town to work, to look for work or to sell or buy whatever is available in the street markets became prohibitive. One price rise has therefore caused a multiplicity of damaging consequences.

Ncube now proposes a return to a national currency within a year, rather than future reliance on the US dollar. This will almost certainly mean another wave of hyperinflation, the very reason why the previous national currency was abandoned and the US dollar adopted.

The greatest mistake of the Mugabe years was a refusal to take seriously the simple truth that production leads to exports – and exports earn foreign exchange. Zimbabwe has become a consumer society – led by the political oligarchs – in which the cost of imports far exceeds the returns from exports.

Production has been so undervalued, and so poorly invested in, that it costs more to produce something as basic as a bottle of cooking oil than it does to import it from South Africa. Ncube’s first budget as finance minister was woefully short of meaningful incentives to encourage production and deal with this problem.

And so Zimbabwe is held back by three key things: a quarrel at the top that means government is too preoccupied and divided to focus on proper planning and economic management, lashing out at its own people instead; a disastrous inability to feel the popular pulse, with the ruling oligarchs now living in a hermetically sealed world of their own; and the ongoing economic naivety of those who should be managing the nation’s finances.

Mugabe financed Zimbabwe with massive borrowing. But no one will now lend to Zimbabwe. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants its loans repaid. China is waiting for some sense of fiscal responsibility to return. And South Africa will not give support to allow the purchase of fuel since it also is owed much money by Zimbabwe.

Indeed, even if Mnangagwa does move to meet IMF conditions, it will mean years of even greater austerity for Zimbabweans. Sadly, there will be no happy ending for Zimbabwe in 2019.
The Conversation

OPINION

One year after Mugabe’s historic ouster, Zim looks much the same

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Mugabe Resigns

Euphoric tears are what many Zimbabweans remember shedding a year ago, on Nov. 21, 2017. It was the most momentous day in the country’s post-independence history, the day Zimbabwe shed something else: Robert Mugabe, then 93, who was forced out of office by the military after 37 years as president.
People who had once cowered when they saw their own army instead walked alongside the tanks and took selfies. People who had once feared arrest for insulting the autocratic Mugabe openly bid him good riddance.

One year later, Zimbabwe’s optimism has dimmed. Depending on who you ask, things are as bad, or perhaps slightly less bad than before. The current government says reform takes time and asks Zimbabweans for patience.

For now, the dreams are stifled. An already ruined economy has been further ravaged by new inflation. Rapprochement with the West, which shunned Zimbabwe for decades and held back investment and job growth, has been hesitant at best.

And the results of the first post-Mugabe elections are still contested four months later by the main opposition party.

Temba Mlandeli, an engineer in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, exuded optimism in an interview with The Washington Post before the election. Now he’s struggling to stay positive.

“To be quite honest, it’s not exactly what I expected. As they say, sometimes you have to go through bad times to get to good times, go uphill before you descend,” he said. “I’m not sure where we’re going, really. Generally, life has gotten tougher.”

The events of the past 364 days read like a series of continuities from the Mugabe era, with the occasional departure from the norm.

Mugabe was deposed in what his successor calls a “military assisted transition.” It came as the culmination of a succession battle between Mugabe’s wife Grace and his former right-hand-man and spy chief, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.

Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, who fled the country. Sensing a power play by the deeply unpopular Grace Mugabe, the army emerged onto the streets. Under pressure, Mugabe resigned. Mnangagwa returned and was sworn in as president three days later.

The army’s top general became his deputy. At his inauguration, Mnangagwa promised to build a Zimbabwe that would not look like Mugabe’s.

It would have freedom of expression, a strong currency, billions of dollars in foreign investment, re-engagement with the West and elections in July complete with international observers.

Ironically for a member of Mugabe’s party, who served by his side for decades, Mnangagwa campaigned on a platform of change. The elections would cement his legitimacy, he said, but if he lost them, he would bow to the will of the Zimbabweans.

Between his inauguration and the election on July 30, Zimbabwe seemed, from the outside, to be in suspended animation. Minor blips made headlines — Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition party’s ailing doyen, succumbed to cancer, Mnangagwa survived an assassination attempt — though they never threatened to throw the vote off schedule.

But in the rural areas where Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party had established a deep system of patronage over nearly four decades, a scene similar to the past’s less-than-fair elections was playing out.

The lives of opposition candidates and their followers were threatened. ZANU-PF candidates openly paid people to attend their rallies with state-owned goods like fertilizer and corn flour. State-owned media gave exceedingly disproportionate time to ZANU-PF political ads.

On election day, the mood was still mostly buoyant — and voting went off without a hitch. But as the vote-counting process dragged on, the opposition became louder about electoral manipulation, unfairness, and even alleged rigging.

And then on Aug. 1, the mirage of a new Zimbabwe faded altogether. After an opposition protest in the centre of the capital, Harare, devolved into rioting, the army came out onto the streets for the first time since that fateful day last November. This time there were no smiles. They shot live rounds indiscriminately into the gathered crowds, ultimately killing six and wounding dozens.

It was a scene of carnage and heartbreak.“If we are just going to have citizens facing live ammunition in the streets of Harare, it makes us wonder where we are at,” said Jestina Mukoko, director of the nonprofit Zimbabwe Peace Project.

Mnangagwa would claim an almost-impossibly narrow victory two days later, which the opposition still rejects despite a top court’s seal of approval.

An inquiry into the killings was opened, but top army generals have used it to claim that it was not their men who did the shooting but an elaborate ruse by the opposition to tarnish their image.

Zimbabwe is now as politically divided as it has ever been. Opposition supporters see any praise of Mnangagwa as an attempt to whitewash his power-grab and subsequent abuses.

Mnangagwa’s supporters see the opposition as sore losers unwilling to submit to the democratic process they claim to represent. They point to the fact that the opposition can hold protests and rallies at all as a sign of progress.

Mukoko said that while freedom of expression and assembly were greater now than under Mugabe, it hasn’t translated into Zimbabweans feeling free.

“We’ve seen people brought before the courts under Mugabe-era insult laws — insulting the office or the person of the president. There have been many arrests for exercising rights that are constitutionally guaranteed,” she said. “We are in a very precarious situation as a country.”

After the court struck down a challenge of the elections results by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, he refused to back down, saying “President Mnangagwa is disputed as the leader. I have a legitimate claim that I am supposed to be leading the people of Zimbabwe.”

Meanwhile, Mnangagwa’s promised surge in investment has proved paltry, and the economy continued to be the source of misery.

The political instability stemming from the contested election and its aftermath have led many international investors to conclude that Zimbabwe is still too risky for investment.

A decade ago, during Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis, inflation spiralled out of control, leading the government to print hundred-trillion-dollar notes before eventually scrapping the Zimbabwean dollar altogether, opting instead for bond notes pegged to the U.S. dollar.

But that bond-currency has been undermined by the government’s continued printing of it to pay the salaries to its employees. In October, it took a nose dive and just like in 2008, untold numbers of people lost all their savings.

“Ordinary Zimbabweans are paying for the excesses of a venal predatory elite not being held to account,” said Piers Pigou of the International Crisis Group.

Mlandeli, the engineer, says he wishes the government would swallow its pride, scrap the bond notes and start trading in the U.S. dollar and South African Rand.

In another echo of 2008, 50 died this September in a cholera outbreak that struck Harare over the same week Mnangagwa gave his inaugural address to parliament. In 2008, more than 4,000 died. The inflation crisis has hit hospitals particularly hard, leaving them unable to afford imported medicines.

“Our patients are relapsing, deteriorating, operations being cancelled,” said the Zimbabwe Medical Association in a statement last week.

The main opposition party — the Movement for Democratic Change — has focused mainly on organizing protests and continuing its refusal to work with Mnangagwa out of fear that it would legitimize his election victory.

In practical terms, that means the opposition has little say in building the new Zimbabwe that its supporters yearn for.

“I don’t want to exaggerate and say there will be violence, but patience is wearing thin,” said Pigou.

For many in Zimbabwe, patience is all they have.

Washington Post

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