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Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
A man carries a street sign as opposition party supporters clash with police in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 26 August 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Commentary / Africa

Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent

Abductions, assaults by pro-government thugs and anti-government demonstrations met by tear gas and water cannon all signal rising levels of violence in Zimbabwe. The situation is aggravated by the government’s failure to implement proposals for reform and mounting economic woes.

Zimbabwe may not be a failed state yet, but its rulers are doing nothing to prevent its collapse.

After months of empty promises of reform, President Robert Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), have set a course designed to mute criticism, criminalise political opposition and shut down any attempt to weaken their grip on power. The gloves are off.

At the same time, a renewed spirit of resistance and protest has taken hold, with an array of constituencies voicing their displeasure. Signals are multiplying of new violent confrontation to come. Under the banner of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), eighteen opposition parties including the two most influential, Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First (ZPF), have embarked on a series of protests that state security services are determined to stamp out.

On multiple occasions in August and September police have resorted to tear gas and water cannon to disperse anti-government demonstrations; in late August the police introduced a ban on protests in Harare. They subsequently defied a court ruling overturning the ban by extending it to mid-October. Reports of abductions and beatings of activists by militias and covert security units have increased significantly and echo previous cycles of resistance and repression. A brutal assault on 25 September by ZANU-PF supporters on four senior ZPF leaders, including Brigadier General (Rtd) Agrippa Mutambara, former ambassador to Mozambique, confirms a trajectory toward more ruthless tactics.

The government shows no interest in dialogue and dismisses calls for reform, accusing NERA and the plethora of other protest groups of furthering a foreign sponsored agenda to create the conditions for regime change. It claims its opponents have received military training and now present a serious security challenge. This is supported by a conspiracy narrative played out in the state media. At the same time the government has reneged on promised policy reforms and dialed up its attacks on Western governments, including the United Kingdom and the United States, who paradoxically continue to provide the bulk of humanitarian support in response to a crippling drought and chronic food shortages.

Nor has the president spared domestic institutions. When Zimbabwe’s courts ruled in September that protests were legal and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission accused ruling party officials of distributing more food aid to loyalists, Mugabe denounced them for being in cahoots with the international conspiracy. The “offending” judge is now under investigation for soliciting a bribe.

Broken Promises

With an economy in crisis and almost $2 billion owed just in international debt arrears, the government’s domestic borrowing (mainly through the issuing of treasury bills) has become unsustainable. Having failed to secure much-needed support from China, Zimbabwe’s desperation forced it to return to those traditional western lenders it had shunned, mocked and accused of criminal agendas for over a decade. However, the road back to credibility and potential solvency was always going to be painful; the government has to cobble together a loan package to pay its arrears before it can even qualify for critically needed additional budget support.

Twelve months ago, on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Lima, Peru, the government presented a reengagement and recovery strategy for clearing its debt arrears and implementing related governance reforms. It was a limited framework, focused on financial and economic measures, but one that provided a sliver of hope that Harare was prepared to commit to greater transparency and accountability. This, it was argued, would buttress undertakings to address reforms outstanding from the previous unity government period, in particular the alignment with the constitution of hundreds of laws adopted in 2013.

Several western governments embraced the opportunity to rebuild bridges with Harare, expecting ZANU-PF to adopt a new approach. The government was saying the right things and there was a strong belief that economic realities would bring intransigent elements to their senses. These hopes have been dashed, however, and progress in implementing reforms has been stymied by opaque factional dynamics and political machinations within the ruling party.

The reforms were officially endorsed by President Mugabe, but his commitment to the process has been at best inconsistent. Promised changes to ZANU-PF’s controversial indigenisation policy and significant cuts in government expenditure (in particular reducing the bloated civil service salary bill) have not materialised. These and other measures to promote transparency and good governance have proven too difficult for ZANU-PF to implement, suggesting that government spending has become central to the party’s patronage system.

Zimbabwe may not be a failed state yet, but its rulers are doing nothing to prevent its collapse.

Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s most recent pledge, in early September, to cut civil service salaries was promptly contradicted by Information and Communications Minister Chris Mushohwe. It was a body blow to the government’s claims of being committed to reform.

Even if the government does secure funds to repay debt arrears, few development banks will be willing to approve loans amid the current uncertainties. Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe is not on the agenda for the IMF’s October Board meeting in Washington, D.C.

Mugabe refuses to provide clarity or allow discussion on his succession, while a punishing schedule is visibly taking a toll on the 92-year-old president. Leaked intelligence reports reflect growing concerns about his growing fragility and frequent collapses. Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, regarded by many as heir apparent, has been weakened by opponents, who reportedly plan to use ZANU-PF’s national conference, scheduled for December, to thwart his presidential ambitions.  

Mugabe’s sudden disappearance in late August from the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc fueled feverish speculation. For almost 60 hours it was unclear where he was and whether, as multiple sources reported, he was at death’s door. On his return, he said he’d just gone to sort out some family affairs. The stunt was widely suspected of having been designed to test the loyalty of Mnangagwa in the role of acting president.

Economic Woes Stoke Discontent

Prospects for recovery and stability look bleak. Divisions within ZANU-PF remain profound, although some believe the party may be able to put its differences aside to beat off the opposition ahead of the 2018 elections. It would be a short term strategy, but in these dire straits short term relief trumps long term concerns.

On the economic front, the government may buy itself some breathing room in a debilitating liquidity squeeze by introducing bond notes in October. But many predict this new “surrogate currency” will further erode diminishing confidence in a government which is at pains to point out this is not akin to a return to the valueless Zimbabwean dollar. The move is likely to fan the flames of protest.

Neighbours are loath to step in. SADC members, with the exception of Botswana, have publicly ignored calls to engage. South Africa has gone so far as to endorse ZANU-PF’s assertion that there is no crisis to speak of. But this belies the reality of a profound sense of impotence and growing concerns among regional governments about where Zimbabwe is heading.

Silence should not be an option. In 2008, the region ignored the warning signs and did not hold ZANU-PF to account for almost 300 murders that marred the elections. Then, ZANU-PF did what it needed to retain power. Now, in spite of complicating factional dynamics, prospects of a repeat performance loom large. Stoked by economic collapse and the government’s desperate desire to hold onto power, Zimbabwe is back on a trajectory to further confrontation and repression.

Correction: This article has been corrected to remove a reference to Minister Chris Mushohwe as being Mugabe's nephew. Mushohwe was replaced in his previous portfolio as the Minister of Indigenisation by Patrick Zhuwao, who is a nephew of the president.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace attend a meeting of his ruling ZANU-PF party's youth league in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 7 October 2017. Philimon Bulawayo/REUTERS
Commentary / Africa

Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens

President Robert Mugabe plunged Zimbabwe into political crisis by firing his long-time ally and enforcer Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 6 November 2017. In this Q&A prior to an apparent army coup in Mnangagwa's favour on 14-15 November, Crisis Group’s Senior Southern Africa Consultant Piers Pigou gives the background to the struggle to succeed the 93-year-old president.

This Q&A on the background to Zimbabwe’s political crisis of November 2017 was published just before an apparent army coup on the night of 14-15 November.

What’s behind the new political crisis in Zimbabwe?

The crisis began on 6 November when President Mugabe fired Emmerson Mnangagwa and expelled him from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. This was not unexpected. The powerful vice president had become a serious rival and threat to the physically weakened but still astute Mugabe.

Since Vice President Joice Mujuru’s unceremonious removal from office in late 2014, there has been a debilitating factional battle within ZANU-PF over who would succeed the aging president. It pitted Mnangagwa and his supporters against a group of powerful senior and vocal party members – dubbed the “G40”. They rallied around First Lady Grace Mugabe and by mid-2016 it was evident Mugabe tacitly favoured his wife’s associates, who dominated ZANU-PF’s Youth and Women’s Leagues.

During this period, veterans of the liberation war, a key pillar of Mugabe’s support, broke ranks and fell behind Mnangagwa. However, Mnangagwa was unable to embrace them, fearful this would be used against him as further evidence of disloyalty. Instead, he distanced himself from those who supported and promoted him, which made him look weak and indecisive.

His eventual fall played out in awkward slow motion, with the pendulum of his political fortunes swinging back and forth as analysts feverishly speculated whether or not his ambitions to succeed the president would be thwarted. Some expected Mnangagwa’s removal to play out at the party’s extraordinary congress in December. There is speculation that Mugabe acted ahead of this out of fear that his health might rapidly deteriorate.

Where does the army and security sector stand on Mnangagwa’s firing?

Mnangagwa’s support within the security sector, which is crucial to ZANU-PF’s continued rule, supposedly made him too big to fall. Evidently, this was not the case. But his removal has lifted the lid on growing discontent.

A public statement on 13 November by the commander of the defence forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, sent an unambiguous warning that internal dynamics in ZANU-PF, including counter-revolutionary infiltration into the party and hostile attitudes toward the security sector from certain politicians, were destabilising Zimbabwe and generating insecurity. Without mentioning Mnangagwa, Chiwenga called for an end to the unfolding purge of party elements with a liberation history, warning that if the integrity of Zimbabwe’s revolution was threatened, the army would intervene. Although couched in defence of the Zimbabwe’s commander in chief, President Mugabe, Chiwenga implicitly was pointing his finger at him, the first lady and certain G40 elements.

This unprecedented public intervention has sharpened tensions within both ZANU-PF and the security forces. How Mugabe responds to this will be critical if further tensions are to be avoided. He has allowed senior officers to make political statements before, but generally when these were about the opposition. On several occasions in the last two years, he publicly has expressed displeasure at their intervention in internal party affairs. Chiwenga’s statement goes beyond previous interventions, and Mugabe will have to employ all his guile if he intends to ensure continued accommodation with the armed forces.

What does Mnangagwa’s dismissal mean for Zimbabwe’s mutating political landscape?

Mnangagwa’s networks within the party and state administration insulated him to some extent from Mugabe’s machinations and the clear intent of the first lady to bring him down. By mid-2017, it was clear that the G40 was in fact Mugabe’s own project (albeit one he may not have full control over), employed along with his wife as a foil to contain Mnangagwa’s ambitions. As the noose tightened, the crude choreography of accusations against him crescendoed into a series of public humiliations, during which he was accused of disloyalty, deceit and tribalism. It all pointed to his inevitable removal. Yet, inexplicably, he hung on, seemingly without a coherent plan and unable to convincingly push back.

G40 acolytes in the provinces have drawn up a list of Mnangagwa allies they want purged. This includes long-time State Security Minister Kembo Mohadi and recently fired Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who has been the public face of re-engagement with international financial institutions. Some may be expelled from the ZANU-PF, but most will be enmeshed in internal disciplinary processes that will significantly frustrate any possible organised pushback from within ZANU-PF’s provincial structures. A purge of senior civil servants perceived as aligned to Mnangagwa also is expected.

President Mugabe turns 94 in February and remains the party’s presidential candidate for the 2018 election. What kind of succession is he planning and will he support the elevation of his wife, Grace Mugabe, to the vice presidency?

Having removed his major rival, Mugabe can now stage-manage his own succession, which likely will occur only after he dies in office. ZANU-PF’s extraordinary congress, scheduled 12 to 17 December, will see a reconfiguration and possible expansion of ZANU-PF’s presidium to include three vice presidents (also known as 2nd secretary), most likely the incumbent, Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko, Grace Mugabe and Defence Minister Sydney Sekeremayi. The latter has been enthusiastically promoted over the last few months by Grace and the G40 as the man Mugabe trusts most. But, like everyone else, Sekeremayi is a mere appointee and serves at the president’s pleasure. He does not have his own power base, and in late 2014 he had to be rescued by Mugabe after being caught in the cross-hairs of the anti-Mujuru purge.

ZANU-PF’s Women and Youth Leagues, now supported by Vice President Mphoko, have called on Mugabe to appoint Grace as vice president. She is undoubtedly ambitious and may well have her sights on the top job. Mugabe, the final arbiter, has supported his wife’s controversial foray into the political battlefield, where she has been effectively promoting his political interests. But he is aware that she is not popular and that such a blatant dynastic move may well galvanise the fragmented opposition, as well as disgruntled elements within ZANU-PF. Her elevation to first vice president would also not guarantee that she take over once Mugabe dies. Indeed, her political cachet is likely to be significantly diminished when her husband is no longer in office.

Can Mnangagwa stage a comeback?

When the axe fell last week, Mnangagwa fled to Mozambique, fearing for his own safety. This was an irony not lost on those who welcome the downfall of a man nicknamed the Crocodile, with a reputation for brutality and once regarded as untouchable. His first public pushback, a statement from an unknown location, attacked the first family for treating ZANU-PF as their personal property and promising he would be back to take control of the situation within a matter of weeks.

Mnangagwa’s options are certainly now more constrained. It is unclear whether he will attempt to undermine ZANU-PF’s election preparations or if he has the capacity to do so. There is also the question of how he should relate to the opposition and especially its principal leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), with whom he has been accused of secretly conspiring. To join the opposition would be used as further “evidence” of his alleged complicity, and may well further divide the opposition, many of whom want nothing to do with a man accused of an array of gross human rights violations and of having sought to disrupt the opposition. But to strike out on his own (as Mujuru did when she formed her National People’s Party) likely would have him heading only a small and marginal party in a fragmented political landscape.

What does this development mean in terms of improving Zimbabwe’s prospects for re-engagement with international creditors, reform and recovery?

There is widespread uncertainty regarding what will happen next. Tsvangirai, whose own health problems have fed speculation that he may not be able to lead the major opposition coalition, the MDC Alliance, in national elections expected in April 2018, has rightly warned that the political environment is dangerously unstable.

Economic conditions have visibly deteriorated over the last two months. The volume of physical money circulating in both the formal and informal economy has contracted sharply. Inflationary pressures exacerbated by this liquidity crisis have driven up the cost of living, leading to a crash in the purchasing power of salaries paid into bank accounts. At the same time, the government is continuing along a dangerous path of deficit financing, with the new Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo announcing the budget deficit will climb to $1.82 billion this year (the total budget is $5.6 billion). The government has no plan beyond the limited option of domestic borrowing, which has skyrocketed since 2013. Zimbabwe is once again heading back into hyperinflationary territory.

Mnangagwa was held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting an economic recovery predicated on re-engagement with international creditors and a package of reform that would instil a measure of much needed confidence. Yet evidence that he would or could deliver on this front is not persuasive.

Those now in the ascendency within ZANU-PF in any event are unlikely to explore these options, especially before the elections. They have demonstrated no intention of doing so. In theory, Mnangagwa could lay out the re-engagement, reform and recovery plan that he apparently was unable to deliver because he was constrained by internal ZANU-PF factionalism. That said, if he does not come up with a coherent strategy that moves beyond efforts to clawback power within ZANU-PF, few will be convinced that he has the vision to pilot such a comeback, let alone confront the bigger challenge of a national recovery plan.