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Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
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.

Angry protesters barricade the main route to Zimbabwe's capital Harare from Epworth township after the government announced a hike in fuel prices, on 14 January 2019. AFP/Jekesai Njikizana
Q&A / Africa

Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwean government’s decision to hike fuel prices has sparked fierce opposition. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Consultant Piers Pigou explains how economic hardship is driving ordinary citizens to unprecedented acts of resistance.

What triggered this explosion of unrest?

On 12 January, in response to persistent fuel shortages compounded by manipulation and mismanagement of a currency crisis, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a fuel price hike of over 200 per cent to $3.31 per litre – making the country’s petrol price the highest in the world. It is unclear how this move would address the shortages, outside of pricing fuel out of the reach of many; already, the knock-on effects of transport and commodity price increases are adding evident stress to ordinary Zimbabweans’ lives.

The massive rise sparked a general strike, along with widespread protests, which in many areas was characterised by violence and considerable destruction of property. Those behind the strike did not call for demonstrations, but thousands, especially young people, took to the streets, with many looting shops and burning cars or buildings. Protests were concentrated in and around the main opposition strongholds, the capital Harare and Bulawayo, but also appeared in cities elsewhere across the country. In turn the government ordered a vicious clampdown – deploying soldiers as well as police.

At the end of the second day of protests on 15 January, Zimbabwe’s Doctors for Human Rights released a statement saying “hundreds shot, tens estimated dead in rampant rights violations across Zimbabwe”. Their assessment included reports of 107 patients treated for gunshot and blunt trauma wounds. For days after that, it was hard to obtain updated casualty figures. The government blocked internet services, both at the outset of the unrest and again on 18 January, severely disrupting the flow of information and contributing to widespread confusion.

The scale of violence is the worst the country has witnessed in some time.

On 18 January, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum was able to publish consolidated statistics counting 844 human rights violations during the general strike. These numbers include: at least twelve killings; at least 78 gunshot injuries; at least 242 cases of assault, torture or inhumane and degrading treatment, including dog bites; 466 arbitrary arrests and detentions; and many displacements (with the number being verified). Other violations are invasion of privacy, obstruction of movement, and limitation of media freedoms and access to information. 

Protesters have also engaged in intimidation, violence, vandalism and looting. The government confirmed that they stoned one police officer to death; there are several unconfirmed reports of fatalities and injuries among the security forces. The extent of the property damage has yet to be determined, though human rights groups have documented at least 46 instances. The country’s main cities are at a standstill.

The government and media have accused the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), trade unions and civil society groups backed by foreign funders (the U.S. and Germany were named) of orchestrating the protests as part of a campaign to undermine the government and elevate the MDC’s leader, Nelson Chamisa, into office. Such accusations are par for the course when the government faces protests; based on past experience, it seems unlikely it will supply compelling evidence to support these claims.

Did the unrest come out of the blue?

Anger at the government has been building for some time. On my last visit to the capital Harare in December 2018, the country’s economic woes were plain to see. Prices in shops were soaring, retailers were closing down and queues for petrol were lengthening as the country struggled to juggle payments for competing import priorities. Control over the country’s fuel supply is in the hands of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the huge financial benefits that come with it are reportedly causing factional rivalry. There is widespread public speculation that the shortages are caused by inter-elite squabbles or even deliberately engineered.

People in Harare complain that the administration is akin to a new driver in an old taxi.

The price hike thus ignited the already dry tinder on the ground. On 13 January, one day after the announcement, civil society groups backed a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions for a three-day “stayaway”, or general strike.

Underlying the skyrocketing prices of fuel, food and other goods is a currency crisis that has been worsening through much of 2018. In 2009, facing similar hyper-inflation, the government abandoned the national currency, and switched the economy over completely to the U.S. dollar. After an election in 2013 in which it ran on a platform of job creation and economic recovery, the ZANU-PF government demonstrated astonishing levels of financial delinquency. It “financed” its own systematic over-expenditure with massive borrowing. Domestic debt, which stood at just $442 million in 2013, surged to $10.5 billion by February 2018 and has climbed further over the last year. In 2016, as more and more dollars drained out of the economy, the government introduced a new “bond note” currency, nominally at parity with the dollar, in an attempt to make up for cash shortages, as well as direct electronic payments into bank accounts for goods and services. These payments included the salaries of civil servants, the last bastion of formal employment. It was the equivalent of printing money over and above the value of the reserves in the central bank.

The government continues to claim parity between the bond note, electronic balances and the dollar. With most financial transactions being cashless, this mythology of official parity was maintained, although the bond notes and electronic reserves were trading at a lower rate. But both the latter quasi-currencies have rapidly depreciated since the government introduced fiscal and monetary reforms in October, leading prices for goods and services to spike across the board. The runaway inflation in turn has prompted panic buying and widespread shortages of critical goods such as medicines. It has cut the value of ordinary citizens’ earnings and savings by more than half, further impoverishing an already struggling populace.

In the weeks following the fiscal reforms, as purchasing power evaporated, the entire public-sector work force began organising to confront the government. Since early December, Zimbabwean doctors have been at loggerheads with the government, crippling central parts of an already degraded health care system. On 8 January, the Apex Council, an umbrella body representing civil servants, issued the government the statutory two-week notice that it would call a general strike to protest the government’s refusal to pay civil servants in hard currency, namely U.S. dollars.

Is there precedent for this level of violence accompanying protests in Zimbabwe?

The scale of violence is the worst the country has witnessed in some time. Before 1 August 2018, when the military shot dead six civilians in Harare, Zimbabwe’s security forces did not use live ammunition in crowd control. Now they seem to rely on it.

In another escalation, the government has deployed the military to suppress protests and make arrests, highlighting the ineffectiveness of the police or, as some believe, that the government does not trust the police to crack down on protests with sufficient fervour. The response also reflects an embedded military influence in government decision making and could usher in a new phase of repression in Zimbabwe.

Nor has the country seen a comparable level of violence, looting and destruction by ordinary Zimbabweans. Some of it is undoubtedly orchestrated, but most appears to be spontaneous. More than ever, young people are willing to confront the government in the streets, reflecting desperation and their deep-seated frustration. Anecdotes are surfacing of huge sections of road being shut down and railway carriages being dragged off the rails and into the streets, signaling new levels of revolt. Such actions suggest a growing number of Zimbabweans are less risk averse in terms of a confrontational approach, adding a highly dangerous new element into the mix.

Just fifteen months ago, a coup forced strongman Robert Mugabe from office. Wasn’t Zimbabwe full of hope then?

The optimism that accompanied the ouster of long-time President Robert Mugabe in November 2017 has evaporated. For a time, many Zimbabweans thought his replacement, Mnangagwa, might be a reformer, though he had long been a ruling-party stalwart who was Mugabe’s vice president. The international community, including a number of critics, were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, however, cynicism is growing in many quarters, albeit for diverse reasons. There are signs of discontent even among ZANU-PF loyalists and members of the security forces, who are also bearing the brunt of economic decay.

Controversy blighted Zimbabwe’s much anticipated elections on 30 July 2018, even though the courts endorsed the outcome. Many believe that the use of state resources in Mnangagwa’s favour pushed him over the finish line in the presidential contest. Unprecedented spending by the government ahead of the elections contradicted promises of financial prudence. The MDC refuses to recognise Mnangagwa’s government as legitimate, while the government accuses the opposition of being unpatriotic and promoting a nefarious regime change agenda. The country is polarised, attitudes on both sides have hardened and prospects for bridge-building have withered.

Since the elections, the new government has managed to deliver few tangible results. People in Harare complain that the administration is akin to a new driver in an old taxi. Many see the government simply as a reconfiguration of the ZANU-PF, now freed from Mugabe but dominated by security-sector interests and factions aligned to the new president.

Questions are also surfacing over President Mnangagwa’s judgment. He left the country immediately after announcing the fuel price hike, ostensibly to search for trade deals in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But such deals are unlikely to resolve the immediate economic issues facing Zimbabwe: while he may drum up some foreign investment in the country, those governments will not provide much needed budgetary support. Nobody believes that Mnangagwa will enjoy anything like the enthusiastic reception he got last year if he goes, as planned, to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

Already in December, one of Zimbabwe’s leading political scientists was telling me that “the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out”. He meant that Mnangagwa’s government, while consolidating its authority politically, would be unable to deliver a sustainable, broad-based economic recovery.

[F]urther unrest in the coming days, weeks or months is a question of when, rather than if.

What could happen next?

For almost two decades, observers of Zimbabwe have warned of pending economic collapse, mass hunger and social implosion. Conditions steadily worsened, but Zimbabweans employed an impressive array of survival strategies, from emigration producing diaspora remittances to work in the informal sector, where “making a plan”, as per a common expression, has become something of an art form. The apparent stability has fed complacency, a sense that Zimbabwe can keep on bumping along the bottom. But evidence on the streets now suggests that may no longer be true.

The security clampdown is continuing. Notwithstanding its chilling effect on some potential protesters, further unrest in the coming days, weeks or months is a question of when, rather than if. Another initiative for a general strike is already in motion; calls for a “Stayaway 2” on 23-25 January are circulating on social media. Key questions are how organised it will be, given the likelihood that many organisers of the initial street actions are detained, and how the state will respond. Already, there is a de facto nationwide shutdown as towns and city centres remain empty. People cannot move freely because transport is too expensive. Many cannot afford to go to work.

Zimbabwe desperately needs reform if the government is to keep the country reasonably stable and preserve its re-engagement with international donors

At the same time, the information gap makes it difficult to judge what is happening. Amid endemic misinformation and fake news, some exaggeration of the country’s disarray is likely in play. But in any case, it is unlikely that the mood of confrontation will dissipate quickly. The government may be able to put a lid on unrest and take activists off the streets, but that will not address the conditions that have brought people out. More confrontational protests seem inevitable even if the crackdown curbs protests for now.

What should outside powers do about Zimbabwe’s crisis?

The biggest challenge at this juncture is to get the government to do something about the unrest besides shoot and arrest protesters. Zimbabwe desperately needs reform if the government is to keep the country reasonably stable and preserve its re-engagement with international donors, a process that started with Mugabe’s ouster. To pull off that reform, it needs broad political consensus, including within both the ruling party and the opposition, but also within other social constituencies. The country is polarised on multiple fronts – ideally the government would commit to supporting the development and implementation of some form of national reconciliation strategy to at least start to heal these divisions. For now, however, such a strategy is not even part of political discourse.

It is unclear, however, who has the leverage to nudge the government from repression to reform – or if anyone wants to do so. In the neighbourhood, the Southern African Development Community did not immediately respond to the unrest. Wider international reaction has been muted. Civil society groups have expressed concern and diaspora groups have marched in Johannesburg. But the South African government, traditionally engaged in Zimbabwean politics, has downplayed the situation. With the prospect of more bloodshed and large-scale refugee flight, the region, and indeed the world, cannot afford to ignore the crisis.