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Time to Rethink the Kimberley Process: The Zimbabwe Case
Time to Rethink the Kimberley Process: The Zimbabwe Case
Commentary / Africa

Time to Rethink the Kimberley Process: The Zimbabwe Case

On 11-12 September 2010, Zimbabwe auctioned diamonds from the controversial Marange mines. There was little international condemnation, especially compared to the controversy over the first sale of Marange diamonds in August. Since an export ban was imposed on diamonds from Marangein November 2009, the Kimberley Process (KP)[fn]The Kimberley Process is a ten-year old initiative by governments, industry, and civil society to end the trade in conflict diamonds — rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments. Directly resulting from the gruesome conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in which diamonds were used to finance the rebellion, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme imposes extensive requirements on its members (the KP has 49 members, representing 75 countries—the European Community counts as an individual participant) to enable them to certify shipments of rough diamonds as conflict-free. KP membership is voluntary and members are supposed to fulfill the commitments in order for their diamonds to be certified. Also see: KP-Joint Work Plan, Zimbabwe, November 2009Hide Footnote has permitted Zimbabwe to hold two auctions, although the country has not been able to guarantee that widespread human rights violations in the mines and smuggling have stopped. Criticised by both those who favour and those who oppose the ban, this unusual compromise demonstrates that the KP’s narrow definition of conflict diamonds is inadequate, and that the body must expand its authority if it is not to lose its credibility and legitimacy as the diamond-trade watchdog.

Zimbabwe: Still Trying for Democracy

Zimbabwe, a landlocked country of some 12.5 million inhabitants, is stuck in a decade-long political crisis and struggling to move from dictatorship to democracy. For 28 years from independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe ruled uninterrupted. During the first ten years, the country was a major tobacco producer and a main food supplier for the region. Starting in the early 1990s, however, the de facto one-party state implemented various measures to increase its grip on power, including a crack-down on civil liberties, and by the last years of the century, the increasingly mismanaged economy had started to crumble.

The economic problems and political repression triggered opposition, as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)[fn]The MDC was founded as an opposition party to ZANU-PF in 1999 by a wide range of civic groups and trade union organisations under the leadership of Tsvangirai, a former union leader.Hide Footnote led by Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to end ZANU-PF’s domination. The defeat of Mugabe’s proposed constitutional referendum on presidential powers and controversial land reforms in 2000 was a clear sign of the changing political landscape. The ZANU-PF government reacted brutally to the growing opposition by suppressing press freedom, intimidating the opposition and launching a forced distribution of white-owned commercial farms. The latter campaign led to massive flight of white farmers, serious food shortages and the beginning of the collapse of the agriculture-based economy. The result was hyperinflation, unemployment and deteriorating living conditions.[fn]By 2002, 80 per cent of the population was below the poverty line, up from 35 per cent in 1995, and by mid-2005, income per capita had fallen to the 1953 level. Life expectancy at birth fell from 49 in 1994 to 43.4 in 2007 (Crisis Group Africa Report N° 122, Zimbabwe: An End to the Stalemate? 5 March 2007; Crisis Group Africa Report N° 70, Zimbabwe: Political and Security Challenges to the Transition, 3 March 2010; “Progress Report on the Millennium Development Goals 2002”, Government of Zimbabwe, 2004; Human Development Report, UN Development Programme (UNDP), 1997 and 2005).Hide Footnote

Zimbabweans became increasingly disillusioned with the country’s leadership, but, relying heavily on fraud and intimidation, Mugabe was reelected in 2002 and ZANU-PF won a two-thirds majority in the 2005 parliamentary elections.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N° 93, Post-Election Zimbabwe: What Next? 7 June 2005.Hide Footnote In that same year, the government launched “Operation Restore Order” to forcibly clear informal housing structures and businesses, especially from the capital, Harare, resulting in the displacement of 700,000 mostly poor supporters of the opposition.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N° 122, Zimbabwe: An End to the Stalemate? 5 March 2007.Hide Footnote The U.S., UK, European Union (EU), Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand reacted to the worsening political situation by imposing travel restrictions against and freezing financial assets of senior Zimbabwean officials and banning the sale of arms to Zimbabwe.

2008 was a landmark year. In the March presidential elections, the Tsvangirai received the most votes, but not enough to win outright in the initial round. Ahead of the scheduled late June run-off, the government and ZANU-PF organised massive violence against opposition party members and supporters, causing Tsvangirai to withdraw. Under international pressure and with the assistance of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a transitional power-sharing arrangement — the Global Political Agreement — was hammered out and eventually signed in September. Mugabe retained the presidency, and Tsvangirai became prime minister.

Despite initial skepticism, the unity government succeeded in stabilising the economy and ending the widespread repression. However, while the parties have agreed that the end of the inclusive, transitional government should be based on the completion of the process to produce a new constitution, a referendum on that document and new elections, democracy remains elusive: the political reform provided for in the agreement has not been carried out, and ZANU-PF maintains control over the security services.

The Discovery of Marange

The Marange mine in eastern Zimbabwe is the most recently discovered (2006) of the country’s three major diamond fields[fn]The River Ranch kimberlite field near the South African border and Murowa in south-central Zimbabwe are the other two mining sites. They are both privately owned and operated and in full compliance with the KP. See “Review Mission to Zimbabwe, 30 June–4 July 2009, Final Report”, Kimberley Process.Hide Footnote and already produces six million carats per year. Its discovery unleashed a diamond rush of 15,000 to 20,000 unlicensed artisanal miners and uncontrolled smuggling; international diamond buyers streamed in.[fn] “Zimbabwe, Diamonds and the Wrong Side of History”, Partnership Africa Canada, March 2009; David Farira, “Eerie silence at Zimbabwe mine”, BBC, 4 December 2008.Hide Footnote

Shortly after the mining boom started, British-registered African Consolidated Resources (ACR), which had taken up the exploration rights from De Beers a few months earlier, began operations. However, its license was soon revoked by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) and its mines shut. Despite a subsequent court ruling in its favour, police prevented ACR from resuming operations. The dispute took a new twist in September 2010, when another court reversed the earlier decision, arguing that ACR had fraudulently acquired the mining rights. The state now intends to prosecute the company for unlawful acquisition.

Marange Fields: Violence, Smuggling and Corruption

In early 2007, the police were sent to Marange to take control of the diamond fields. By mid-2007, illegal mining was believed to have been brought under control; however, by the fourth quarter of 2008, tens of thousand illegal diamond miners were reappearing.[fn]“Review Mission to Zimbabwe”, op. cit.; “Second Fact Finding Mission to Zimbabwe, 24 May–28 May, 2010 Report”, Kimberley Process.Hide Footnote To restore and maintain order and to ensure access of the ZANU-PF elites to the diamond fields, the army deployed more than 800 soldiers in October 2008, in Operation “Hakudzokwi Kumunda”,[fn]Translation: “Operation you would never go back to the diamond fields”.Hide Footnote which resulted in more than 200 deaths.

The Marange fields were turned into a military stronghold. Operations were taken over by soldiers, who either mined themselves or forced residents, including children, to work for them. While violence peaked with the military takeover in 2008, the police and army have continued to commit human rights violations, including the use of forced labour and torture against both diamond workers and local communities.[fn]Tichaona Sibanda, “Diamond rush pits ZANU-PF heavyweights against each other”, SW Radio Africa, 24 November 2008; “Deliberate Chaos”, Human Rights Watch, June 2010; “Diamonds in the Rough”, Human Rights Watch, June 2009.Hide Footnote

The same security forces are also responsible for widespread smuggling out of Zimbabwe, generally through Mozambique, a non-KP member.[fn]Mozambique is currently considering joining the KP.Hide Footnote Vila de Manica, just over the eastern border, where the illegal trade is conducted openly with the complicity of Zimbabwean and Mozambican officials, has become the main transit point for Marange’s undocumented diamonds. Middlemen, miners and soldiers bring the diamonds out, after which they are exported to international cutting and polishing centres.[fn] “Second Fact Finding Mission”, op. cit.; Alex Bell, “Zimbabwe: Army leading smuggling operations out of Chiadzwa”, SW Radio Africa, 26 July 2010;  “Illicit trade Zimbabwean blood diamond trade continues”, The Budapest Report, 5 August 2010; Sarah Childress, “Diamond trade regulatory loophole in Mozambique”, The Wall Street Journal, 6 November 2009.Hide Footnote

It is not just the soldiers stationed at the mines who benefit. While the military controls some 90 per cent of the Marange fields,[fn]“Return of the Blood Diamond”, Global Witness, 2010.Hide Footnote the rest is operated by mining companies. The revenue from sales benefits only a few individuals connected to the military and the companies. The two firms authorised to operate in the mines since November 2009 are Canadile Miners Private Ltd and Mbada Diamonds (aka Condurango).[fn] “First Fact Finding Mission to Zimbabwe”, Kimberley Process, 21 March 2010. .Hide Footnote Both are equal partnerships with Marange Resources Private Ltd (Marange Resource), a ZMDC subsidiary.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Mbada is owned by Mauritius-registered Grandwell Holdings, a subsidiary of the New Reclamation Group from South Africa.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Canadile belongs to the South African Core Mining and Mineral Resources Ltd.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The third company allowed to mine the fields is Unki, a recent joint venture of a little-known Chinese firm, Anjin Investment, and Marange Resources.[fn] “Second Fact Finding Mission”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Mines Minister Mpofu (ZANU-PF) admitted in early 2010 that the process of awarding concessions to the two South African companies has been opaque and not in conformity with proper procedures.[fn]Alex Bell, “Mpofu admits issuing mining permits without ‘proper procedure’”, SW Radio Africa, 22 March 2010.Hide Footnote Unki was also established in a non-transparent way, without disclosing the nature of the joint venture or the identity of its board members. Two of the three parent companies are not known in the diamond industry. New Reclamation Group normally deals with recycling and scrap metal; while little information is available on the Chinese company, it is said to have no prior experience in diamond mining.[fn]“First Fact Finding Mission”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The Zimbabwe government needs to make the contents of the contracts public if it is to regularise the deals.

The industrialisation of diamond mining in Marange by Canadile and Mbada was seen as part of the solution of bringing it into compliance with international standards, but the two companies have become part of the opaque business.[fn]KP-Joint Work Plan, Zimbabwe, November 2009; “First Fact Finding Mission”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The ten-member boards of directors of both include individuals with close personal and family ties to ZANU-PF and almost no one with diamond mining experience. Mbada’s chairman, Robert Mhlanga, is Mugabe’s former personal helicopter pilot, the cousin of Minister Mpofu, who was allegedly involved in the diamond trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the war in the late 1990s, when Zimbabwean troops fought there.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, ZANU-PF official, October 2010; Jon Swain, “Bob’s dirty diamonds”, Zim Daily, 5 April 2010.Hide Footnote On Canadile’s board is Lovemore Kurotwi, a retired major who reportedly played a senior role during the infamous Matabeleland massacre in the 1980s.[fn]“Zimbabwe cabal seizes diamond riches to buy power”, The Sunday Times, 29 November 2009; “The Chiadzwa Gang: Shady individuals and fugitives”, The Zimbabwean, 25 June 2010. The Matabeleland massacre resulted in the death of between 10,000 and 20,000 members of the Ndebele minority at the hands of the largely ethnic Shona state security forces.Hide Footnote

Minister Mpofu is said to have handpicked the five boards seats assigned to ZMDC.[fn]“Return of the Blood Diamond”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Mbada’s board includes Mpofu’s sister-in-law, Sithengisisco Mpofu, and his personal assistant, Dingiswayo Ndlovu.[fn]“The Chiadzwa Gang”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Beauty Moyo, his sister-in-law, and Alvin Ncube, his nephew, are on Candile’s board.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, ZANU-PF official, October 2010.Hide Footnote The ZANU-PF elites directly benefit from these joint-ventures, though some, including Minister Mpofu, are under targeted Western sanctions.

The Involvement of the Kimberly Process

Out of concern for the situation in and around the Marange diamond fields, a Kimberley Process Review Mission was sent in June of 2009.[fn]The initial diamond rush prompted an earlier KP review mission to Marange in 2007, which concluded that Zimbabwe met minimum requirements. These include establishment of a system of internal controls to ensure that no conflict diamonds are exported and imported, according to the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme Preamble.Hide Footnote It concluded that Zimbabwe was in non-compliance with KP minimum requirements and called for withdrawal of the army and ending of the illegal mining and sale of diamonds.[fn]“KP Review Mission to Zimbabwe”, op. cit.Hide Footnote At the annual KP plenary in November 2009, civic groups called for Zimbabwe’s expulsion from the Kimberley scheme, but a joint work plan was agreed instead. Its objective is to bring Zimbabwe into compliance with minimum KP standards.

The country was given six months to fulfill requirements, including gradually withdrawing the army; ending illegal mining by setting up an adequate security infrastructure and engaging potential investors; and curbing smuggling by tightening border control and developing a joint strategy with Mozambique, among others.[fn]See Appendix B below for the KP-Joint Work Plan, Zimbabwe, November 2009.Hide Footnote In an innovation for the KP, whose embargoes normally cover a country’s entire diamond exports, it banned diamonds from Marange but not from the other two fields.[fn]Questions have been raised about how to be assured that Marange diamonds are not transported to the other mining sites, from where exports are legal. Mine Minister Mpofu stopped all diamond exports for the period of the ban on the Marange diamonds. They resumed at the end of August 2010, after the first group of Marange diamonds were certified. In addition, the other diamond fields are relatively small compared to Marange, so a sudden increase in their exports would indicate a transfer had taken place.Hide Footnote

Abbey Chikane,[fn] Abbey Chikane formerly was president of the South African Diamond Board. He is the brother of Frank Chikane, who was director general in the office of then President Mbeki, and of Kagiso Chikane, who is the chief executive of the mining company African Renaissance Holdings. “Rights activist claims diamond watchdog linked to ZANU-PF”, The Zimbabwean, 16 June 2010).Hide Footnote the KP monitor responsible for supervising compliance with the work plan, concluded in his June 2010 report, that Zimbabwe had met the minimum requirements. This contrasted with reports by human rights organisations of continued violence, including torture, beating and rape, by armed forces and the continuation of widespread smuggling for the benefit of a few individuals connected to the military and ZANU-PF.[fn]“Kimberley Process: Demand End to Abuses in Diamond Trade”, Human Rights Watch press release, 1 November 2010.Hide Footnote The revelation of those discrepancies was followed by state-sponsored intimidation. Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Research and Development, a civil and political rights organisation, was arrested in early June for allegedly providing false information about Marange to Chikane. Following international pressure, including a public call for his release by the president of the World Diamond Council,[fn] Address by the president of the World Diamond Council, inter-sessional meeting of the Kimberley Process, Jerusalem, 21 June 2010.Hide Footnote he was freed on 12 July and the charges dropped on 21 October.[fn]Patience Rusere, “Harare Magistrate Drops Charges against Zimbabwe Diamond Activist Farai Maguwu”, Voice of America, 21 October 2010.Hide Footnote

Despite many calls by civic groups, some member states, and industry representatives to continue the export ban, the KP agreed in St. Petersburg in July to allow Zimbabwe to conduct two supervised Marange diamonds auctions. It was also decided that a KP review team would be sent to Marange to determine whether full export could be resumed. This came after KP members had failed to reach a decision in mid-June, when most African countries, India, China and Russia advocated lifting the export ban, and the U.S., Canada and Australia opposed. The compromise came about only after the MDC joined ZANU-PF in urging the West to drop its opposition, arguing that Zimbabwe badly needed the revenue to rebuild its devastated economy and pay for government expenditures.

The compromise also resulted from the KP’s limited legal basis to put pressure on the Zimbabwe government. The process’ founding document defines conflict diamonds as those “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments …”[fn]Kimberley Process Certification Scheme Preamble.Hide Footnote The Marange stones do not fit this definition.[fn] KP does not have the legal basis for taking into consideration human rights violations when they are not tied to conflict by rebel movements aimed at undermining governments.Hide Footnote Permission for Zimbabwe to conduct two sales should be understood in this context as well as a way to keep it inside the KP by easing pressure. The decision to ban only Marange diamonds rather than impose a full embargo had the same rationale. The KP can monitor Marange and work with the government to make production compliant with security, human rights and transparency standards only as long as Zimbabwe agrees to continue participation.

The first public auction, on 11 August, sold 900,000 carats of diamonds, estimated to be worth $46 million, with the government receiving $30 million. Surat Diamond Sourcing Limited of India (SDSL), a major importer of rough diamonds recently formed by diamantaires from Surat India, bought 83 per cent.[fn]Caroline Mvundura, “India purchases 83 percent of Zim gems: report”, Zim Online, 18 August 2010.Hide Footnote Other buyers are said to have come from Russia, the U.S., Lebanon and Israel.[fn] Ibid.Hide Footnote The U.S.-based Rapaport Diamond Trading Network advised its more than 10,000 international diamond buyer and supplier members to boycott,[fn] Ibid.Hide Footnote as it was impossible to be certain whether the violence in the mines had ended, and threatened to expel and blacklist anyone taking part in the auction. The government seemed unimpressed, citing the ease with which it could find buyers in Asia and Russia.[fn] Savious Kwinika, “Zimbabwe slams ‘lunatic group’ for banning its diamonds”, The Christian Science Monitor, 17 August 2010.Hide Footnote

At the second auction, on 11-12 September, at least 400,000 carats of diamonds were sold to buyers reportedly from India, the United Arab Emirates and Belgium.[fn]“Zim flogs 400 000 carats at secret auction”, Zim Online, 16 September 2010; Avi Krawitz, “Zimbabwe sells 500,000 carats of Marange rough”, Rapaport, 14 September 2010.Hide Footnote In mid-October, however, two major European banks, ABN Amro and the Antwerp Diamond Bank, announced they would not finance any transactions involving diamonds from Zimbabwe.[fn]Vusimuzi Bhebhe, “EU banks ban Zim diamond transactions”, The Zimbabwean, 15 October 2010.Hide Footnote

The Kimberly Process: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The two authorised sales of Marange diamonds make clear the Zimbabwe government has no reason to feel threatened by a Western diamond import ban. In the diamonds world, too, emerging powers are challenging the rules and becoming more influential. Buyers, especially from India,[fn]Mahesh Langa, “Surat diamond barons in $1.2-bn Zimbabwe deal”,Hindustan Times, 24 October 2010.Hide Footnote have been more than willing to fill the gap resulting from the absence of most Westerners. Chinese buyers could also potentially compete, since Beijing joined New Delhi in strongly urging that the export ban be lifted during the negotiations leading to the St. Petersburg compromise. With world diamond production falling by 24 per cent since 2009 and increased competition, buyers are becoming readier to push human rights and governance standards aside. Marange is already a major producer, and new deposits are still being discovered in the country, so Zimbabwe’s importance as an exporter is likely to grow.[fn]Sandra Nyaira, “Zimbabwe Says New Diamond Deposits Discovered In Three Districts”, Voice of America, 11 October 2010.Hide Footnote

In an environment in which some governments of diamond-producing countries are reluctant to comply fully with the KP standards, and some governments of diamond-buying countries are willing to ignore the contribution the diamond trade is making to insecurity, human rights violations and conflict, the KP’s regulator role is being challenged.[fn]The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme Preamble recognises the “devastating impact of conflicts fuelled by the trade in conflict diamonds on the peace, safety and security of people in affected countries and the systemic and gross human rights violations that have been perpetrated in such conflict”.Hide Footnote This is all the more so in situations where, as in Zimbabwe, it actually has no legal basis to ban diamonds exports, but has to rely on the voluntary agreement of the diamond exporting government. In fact, expelling Zimbabwe from the KP scheme as has been suggested by civic groups, may not legally be possible and in any event might only allow new actors, such as Indian diamond buyers, to push more aggressively into the market without any human rights consideration.

The Marange affair reveals two contradictory trends: the emergence of new voices within an industry previously dominated by one major company, De Beers, and the politicisation of the KP. While the KP was established only to prevent rebel groups from profiting from diamonds, some have suggested extending the definition of conflict diamonds to take governance issues (such as corruption, political oppression and violence) into consideration. This would shift the focus of the process. The question is whether authoritarian regimes under international sanctions such as Zimbabwe should be prevented from using diamonds as a financial lifeline or whether only rebel groups should be targeted.

The KP has to make decisions about the conflict diamond definition, about how to improve transparency in the industry (for instance, requiring full disclosure of all contracts), about how to adjust to the industry’s new configuration and above all about the political issues behind the diamond trade.[fn]The president of the World Diamond Council has already made some suggestions how the KP might be reformed. Address by the president of the World Diamond Council, op. cit.Hide Footnote Otherwise, it risks becoming increasing irrelevant.

Appendix I: Chronology

2006

  • April: African Consolidated Resources Ltd. (ACR) receives exploration rights to the Marange fields.
     
  • September: Diamond rush in the Marange fields starts.
     
  • December: ACR starts mining and is shortly after shut down.

2007

  • January: Police are sent to control the Marange fields.
     
  • Spring: KP review mission is sent to Marange.

2008

  • Late October/early November: Operation “Hakudzokwi Kumunda” is launched.

2009

  • June: KP Review Mission is sent to Zimbabwe.
     
  • November: KP plenary meeting is held in Namibia: Zimbabwe and KP agree on Joint Work Plan. Joint ventures are formed.

2010

  • March: KP Monitor undertakes first visit to the Marange fields.
     
  • May: KP Monitor undertakes second visit to the Marange fields.
     
  • June: KP members meet in Israel.
     
  • July: KP members meet in Russia and reach compromise decision on Marange.
     
  • August: The first public auction is held.
     
  • September: The second public auction is held.
     
  • November: KP plenary meeting is held in Israel.

Appendix II : Chart

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.