U.S. Policy Toward Zimbabwe
U.S. Policy Toward Zimbabwe
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Speech / Africa

U.S. Policy Toward Zimbabwe

Testimony by Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President, International Crisis Group to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights on “U.S. Policy Toward Zimbabwe”.

I want to express my appreciation to Chairman Smith and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights for the opportunity to testify this morning on “U.S. Policy Toward Zimbabwe.” I want to commend the committee for focusing its attention at a crucial time for the people of Zimbabwe.

Crisis Group is an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that provides field-based analysis, policy advice and advocacy to governments, the United Nations, and other multilateral organizations on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. Crisis Group was founded in 1995 as an international non-governmental organisation by distinguished diplomats, statesmen and opinion leaders including Career Ambassador Mort Abramowitz, Nobel Prize winner and former Finland president Martti Ahtisaari, the late Congressman Stephen Solarz, and former UN and British diplomat Mark Malloch Brown who despaired at the international community’s failure to anticipate and respond effectively to mass atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. Ambassador Thomas Pickering is our co-chairman and Louise Arbour, former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is our president

Crisis Group publishes annually some 80 reports and briefing papers and the monthly CrisisWatch bulletin on conflict regions around the world. Our staff are located on the ground in twelve regional offices and seventeen other locations, covering more than 60 countries. Crisis Group’s Africa program oversees four projects covering Central, Southern, and West Africa, and the Horn of Africa, reporting on 20 different countries within these regions. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Crisis Group regional program headquarters are in Nairobi, with additional offices in Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Crisis Group has produced 25 reports/briefings overall on Zimbabwe, most recently on the continued political and security crisis in that country.


Zimbabwe, a landlocked country of some 12.5 million inhabitants, is caught in a decade-long political struggle to move from dictatorship to democracy. For 30 years, since independence in 1980, 87 year-old Robert Mugabe has ruled uninterruptedly. Starting in the early 1990s, however, the de facto one-party Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) state implemented various measures to increase its grip on power, including a crack-down on civil liberties. The actions taken after a violently unfair election in 2008 brought the country to near collapse. Only massive diplomatic intervention by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the Africa Union (AU) secured the Global Political Agreement (GPA). Signed on 15 September 2008, the GPA was intended to help lay the foundations for normalizing political processes and by extension foster conditions for free and fair elections. It provided for a coalition government, formed in February 2009, between ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change formations (MDC-T and MDC-M), but has failed to meet even minimal expectations for shared power

Major reforms promised in the agreement have yet to be accomplished. Those reforms are critical before acceptable elections can be envisioned, now almost certainly not possible until late 2012 or 2013. ZANU-PF is now calling for elections by the end of March 2012, once the constitution-making process is finalised, with serious question about the country’s readiness or the capacity of the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) to meet that unrealistic target

The GPA has been treated as a ‘ceasefire’ document and as a framework for further negotiation, rather than as a formal agreement to be implemented. The primary GPA protagonists, ZANU-PF and MDC-T of Morgan Tsvangirai, have tried to utilise the agreement to further their competing objectives and frustrate their opponents. ZANU-PF has used it as an opportunity to regroup, consolidate and recapture political hegemony and, in absolute control of security forces, has used repression to further those objectives. The political opposition, dominated by MDC-T, has used GPA as an opportunity to promote policies and processes that would further weaken ZANU-PF’s 30-year grip on power, but with a fundamental difference, an apparent readiness to respect pluralism and accept the outcome of democratic processes as a reflection of popular will.

The major hope was that the facilitators and co-guarantors of the GPA process and the final agreement, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), led by South Africa, and the African Union (AU) would forcefully monitor and expose violations of the GPA. Thus far, they have been unable to secure the reforms promised in the document. Last March SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defense and Security issued its first strong public communiqué on lack of progress with respect to GPA implementation. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa is the current SADC named facilitator to secure GPA progress.

Current Challenges

There are three major obstacles to the movement toward implementation of the GPA, completion of constitutional reform and free and fair general election. They form key guideposts of what is still a draft roadmap to elections promoted by SADC and tentatively agreed by the party negotiators in July. In fact, the sin qua non for progress is the completion and approval of that roadmap by Zimbabwe’s political party leaders.

   a.     State Sponsored Violence

State security forces, working with proxy and surrogates (i.e. war veterans, youth militia) were primarily responsible for the campaign of terror and intimidation between April and June 2008 that resulted in an estimated 300 deaths and more than 15,000 human rights abuses and other attacks. The ZANU-PF’s informal militia infrastructure has not been held accountable for violations, despite an explicit commitment in the GPA to do so (Article XVIII) and has not been dismantled. MDC and civil society groups see those security forces as continuing to pose a threat across the country, especially during a critical election. ZANU-PF categorically denies responsibility for state sponsored violence and accuse the MDC and civil society groups of utilising this issue as an integral part of their regime change agenda. It has also launched a counter offensive to portray the MDC as a violent political party.

These contradictory narratives underscore the importance of having an impartial and trustworthy mechanism to investigate allegations of violence and actions undermining the GPA.

With limited options, the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee (JOMIC) set up under the GPA appears to be the preferred mechanism for investigating allegations of violations. However, deployments promised by SADC to staff JOMIC have failed to materialize. Similarly the national Human Rights Commission, established in 2009, would be an independent mechanism for investigating violations. However, it has no legal mandate, operational budget, staff or resources. There have also been ongoing incidents of human rights abuses, public violence and systemic impunity, perpetrated by Zimbabwe security forces and militia directed by ZANU-PF adherents. In June, an explosive device detonated outside the home of MDC-T Finance Minister Tendai Biti. In July, ZANU-PF supporters invaded the parliament. Last month, Harare township based pro-ZANU-PF Chipangano militia are believed to be responsible for an attack on the MDC-T headquarters Harvest House and for an assault on MDC-Youth wing organizing secretary. This is compounded by ongoing selective application of the law, including the arrest of MDC activists parliamentarian and cabinet ministers on bogus charges.

  • March - MDC-T Minister of Energy Elteon Mangoma, who also is an MDC-T negotiator and member of the JOMIC was arrested twice.
  • April – MDC-M’s co-minister for national healing Moses Nzila Ndloyu, was detained for addressing an ‘illegal’ memorial service.
  • June - Jameson Timba, MDC-T Minister in the Prime Minister’s office was arrest for insulting President Mugabe.
  • July - MDC-N party president Welshman Ncube was detained by police.
  • August - MDC-T minister James Timba was arrested again.

   b.     Security Sector Reform (SSR)

The provisions for SSR in the GPA are relatively weak and have yet to produce significant shift in the one party domination of security forces. Despite the creation of a National Security Council, it is dysfunctional and there is no policy to underwrite effective civilian oversight of security and intelligence forces. As a result, control of the security forces remains centralised in the hands of the presidency and ZANU-PF controlled ministries. ZANU-PF have argued that the security issue is ‘off limits’ and has instructed its negotiators to not engage on this issue.

Divisions in and uncertainty about who will succeed 87 year old President Robert Mugabe have been compounded by the death – under highly questionable circumstances – in mid August of prominent ZANU-PF politburo member and former commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Solomon Mujuru. Mujuru, husband of Vice President Joice Mujuru, had been seen by security sector voices as too willing to compromise with MDC on key issues. Mugabe’s health is impossible to determine. The last week of October he reportedly made his second visit in the month to doctors in Singapore, the eighth visit this year. After 30 years in power, his capacity to govern is inevitably waning. That fact alone makes internal ZANU-PF politics and, by extension, the country fluid and increasingly volatile.

The central concern of the MDC formations and large sectors of civil society remains that the security sector officers in collaboration with ZANU-PF proxy agents, will undermine democratic elections. Even if the MDC win, they are profoundly worried that those forces would prevent a transfer of power.

   c.     Composition of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s Secretariat

Having secured a more representative grouping of ZEC commissioners, the MDC has raised concerns about the composition of the ZEC’s secretariat, which remains fundamentally unreformed. This is the same secretariat that presided over the disputed 2008 election processes which they declared to be free and fair, despite palpable evidence to the contrary. According to the MDC, the secretariat includes security sector personnel and other ZANU-PF loyalists. ZANU-PF has refused to consider altering the secretariat composition. If there is a single vital key to building confidence in the roadmap toward elections, it is a more balanced and professional secretariat, ideally one bolstered by SADC experts and monitors. Beyond that issue there is substantial question with respect to the accuracy of the voter rolls and an independent audit of that registration list is needed.

As of late October 2011, these areas of disagreement have not been resolved by the negotiators, and have been exacerbated by mutually recriminating public narratives and an absence of the forceful SADC presence in support of the JOMIC monitoring mechanisms promised in the March communiqué. There have been some modest examples of cooperation and progress, as illustrated by the much-delayed constitution-making process which has reportedly produced a draft document although no agreement yet has been achieved on when its content will be made known nationally, how to assure adequate public debate over its provisions, and how and when a credible referendum can be conducted for its approval.

Also some basic services have been re-established and the overall economic situation in the country has improved. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe has dropped to the lowest ranking of 169 countries in UNDP’s Human Development index, showing an average annual decline in income per capita, health and education rankings and most Zimbabweans live below the poverty line. The current situation does not provide a foundation for sustainable economic recovery and employment, attract adequate investment, or offer options for a return of a massive diaspora. The recent lifting of South Africa’s moratorium on deportation of undocumented Zimbabweans during October is likely to exacerbate social and economic pressures.

The formal establishment of new or reconstituted democracy supporting institutions, such as the Anti Corruption and Human Right Commissions (HRC) is positive but they have yet to move beyond appointment of commissioners to become operational. The newly constituted multi-party composition of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and Media Commission are steps forward but both limited capacity. Media reform has resulted in the licensing of several new newspapers and improved access for foreign media agencies. State broadcasting, where most Zimbabweans access their news, remains clearly partisan in favour of ZANU-PF, who in turn point to the continued presence of ‘pirate’ radio stations as an implicit justification for not expediting licensing of new radio and television outlets. The promise of two new licences for radio stations has not been met and will be determined by individuals who have a dubious track record when it comes to media freedom. Last month, the Prime Minister told Parliament that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, which presides over the licensing process, would be reconstituted. When and by whom remain unclear.

An unfortunate pattern has emerged whereby agreement is reached around specific reforms between respective ZANU-PF and the MDC negotiation teams under the auspices of the SADC facilitators, but subsequent implementation of these agreements is thwarted. This has frustrated the reform process and SADC members, who are co-guarantors of the GPA with the African Union. In 2011, SADC has becoming increasingly critical of the failure to implement reforms, particularly those aimed at creating the conditions for free and fair elections. SADC’s frustrations reflect concerns that have been repeatedly highlighted by the MDCs and civil society.

There is little doubt that the GPA has been repeatedly violated. Monitoring and anecdotal evidence supports the assertion that ZANU-PF and its proxies are primarily responsible. However, the GPA’s own internal monitoring review processes (i.e. the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee – JOMIC) and the Periodic Review Mechanism have not been in a position to publicly confirm or deny such assertions. The situation is also coloured by a residue of mistrust and concern amongst some SADC members about the MDC’s capacity and competency and lingering loyalties to the ZANU-PF project. The inability of MDC-T to reach common positions with MDC-N (now the party faction led by Welshman Ncube) has added to those concerns, not to mention the pending challenge to Ncube by that faction’s former leader Arthur Mutambara.

But at this stage, one must ask what will and can be realistically achieved in terms of the core concerns now outlined in the roadmap, if violation and resistance continue. The situation is also coloured by a residue of mistrust and concern amongst some SADC members about the MDC’s capacity and competency and lingering loyalties to the ZANU-PF project.

There needs to be a more sustained call from political and social formations both inside Zimbabwe and the diaspora, as well as by key external actors, including South Africa, SADC members, the USA and the European Union (EU), for a more inclusive process that goes beyond the three political parties to insure participation by civil society in the key issues remaining on the roadmap to fair and free elections sometime over the next year and a half.


A 25-member Select Committee of Parliament on the Constitution (COPAC), co-chaired by ZANU-PF, and MDC-T and MDC-N representatives, was established in April 2009 to drive the process. A management committee comprising the GPA negotiators (the three political parties), the three co-chairs of the Select Committee and the constitutional and parliamentary affairs minister (Eric Matinenga, MDC-T) was created to provide policy direction and oversight. A steering committee composed of the three co-chairs of the Select Committee, their three deputies and two representatives from civil society is responsible for overseeing implementation of management committee decisions. Although the constitutional and parliamentary affairs ministry is the agreed focal point for the exercise, the management committee is in practice the pivotal institutional body.

The COPAC process, despite its imperfections, needs to complete a final draft document, carry out needed consultations (and party political negotiations) and plan for a referendum itself. The political parties state their commitment to this process, which is linked directly to the major challenges to the elections roadmap.

Even once COPAC produces the draft Constitution, it still must be go before an all-stakeholders conference, approval by the Parliament before being sent for popular vote in a referendum. ZANU-PF has argued in the past that elections could take place even before the Constitution is adopted, a view rejected by MDC parties and by SADC. Recently when the negotiating teams tentatively signed off on the

roadmap to elections, it was hoped that it meant that all parties accepted the need for completion of the constitutional reform process as a precondition to elections. However, there still are unresolved issues in the roadmap and the party leaders have yet to sign off.

Monitoring the Roadmap

Significantly, SADC countries are no longer treating Zimbabwe’s crisis as an essentially internal one, and increasingly recognise the crisis impacts on regional human security, in particular South Africa. SADC’s facilitation process under South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, has become more resolute, since the March 2011 meeting of SADC’s Organ Troika on politics, defense and security at Livingstone, Zambia.

At Livingstone, the Zimbabwean delegations were rebuked for the slow pace of reform. SADC demanded the parties “find an uninterrupted path to free and fair elections and the removal of all impediments to the same”. This has led to the development of a draft election roadmap that addresses the most important outstanding concerns relating to the GPA, especially in relation to election conditions. Yet even that draft leaves key issues in the air. SADC also agreed to deploy representatives to improve liaison between the JOMIC and SADC facilitation team, with the intention of improving insights into monitoring and implementation aspects of the Agreement.

ZANU-PF reacted negatively to the Livingstone communiqué, which it correctly perceived as a significant change in emphasis by SADC. The MDC groupings, conversely, support SADC’s more robust engagement, but remain frustrated that their rhetorical commitment has yet to translate into tangible progress on the ground. Regional leaders also grouse that the MDC has not done enough to engage with them. Six months later, SADC’s proposed deployments to JOMIC have not happened, although some groundwork for this has been undertaken and plans include expanding JOMIC at a provincial level—but the critical final accord on the roadmap has yet to occur. A promised meeting in October between President Zuma and the Zimbabwe principals also did not materialise.

Despite the change in direction, there are concerns about the commitment of SADC’s 15 members to fully stand behind the March communiqué, leaving South Africa, its facilitator, to do the hard work. At one level, this must be so, as President Zuma is the facilitator, currently serves as chairman of the SADC troika on politics, defense and security with Zambia and Tanzania, and is the critical regional actor. But at another level, President Zuma’s ability to succeed in the role of facilitator requires a strong regional consensus and the fulfillment of pledges, such as deploying experts to bolster JOMIC capabilities and also to give SADC more eyes and ears on the ground. Without vigorous accompaniment monitoring and support to the roadmap internal reforms there is a real danger that elections could again be violent and the outcome even more destabilizing.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. should consider:

  • Increasing support for South Africa and SADC to press Zimbabwe parties to complete the roadmap as the highest priority and strengthen JOMIC and a robust monitoring and observation presence for SADC and AU in pressing implementation of that roadmap.
  • Supporting efforts, through SADC, to strengthen the capacity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, standing behind SADC in its efforts to secure a more professional and balanced ZEC secretariat. One way would be to support enhanced interaction with credible regional
  • electoral commissions through the recently constituted SADC’s Electoral Advisory Council.
  • Providing, in the future, support for SADC deployment of election monitors into rural areas, perhaps through the SADC Parliamentary Forum and AU peace and Security Council.
  • Supporting SADC efforts to promote security sector reform emphasizing the need for a commitment of non interference in the next election process by security forces and respect for the outcome of those elections.
  • Supporting development of other institutions called for in the GPA, including the Human Rights Commission, Anti Corruption Commission and Zimbabwe Media Commission.
  • Consult with SADC on how and whether a calibrated suspension of sanctions in response to actual reforms could provide SADC and its facilitation team with additional political leverage in terms of achieving key reforms that are vital to permit more a more credible electoral process.


The U.S. has undertaken its policy decisions in Zimbabwe with the intent of promoting democratic change. At this stage in an enormously complex and frustrating process, diplomacy and assistance should be conducted in close coordination with South Africa and SADC and the AU to promote the Zimbabwe reform agenda. A pragmatic approach that supports implementation of the GPA and continued interaction and convergence of the political parties, as well as civil society and state institutions may well be the most effective way for the United States to act to prevent future civil conflict in Zimbabwe. In the most optimistic reading, that approach may help that nation find a path toward a more stable and just future.

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.

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