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Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
After Elections, Zimbabwe Government’s Legitimacy in Limbo
After Elections, Zimbabwe Government’s Legitimacy in Limbo
A man holds a placard as he marches through the streets of Bulawayo during a protest against police brutality, corruption and state of the economy on 26 July 2016. AFP/Zinyange Auntony
Commentary / Africa

Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform

Zimbabweans are slowly rediscovering the courage to speak out as Zimbabwe’s much-vaunted reform process is consumed by insincerity, slow-burn crisis, and infighting over the succession to 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe.

Complementing growing opposition activity, recent weeks have seen a rash of spirited and well organised protest campaigns, most notably #Tajamuka and #ThisFlag, and a widely observed “stay-away” from work, adding further pressure on a bankrupt government, whose efforts to pilot a much needed recovery look increasingly artificial due to political infighting within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

A recent public attack on Mugabe and ZANU-PF from his former main allies in the leadership of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), and the bellicose response from Mugabe and other government leaders, signal a further fragmentation and heightening of tensions.

The security services are reportedly on high alert, and some fear the state will employ its customary iron fist if confronted. But loyalties are being tested; many senior ranking officers retain sympathy for the war veterans. The government has tried to keep the security services onside, prioritising their pay packets, promoting some officers and privileging specialist units. But it is struggling to do the same for the rank and file, delaying civil service and armed forces salaries in June and July.

In February, Crisis Group’s report “Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasiscalled for international and regional actors to seek common ground and action that address the sensitive political climate. They should support the government’s reform and re-engagement process with international financial institutions and bilateral creditors, but on condition Harare demonstrates a genuine commitment to an inclusive, transparent and accountable process. This is essential to build the necessary confidence required for underwriting Zimbabwe’s recovery.

An Economic Precipice

Zimbabwe’s economy rebounded after 2009, when the Zimbabwe dollar was replaced by multiple foreign currencies, but GDP growth has fallen sharply since 2012. Government expenditure now far outstrips revenue. This is due largely to a massive wage bill (over 80 per cent of the budget) that reflects unchecked recruitment after the 2013 elections, up from 315,000 to 554,000 civil servants. To finance this, Harare ran up deficits that have now led to insolvency. The ensuing liquidity crisis has been exacerbated by a wide trade deficit and shrinking financial sector. The government has been trying to drum up foreign investment, new loans and fresh lines of credit. It has won some significant Chinese investments, but it has been unable to reverse the decline in confidence or revive the economy.

A bankrupt, corrupt and increasingly predatory state is now squeezing what’s left of productive pockets in both the formal and informal sectors. This compounds social and political challenges that feed back into and reinforce the deterioration. Official corruption is rampant. In March, President Mugabe revealed that the government lost billions in diamond-mining revenue since 2008 because of “looting” and corruption. Most surface-mined diamond fields are now depleted. To make matters worse, depressed commodity prices show little sign of significant recovery and the worst drought in two decades has left one third of the country in need of food aid.

The resulting liquidity crisis is coupled with a growing crisis of confidence in the country’s economic management. In early May, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe announced that the government would introduce bond notes to help ease liquidity and give incentives to exporters. Normally, such measures might bring relief, but it was a public relations disaster since the Reserve Bank leadership had apparently not consulted anyone, including the International Monetary Fund, which two days prior had given Zimbabwe a positive report on its reform program progress. The government subsequently announced bond notes will be introduced in late 2016, but this will not have a significant impact on the broader structural challenges facing the economy.

All this has forced ZANU-PF to re-engage with its traditional multilateral and bilateral funders. The government is seeking balance of payments support and investment from Western partners, the same parties it publicly blames for the genesis of its economic and financial crisis when they cut lines of credit as the government reneged on most of its debt payments in the early 2000s. In fact, Zimbabwe would have to repay $1.8 billion in debt arrears to have a chance of new funding, without knowing if credit is available or what its economic and political conditions might be.

Until God Calls

It is unlikely the government and ruling party will enthusiastically embrace austerity reforms that would block their current populist policies. Any meaningful economic reform process is further hampered by internal factionalism within ZANU-PF over who will succeed President  Mugabe.

Fault lines are hardening fast; in early June, Mugabe signalled to ZANU-PF’s Central Committee that he is siding with opponents of his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This boosted the faction referred to as the Generation 40 (G40), which dominates the party’s youth and women’s structures and importantly has First Lady Grace Mugabe’s support. It was the G40 that put as many as 200,000 people on Harare’s streets for ZANU-PF’s Million Man March in May, a major display of the party’s organisational capacity, despite severe resource constraints.

G40 leaders are now calling for an extraordinary ZANU-PF congress, which they would use to isolate Mnangagwa further, even remove him from the vice presidency, as well as reaffirm Mugabe as party candidate for the 2018 polls. Although it is not physiologically feasible for Mugabe to carry on much longer – in February he said he will stay on “until God calls” – the mythology of his candidacy buys time and cover for the G40 to consolidate is position. It’s a high risk strategy that gives little attention to the challenges of the economic and political reform agenda.

President Mugabe’s penchant for playing one faction off against the other continues, but his dexterity and options are waning. Over the last six months, he has been increasingly critical of war veterans and the security forces, who are more closely aligned with Mnangagwa. War veterans clashed with police in a showdown earlier this year that forced Mugabe to convene an unprecedented meeting with them in early April. They vented their anger about economic and political developments, voiced their support for the July strike and stay-away.

The expulsion on 6 July from ZANU-PF of Chris Mutsvangwa (the recently dismissed minister for war veterans, who remains chairman of the ZNLWVA), and other allies of Mnangagwa, is the latest development in what senior political analyst Eldred Masungure describes as Zimbabwe’s “pendulum politics”. Mnangagwa’s albeit tempered public criticism of his own allies  for taking these steps has reinforced perceptions that he has been outmanoeuvred, and may be pushed out without much of a fight, as Joice Mujuru was in December 2014.

Mugabe still needs Mnangagwa and the security services; they remain central guarantors of ZANU-PF’s continued hegemony. But his ability to manage this relationship presents an ever-greater challenge.

A widening credibility gap

A well-rehearsed yet selective narrative about progress toward clearing debt arrears and economic revival was first presented to international creditors in Lima, Peru in October 2015. Reform and re-engagement is championed by key Mnangagwa ally, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, supported by Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya. Both were in Berlin and London in July to make the case that Zimbabwe was politically stable and open for investment. ZANU-PF does not speak in one resolute voice about the reform program it is ostensibly trying to promote.

The overall strategy theoretically has the full support of President Mugabe and senior party members. But ZANU-PF feels humiliation at putting its hand back out so publicly for help from those outside powers it still describes as its enemies. In practice, Mugabe has been unenthusiastic and has allowed sharp criticism to emerge from ZANU-PF. Blaming “the West” for burgeoning dissent undermines those seeking genuine re-engagement, and emboldens those who seek political capital from opposing the broader reform agenda.

For critical Zimbabweans, the efforts look increasingly bogus. Claims from the government that it has clarified its position around controversial issues such as its indigenisation policy, property rights and compensation for land seizures are not supported by objective realities on the ground.

To date, the reform and re-engagement process has also been a largely exclusive, even secretive, affair; the “Lima Strategy Document”, the government’s primary plan for clearing its arrears, was only officially made public after it was leaked in February 2016. It set out a broad roadmap, but with little detail. It is unclear what, if anything, was subsequently agreed with creditors.

The government avoids or denies challenges that it has lost public trust. But most opposition parties, and a host of civil society actors representing important constituencies, have little or no confidence in the economic reform process or the government’s commitment to honouring the new constitution. They want more detail on the overall reform plan’s promises of better governance, transparency, institutional accountability, and human rights. These all remain key benchmarks of tangible progress: for now, the government appears to be backsliding, only selectively amending old laws to align them with the reformed 2013 constitution. This has provoked growing calls from civil society and opposition political parties for Mugabe to be replaced by a National Transitional Authority, a demand ZANU-PF is likely to dismiss with contempt at this juncture.

International actors promoting a more robust re-engagement with Zimbabwe are caught in an invidious position. They seek to encourage reform, and recognise that incremental progress requires compromises, especially in a context of challenging economic headwinds. But they also know that the reform plan tends to address only the symptoms of the economic malaise, not its core structural and systemic causes, like politicised state institutions and systematic corruption and patronage.

External actors understandably want to help Zimbabwe; a failed state serves nobody’s interests. But to do so without enabling continued authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and outright theft of public resources presents a significant challenge. They also have to explain their positions and policies to Zimbabweans better. ZANU-PF can react badly to criticism; Finance Minister Chinamasa warned a recent gathering at Chatham House in London that a harder line would push his party “back into the trenches”. 

Politicking and brinkmanship are likely to characterise any move ZANU-PF makes; notwithstanding competing priorities, the international community, and in particular regional actors, such as the Southern African Development Community must retain vigilance and can play a greater role in assisting Zimbabwe in this situation. But they should do so within the context of a clearer engagement framework, which must promote an inclusive approach that is structured around building confidence with local and foreign actors.


Zimbabwe still has the potential and technical capacity to chart its economic recovery; but serious reservations remain that ZANU-PF is able to implement a credible plan. This is compounded by a narrative that routinely seeks to shift responsibility for the economic crisis on others, including the central myth that sanctions are the primary reason for the country’s current quandary.

While external factors like depressed commodity prices, the dominance of an appreciated U.S. dollar in its multicurrency regime undoubtedly constrict Zimbabwe’s economic options, the country’s financial delinquency is legendary. The new reform policy implicitly recognises the need for more rigour, but implementing it will never be popular. If Zimbabwe’s government is to move beyond the theatre of reform, and avert further worsening of the political, social and economic crisis, it must “walk the talk” toward a more inclusive, transparent and accountable process.

Supporters of the newly reelected Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa celebrate in Mbare, Harare, on 3 August 2018. MARCO LONGARI / AFP
Commentary / Africa

After Elections, Zimbabwe Government’s Legitimacy in Limbo

Zimbabwe’s disputed elections have reinforced political divisions as the Constitutional Court hears an opposition challenge of the results. The military crackdown on opposition protesters highlights the urgency of reform if the government is to preserve stability and, by extension, its re-engagement strategy with international donors.

The Zimbabwean government posited that the first elections after the November 2017 ouster of Robert Mugabe would enhance the state’s credibility and strengthen the country’s prospects for economic recovery. Voters responded in kind, heading to the polls in unprecedented numbers. The results, however, confirmed that the country is deeply divided, with the opposition contesting the electoral commission’s determination that Emmerson Mnangagwa won the presidency. Several parliamentary challenges are also underway in separate petitions. The opposition is accusing the electoral commission of bias and fraud in its legal petition to overturn the election results. The Constitutional Court is expected to announce its judgment in the case later in August.

Divisions deepened further after soldiers fired live ammunition upon protesters in the streets of Harare for the first time. The president and senior ruling party figures called for calm, blaming the opposition for the violence, yet remained conspicuously silent about any malfeasance on the security forces’ part. These conditions are a recipe for further unrest.

The Zimbabwean government’s credibility is in jeopardy.

The Zimbabwean government’s credibility is in jeopardy – as is the international good-will generated by Mugabe’s departure. If it is to resuscitate momentum toward its vaunted goals of re-engagement and recovery, the government should hasten to demonstrate both at home and abroad that it is serious about reform and national unity. It should work harder to include the political opposition and other interested parties in its deliberations, act on its commitments to transparency and accountability, and take concrete steps toward strengthening civilian oversight over the security sector.

A Closely Watched Vote

On 1 August, the electoral commission announced that the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) had won a two-thirds majority in parliament: 144 seats to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance’s 64, reflecting a gain and loss of fifteen seats, respectively, compared with 2013. The commission has not provided an aggregated breakdown of actual votes per party. Unconfirmed assessments give ZANU-PF about 54 per cent of the parliamentary vote. The commission has not made public the results of local government polling.

The following day, the commission declared Emmerson Mnangagwa the victor in the presidential race, with 2,460,463 votes, over 300,000 more than his main rival Nelson Chamisa, who secured 2,147,436. These figures gave Mnangagwa 50.8 per cent compared to Chamisa’s 44.3 per cent, thereby averting a second round of polling by just under 38,000 votes. The 21 other presidential candidates collectively garnered less than 170,000 votes (5 per cent of the total), showing that the opposition’s fragmentation is not as profound as some had predicted.

According to state media, turnout was over 4.8 million – more than 85 per cent of registered voters – the highest since independence, with almost 1.5 million more voting than in any previous poll. Mnangagwa secured 350,000 more votes than Mugabe had in his 2013 landslide, while Chamisa scored almost double the tally of MDC’s former leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, showing a resurgence of opposition support. A parallel voter tabulation exercise conducted by civil society groups agreed that Mnangagwa had beaten Chamisa but could have fallen short of the margin needed to avoid a second round.*

Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections are some of the most closely scrutinised on the African continent in recent years. Preliminary reports from both official and informal observers have exposed an array of anomalies. A number of detailed and at times disparate assessments of the electoral commission’s data are ongoing. The European Union mission and the joint mission of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, for example, gave much greater attention than the African Union, Southern African Development Community and African National Congress missions to media bias and abuse of state resources. In their final reports, the observer missions will need to carefully consider the extent to which these problems reflect deliberate manipulation, as alleged by the opposition, or simply unremarkable administrative glitches. The opposition has made some very strong claims about the evidence it purportedly has proving fraud, but several domestic commentators are dismissing these as unsubstantiated hyperbole.

Notwithstanding doubts about reported turnouts of over 90 and even 100 per cent at some polling stations, the massive participation rate shows significant interest in the electoral process, reinforcing perceptions that conditions for elections were significantly freer than in previous polls. The campaign environment was relatively peaceful; the opposition was able to hold rallies unmolested. This brief window of opportunity somewhat mitigated the distortion of which the opposition complains, but it is clear that the playing field was not level.

The MDC Alliance’s Legal Challenge

Both Mnangagwa and the electoral commission have argued that petitioners violated legal process.

On 10 August, the MDC Alliance submitted a weighty petition to Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court challenging the presidential results and accusing the electoral commission of improper conduct. The Alliance claims that it in fact won the presidency by over 650,000 votes. The court must now decide whether the evidence presented supports charges of fraud and whether the raft of discrepancies and alleged administrative and technical faults is so disturbing as to call Mnangagwa’s 50.8 per cent tally into question. The electoral commission has already admitted certain mistakes, reducing the margin to 50.59. The Alliance claims that examination of the commission’s servers will establish that the numbers were falsified in Mnangagwa’s favour. The common law system in Zimbabwe discourages activist courts, however, and the judges are likely to regard such an audit as a fishing expedition. There is also growing speculation that the court might use technicalities to avoid engaging the substance of the case. In their responses, both Mnangagwa and the electoral commission have argued that petitioners violated legal process.

The constitution gives the court three options: declare a winner; invalidate the election and call for a fresh vote; or issue any other order it deems appropriate. It could, for example, adjudicate that there was no widespread fraud as alleged by the opposition, but that the cumulative import of technical and administrative faults undermines the conclusion that Mnangagwa won 50.8 per cent of the vote. In that case, the presidential vote would go to a second round. The court has fourteen days from 13 August in which to make its ruling, which will be carefully studied, but Zimbabwean courts have a habit of deferring publication of detailed arguments.


As expected, the 30 July polling was largely peaceful. The following day the electoral commission started to announce results and then inexplicably halted, resuming only some eighteen hours after midday on 1 August.

Alliance leaders had publicly warned that they would defend the vote. The Progressive Democratic Party leader and former finance minister in the 2009-2013 Zimbabwe Government of National Unity, Tendai Biti, claimed Chamisa had won. But the parliamentary results pointed to a massive ZANU-PF victory, which the opposition did not believe was possible without rigging. Tensions rose as riot police deployed across the central business district of Harare. Several hundred opposition protesters took to the streets, a few of whom damaged property. The riot police, who appeared well equipped to deal with the situation, stepped back, yielding to soldiers (seemingly from the presidential guard) who had been waiting in the wings. Firing live ammunition and wielding sjamboks (whips), the soldiers moved in, shooting dead six people, several in the back, and injuring many more.

Mnangagwa and senior ZANU-PF leaders blamed the MDC for the violence, which some commentators misleadingly described as “clashes”. But it was clearly a military crackdown, with disproportionate force, upon unarmed civilians. Although the president softened his line, announcing a commission of inquiry into the shooting, a roundup of opposition activists ensued, leading several to go into hiding. The police said they were looking for Biti, on the grounds that he incited the violence by illegally declaring victory for Chamisa, though his lawyers claim that they asked the authorities several times if he was wanted for questioning and were told he was not. Biti, who was brutally tortured by security officers over a decade ago, fled to Zambia, seeking asylum. Despite a Zambian High Court order interdicting his deportation, the Zambian police handed Biti over to their Zimbabwean counterparts. He is now facing charges of public violence and illegally announcing election results.

The opposition and civil society organisations have claimed over 150 attacks upon their supporters and staff, including cases of abduction, sexual abuse, torture and assault. This number is expected to increase. In most instances, witnesses have identified members of the military or unidentified security operatives as alleged perpetrators. Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission has confirmed many of the violations. The police raided the MDC Alliance’s headquarters and the homes of a number of its officials, including several polling officers; there appears to be a direct correlation between the clampdown and the opposition’s challenge of the election results. Arsonists have also burned down a number of homes of MDC Alliance polling agents in the post-election period.

The crackdown has raised questions about who is really in control of the country – civilian authorities or the military. The Zimbabwe Defence Force’s commander, Lieutenant General Valerio Sibanda, told international media that he did not know who had deployed the troops on 1 August and had demanded to learn who did. The police claim that they invoked a section of the notorious Public Order and Security Act enabling them to seek military assistance. Mnangagwa has publicly backed this reasoning. But this provision is almost certainly unconstitutional as the military’s deployment is a presidential prerogative. The government has committed to repealing the law.

The army’s deployment on the streets of Harare to quell protest confirms the uncomfortable truth that the military remains a pre-eminent force in Zimbabwe’s politics.

The outgoing deputy finance minister, Terence Mukupe, who lost in the parliamentary vote to MDC Alliance principal Biti, claimed that the police favoured having the military step in. Just ahead of the election, he had controversially predicted that the military would not accept an MDC victory.

Some suggest that Mnangagwa was unaware of the soldiers’ deployment and that Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, Sibanda’s predecessor and the man who led the November 2017 coup against Mugabe, made the decision. Chiwenga oversees the country’s security cluster and was given direct responsibility for the defence portfolio by Mnangagwa, an arrangement that also has dubious legal standing since the constitution provides that the defence minister should have this job. Speculation that Chiwenga is the real power behind Mnangagwa has morphed into allegations that another coup is pending and that the security sector is increasingly divided. The absence of clear leadership by the president has fuelled the suspicion. Chiwenga is looking to soften his image, opening a Twitter account that echoes the peace and unity messaging of Mnangagwa, as well as reaching out to civil society organisations to look into their allegations against the security forces.

Whatever the backroom manoeuvres, the army’s deployment on the streets of Harare to quell protest confirms the uncomfortable truth that, almost nine months after Mugabe’s removal, the military remains a pre-eminent force in Zimbabwe’s politics. It raises serious questions about how the government can guarantee civilian oversight of the security and intelligence services. It has also reinforced concerns about the extent to which Mnangagwa is beholden to the military elements that put him in office.

Implications for Re-engagement, Reform and Recovery

After assuming the presidency, Mnangagwa distanced his administration from Mugabe’s, promising reforms and financial propriety, as well as re-engagement with the West and international financial institutions, aimed at attracting foreign and domestic investment as an integral part of economic recovery. This also included ill-defined commitments to improvements in governance, democracy and human rights. The West largely welcomed this stated shift in the ZANU-PF’s vision.

Observer missions and international journalists witnessed the elections and the violent aftermath first-hand. Inevitably, their reports home will set back the government’s re-engagement strategy. The question remains: to what extent?

The electoral turmoil poses a particular dilemma for the West, and the Mnangagwa government will watch its next moves very closely. The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Amendment (ZDERA) Act, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on 8 August, is widely interpreted as authorising new sanctions, but it does not. The amendments in fact provide a set of conditions to be met if ZDERA penalties, first imposed in 2001, are to be lifted. Several of these conditions refer to specific aspects of election conduct, such as ensuring that the military stay in the barracks. In light of what happened on 1 August, Washington is unlikely to remove sanctions any time soon. It remains to be seen whether Mnangagwa can make sufficient reforms to dissuade the U.S. from invoking ZDERA provisions that could hinder the Zimbabwean government’s access to desperately needed lines of credit.

In the meantime, re-engagement by the West is now likely to slow down. To regain lost ground and momentum in terms of building trust with those countries, the government will have to rapidly implement some of its promised reforms. In particular, it should focus on addressing concerns regarding its post-election conduct and what that means in terms of respect for the rule of law and inclusive governance. This, in turn, will entail reaching out to the opposition, focusing on political reconciliation, and more broadly reforming the security and intelligence sectors, as well as the criminal justice system. Taking such measures, in addition to tackling major fiscal and monetary challenges the government has pledged to address, would be key to rebuilding international confidence and, in turn, fostering economic recovery and longer-term stability.

How the government of Zimbabwe rejuvenates its re-engagement strategy will be critical to the country’s prospects for economic recovery and political cohesion. For now, however, the government faces an immediate challenge, which is to persuade a deeply divided nation that it has the interests of all Zimbabweans at heart. An important first step in that direction would be to quickly appoint the proposed commission of inquiry into post-election violence and ensure that it is genuinely independent from government interference. Mnangagwa’s promise to include international experts is, for Zimbabwe, an unprecedented move; carrying it out would be a significant one.

* For purposes of clarification, the civil society sample based observation poll from 750 of the almost 11,000 polling stations indicated that Mnangagwa could have received anywhere between 48.7 and 52.7 percent.  Given the margin of error calculated with such a sample, these results can support the conclusion that Mnangagwa received under 50 percent of the vote, but also that he could have received over 50 percent.