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Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
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.

Conclusion

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.

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

Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens

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

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

What’s behind the new political crisis in Zimbabwe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Mnangagwa stage a comeback?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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