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Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis
Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
Standoff in Zimbabwe as Struggle to Succeed Mugabe Deepens
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe attends the ongoing elective congress in Harare, 4 December 2014. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Briefing 118 / Africa

Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis

Zimbabwe has not escaped its chronic crisis. Infighting over who will succeed the ailing 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe is stifling efforts to tackle insolvency, low rule of law, rampant unemployment and food insecurity. Zimbabwe needs international help to recover, but what it needs most is a leadership willing to act on much-needed reforms.

I. Overview

Zimbabwe is floundering, with little sign of meaningful reform and sustainable, broad-based recovery. Political uncertainty and economic insecurity have worsened; the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government has consolidated power, as the opposition stumbles, but is consumed by struggles over who will succeed President Robert Mugabe. Upbeat economic projections by international institutions are predicated on government rhetoric about new policy commitments and belief in the country’s potential, but there are growing doubts that ZANU-PF can “walk the talk” of reform. Conditions are likely to deteriorate further due to insolvency, drought and growing food insecurity. Economic constraints have forced Harare to deal with international financial institutions (IFIs) and Western capitals, but to regain the trust of donors, private investors and ordinary citizens, the government must become more accountable, articulate a coherent vision and take actions that go beyond personal, factional and party aggrandisement.

Mugabe, though 92 and visibly waning, shows no sign of stepping down. His endorsement by the December 2015 ZANU-PF national conference to represent the party in the 2018 elections props up a coterie of dependents and defers the divisive succession issue. In the last year, his control has slipped as his energy and capacities diminish, but he is likely to stay in office until he can no longer function. His support for an economic and political reform agenda is tepid. He has limited criticism of reformers but has also not censured elements of his government that are critical, even hostile, to re-engagement with Western countries and financial institutions. 

ZANU-PF is its own biggest threat. Its constitution is unclear about how to select a new party leader, and by extension president, if Mugabe becomes incapacitated or dies in office. That the party will not countenance open debate on this has led to incessant backroom political jockeying and unprecedented turmoil. 

In December 2014, then Vice President Joice Mujuru was purged and her rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, elevated. Since then, over 140 top national and provincial party officials linked to Mujuru have been suspended or expelled from the party, including nine of ten provincial chairpersons and senior cabinet and politburo members. Posited as necessary t0 end party factionalism, this instead opened a new chapter of division, as those whose interests had converged around Mujuru’s removal sought advantage over each other. 

Mnangagwa has strong ties with key security sector elements and is viewed by many as well positioned to maintain stability and pilot a recovery. Having slowly consolidated his position, he is firmly in charge of government business and depicted as a driving force behind re-engagement and reform. However, his command of party structures is uneven, and his limited popularity nationally and within the party is tarnished by allegations of complicity in human rights violations. His ambition to succeed Mugabe is opposed by several senior cadres, labelled Generation 40 (G40), who represent a younger generation and have put their weight behind the increasingly influential first lady, Grace Mugabe. Her very public role since late 2014 as chair of ZANU-PF’s women’s league has the president’s backing. Factional battles between the two groups intensified in early 2016, leaving Mnangagwa’s position apparently weakened.

The economy’s serious trouble is compounded by severe liquidity constraints, an enduring fiscal deficit, burgeoning domestic and international debt, multiple infrastructural constraints (including power shortages) and mixed ZANU-PF policy messages. Unemployment is rampant and food insecurity mounting. Protests spiked in 2015 and will continue. 

Calls for reform and re-engagement remain focused on addressing the huge foreign debt and struggling economy. In October, IFIs accepted a plan to clear $1.8 billion in arrears by May 2016, but this looks increasingly unrealistic, as it depends on only partially implemented fiscal policy prescriptions, including a sizeable reduction in the public wage bill and accessing a major concessional loan. Obtaining further credit will require more significant and politically sensitive reforms, for which there is limited appetite ahead of elections in 2018.

The opposition has yet to recover from devastating 2013 election losses. An early resurgence is unlikely. The largest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T, led by Morgan Tsvangirai), has fractured further and has limited resources. Mujuru’s nascent People First (PF) formation remains an unknown quantity, reportedly flirting with parties across the political spectrum. The new constitution, approved in 2013, provides a framework for civil society advocacy, but this is stymied by limited strategic vision and reduced donor support. Efforts to promote a national convergence of interests have not gained traction. 

Governance deficits, political violence, corruption, electoral reform, human rights and rule-of-law violations are deep challenges that must be faced. Recent court judgements and Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission reports condemning political violence are welcome but anecdotal reactions, not remedies for systemic malpractice. International actors should seek common ground and action that addresses these sensitive political challenges and also promote an inclusive, sustainable economic recovery. Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries – South Africa, in particular – have specific interest in ensuring Zimbabwe recovers its position as a lynchpin of stability and an engine for regional development. To do so, they, the U.S., UK, China, the European Union (EU), African Development Bank (AfDB), World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) should develop an engagement framework that has clear governance and rule-of-law and financial and economic objectives and enables monitoring and assessment. 

Johannesburg/Brussels, 29 February 2016

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.