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Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis
Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasis
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
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

A man carries a street sign as opposition party supporters clash with police in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 26 August 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Commentary / Africa

Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent

Abductions, assaults by pro-government thugs and anti-government demonstrations met by tear gas and water cannon all signal rising levels of violence in Zimbabwe. The situation is aggravated by the government’s failure to implement proposals for reform and mounting economic woes.

Zimbabwe may not be a failed state yet, but its rulers are doing nothing to prevent its collapse.

After months of empty promises of reform, President Robert Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), have set a course designed to mute criticism, criminalise political opposition and shut down any attempt to weaken their grip on power. The gloves are off.

At the same time, a renewed spirit of resistance and protest has taken hold, with an array of constituencies voicing their displeasure. Signals are multiplying of new violent confrontation to come. Under the banner of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), eighteen opposition parties including the two most influential, Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First (ZPF), have embarked on a series of protests that state security services are determined to stamp out.

On multiple occasions in August and September police have resorted to tear gas and water cannon to disperse anti-government demonstrations; in late August the police introduced a ban on protests in Harare. They subsequently defied a court ruling overturning the ban by extending it to mid-October. Reports of abductions and beatings of activists by militias and covert security units have increased significantly and echo previous cycles of resistance and repression. A brutal assault on 25 September by ZANU-PF supporters on four senior ZPF leaders, including Brigadier General (Rtd) Agrippa Mutambara, former ambassador to Mozambique, confirms a trajectory toward more ruthless tactics.

The government shows no interest in dialogue and dismisses calls for reform, accusing NERA and the plethora of other protest groups of furthering a foreign sponsored agenda to create the conditions for regime change. It claims its opponents have received military training and now present a serious security challenge. This is supported by a conspiracy narrative played out in the state media. At the same time the government has reneged on promised policy reforms and dialed up its attacks on Western governments, including the United Kingdom and the United States, who paradoxically continue to provide the bulk of humanitarian support in response to a crippling drought and chronic food shortages.

Nor has the president spared domestic institutions. When Zimbabwe’s courts ruled in September that protests were legal and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission accused ruling party officials of distributing more food aid to loyalists, Mugabe denounced them for being in cahoots with the international conspiracy. The “offending” judge is now under investigation for soliciting a bribe.

Broken Promises

With an economy in crisis and almost $2 billion owed just in international debt arrears, the government’s domestic borrowing (mainly through the issuing of treasury bills) has become unsustainable. Having failed to secure much-needed support from China, Zimbabwe’s desperation forced it to return to those traditional western lenders it had shunned, mocked and accused of criminal agendas for over a decade. However, the road back to credibility and potential solvency was always going to be painful; the government has to cobble together a loan package to pay its arrears before it can even qualify for critically needed additional budget support.

Twelve months ago, on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Lima, Peru, the government presented a reengagement and recovery strategy for clearing its debt arrears and implementing related governance reforms. It was a limited framework, focused on financial and economic measures, but one that provided a sliver of hope that Harare was prepared to commit to greater transparency and accountability. This, it was argued, would buttress undertakings to address reforms outstanding from the previous unity government period, in particular the alignment with the constitution of hundreds of laws adopted in 2013.

Several western governments embraced the opportunity to rebuild bridges with Harare, expecting ZANU-PF to adopt a new approach. The government was saying the right things and there was a strong belief that economic realities would bring intransigent elements to their senses. These hopes have been dashed, however, and progress in implementing reforms has been stymied by opaque factional dynamics and political machinations within the ruling party.

The reforms were officially endorsed by President Mugabe, but his commitment to the process has been at best inconsistent. Promised changes to ZANU-PF’s controversial indigenisation policy and significant cuts in government expenditure (in particular reducing the bloated civil service salary bill) have not materialised. These and other measures to promote transparency and good governance have proven too difficult for ZANU-PF to implement, suggesting that government spending has become central to the party’s patronage system.

Zimbabwe may not be a failed state yet, but its rulers are doing nothing to prevent its collapse.

Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s most recent pledge, in early September, to cut civil service salaries was promptly contradicted by Information and Communications Minister Chris Mushohwe. It was a body blow to the government’s claims of being committed to reform.

Even if the government does secure funds to repay debt arrears, few development banks will be willing to approve loans amid the current uncertainties. Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe is not on the agenda for the IMF’s October Board meeting in Washington, D.C.

Mugabe refuses to provide clarity or allow discussion on his succession, while a punishing schedule is visibly taking a toll on the 92-year-old president. Leaked intelligence reports reflect growing concerns about his growing fragility and frequent collapses. Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, regarded by many as heir apparent, has been weakened by opponents, who reportedly plan to use ZANU-PF’s national conference, scheduled for December, to thwart his presidential ambitions.  

Mugabe’s sudden disappearance in late August from the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc fueled feverish speculation. For almost 60 hours it was unclear where he was and whether, as multiple sources reported, he was at death’s door. On his return, he said he’d just gone to sort out some family affairs. The stunt was widely suspected of having been designed to test the loyalty of Mnangagwa in the role of acting president.

Economic Woes Stoke Discontent

Prospects for recovery and stability look bleak. Divisions within ZANU-PF remain profound, although some believe the party may be able to put its differences aside to beat off the opposition ahead of the 2018 elections. It would be a short term strategy, but in these dire straits short term relief trumps long term concerns.

On the economic front, the government may buy itself some breathing room in a debilitating liquidity squeeze by introducing bond notes in October. But many predict this new “surrogate currency” will further erode diminishing confidence in a government which is at pains to point out this is not akin to a return to the valueless Zimbabwean dollar. The move is likely to fan the flames of protest.

Neighbours are loath to step in. SADC members, with the exception of Botswana, have publicly ignored calls to engage. South Africa has gone so far as to endorse ZANU-PF’s assertion that there is no crisis to speak of. But this belies the reality of a profound sense of impotence and growing concerns among regional governments about where Zimbabwe is heading.

Silence should not be an option. In 2008, the region ignored the warning signs and did not hold ZANU-PF to account for almost 300 murders that marred the elections. Then, ZANU-PF did what it needed to retain power. Now, in spite of complicating factional dynamics, prospects of a repeat performance loom large. Stoked by economic collapse and the government’s desperate desire to hold onto power, Zimbabwe is back on a trajectory to further confrontation and repression.

Correction: This article has been corrected to remove a reference to Minister Chris Mushohwe as being Mugabe's nephew. Mushohwe was replaced in his previous portfolio as the Minister of Indigenisation by Patrick Zhuwao, who is a nephew of the president.