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Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
Confrontation in Zimbabwe Turns Increasingly Violent
Briefing 103 / Africa

Zimbabwe: Waiting for the Future

Zimbabwe’s growing instability is exacerbated by dire economic decline, endemic governance failures, and tensions over ruling party succession; without major political and economic reforms, the country could slide into being a failed state.

I. Overview

The July 2013 election victory of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) failed to secure broad-based legitimacy for President Robert Mugabe, provide a foundation for fixing the economy, or normalise external relations. A year on, the country faces multiple social and economic problems, spawned by endemic governance failures and compounded by a debilitating ruling party succession crisis. Both ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) are embroiled in major internal power struggles that distract from addressing the corrosion of the social and economic fabric. Zimbabwe is an insolvent and failing state, its politics zero sum, its institutions hollowing out, and its once vibrant economy moribund. A major culture change is needed among political elites, as well as commitment to national as opposed to partisan and personal interests.

Despite visibly waning capacities, 90-year-old Robert Mugabe shows no sign of wanting to leave office. The succession battle within his party is presented as a two-way race between Vice President Joice Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mna­n­gagwa, but the reality is more complex. Public battles have intensified, with intimidation and violence a disquieting feature. Mugabe’s diminished ability to manage this discord will be severely tested ahead of its December National People’s Congress. The elevation of First Lady Grace Mugabe to head ZANU-PF’s women’s league has complicated succession dynamics further.

Key economic sectors contracted in the past year and the government struggles to pay wages and provide basic services. Without major budgetary support it cannot deliver on election promises. Deals with China to improve infrastructure provide some respite, but will not resolve immediate challenges. International support from both East and West would help to maximise recovery prospects. Options are limited by acute liquidity constraints, policy incoherence, corruption and mismanagement. Vigorous reforms are needed to foster sustainable, inclusive growth.

Neither the government, nor the opposition has a plan the country is willing to rally behind. ZANU-PF’s Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) is predicated on populist election promises and wishful thinking. The government has squeezed the beleaguered tax base further, securing limited fiscal remedy and generating resentment. The MDC-T and other opposition parties are sidelined. Their cachet with international players has been severely dented. Prospects for a common opposition agenda are remote, as is any chance of inclusive national dialogue to map the way forward. For the first time since 2007, the MDC-T is suggesting mass protest is a real option, but if past performance is any indicator, ZANU-PF will redeploy security forces when required.

ZANU-PF’s election victory created opportunities for domestic and international rapprochement. International financial institutions are engaging, albeit tentatively, as the government explores financing options. Donors must balance commitments to rebuilding relations with the government, with support for improved governance and tackling democratic deficits. Trust is affected by uncertainties around unimplemented reforms and commitment to the new constitution and the rule of law, concerns about policies, and anxieties around succession. Some in ZANU-PF now admit that a new tack is required. Mugabe took over as chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in August 2014 and will chair the African Union (AU) from early 2015. This offers an unprecedented platform to secure some positive aspects of his legacy, though he is unlikely to use this as an opportunity for rapprochement.

To avoid prolonged uncertainty and possible crisis, ZANU-PF should:

  • decide conclusively at its December congress who will replace President Mugabe were he to be incapacitated or to decide not to seek re-election in 2018;
     
  • seek to rebuild trust and collaborations with domestic and international constituencies by (i) holding an inclusive national dialogue with the opposition and civil society on political, social and economic reforms; and (ii) clarify and act on key policy areas, eg, indigenisation, land reform and the rule of law, as well as anti-corruption initiatives; and
     
  • discipline members who engage in voter intimidation, fraud or other offences.

The political opposition, needing to reestablish its credibility, should:

  • establish a consultative mechanism, in conjunction with civil society, that seeks consensus and dialogue across the political spectrum on priority – in particular economic and governance – reforms; and
     
  • review 2013 election flaws through a forward-looking agenda that addresses major concerns projected for the 2018 polls (ie, voters roll and anomalies in electoral legislative amendments).

The SADC and AU should:

  • encourage Zimbabwe to address election-related concerns identified in their respective 2013 observation mission reports.

China should:

  • encourage Zimbabwe’s government to promote political inclusiveness and policy coherence in efforts to resuscitate the economy.

Countries implementing sanctions and other measures against Zimbabwe
(ie, the EU, U.S. and Australia) should promote a coherent position that:

  • clarifies what measures the government should take to expedite removal of remaining sanctions;
     
  • consolidates re-engagement and development support contingent on progress with economic and governance reforms;
     
  • takes visible steps to strengthen democracy-supporting institutions, including an independent judiciary and human rights and election institutions, as well as support civil society’s capacity to monitor and protect constitutional rights.

Johannesburg/Brussels, 29 September 2014

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.