The Mugabe end game: What’s next for Zimbabwe?
by Barnaby Fletcher.
In early September 2016 the gossiping classes of Harare seized on a new rumour. President Robert Mugabe had abruptly left a Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Swaziland two days earlier, and a sudden diversion in his flight to Singapore prompted speculation of a medical emergency. A well-known opposition MP claimed ‘impeccable sources’ for his assertion that the president had suffered a stroke. Days later Mugabe was back in Zimbabwe, joking that he had died, but that he had ‘resurrected as I always do’.
This false alarm may still prove prophetic. After 37 years, health concerns and political pressures are likely to make 2017 Mugabe’s last year as president. The infighting this prospect has fuelled has consumed the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), leaving it unable to rescue an economy drowning in political and policy uncertainty. The end of Mugabe’s rule will not solve all the problems facing Zimbabwe – his likely successor, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is more ruthless than reformist – but it will bring a sense of surety for the future. Meanwhile, Mnangagwa’s presumptive government-in-waiting has shown a pragmatism with which investors can engage.
The president’s final days
For every witty retort from Mugabe there is a confused speech or embarrassing episode. In public appearances he looks physically frail; in international summits he is frequently pictured asleep. ZANU-PF may have already endorsed Mugabe as its candidate for the 2018 presidential polls, but the prospect of the nonagenarian contesting an eighth election seems remote.
Even if Mugabe’s health holds, his support may not. Zimbabwe is in crisis. Lacking a sovereign currency and facing declining foreign exchange inflows, there is simply not enough physical money to sustain a primarily cash-based economy. The formal economy is shrinking and the black market is growing, as companies seek to get around increasingly onerous regulations intended to ease liquidity constraints. Public-sector salaries, including those of the army and police, are repeatedly delayed. Popular anger has been highlighted by unprecedented social unrest and by-election defeats for the ruling party.
These factors combine to raise concerns over political stability. Mugabe may have no plans to vacate his throne, but those around him will be more concerned with maintaining a political system that assures their positions. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), long a de facto wing of ZANU-PF, withdrew its support for Mugabe in July 2016. Speculation abounds that influential generals, looking to hasten a smooth transition to their preferred successor, provided tacit support to the war veterans’ rebellion.
The succession challengers
Two factions have emerged within ZANU-PF to fight over a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The first, led by Mnangagwa, is known as Team Lacoste – derived from the vice-president’s nickname, ‘the crocodile’ – and dominated by more pragmatic members of the government. First Lady Grace Mugabe leads the other faction, ‘Generation 40’ (‘G40’), primarily made up of younger and more populist figures.
Battles between the two factions are vicious, exacerbated by constitutional ambiguity around the succession process and Mugabe’s refusal to name a successor. In turn, they exacerbate economic challenges. Reform efforts are routinely overturned and contradicted as policies become cudgels in political battles. Regulations are applied inconsistently as factions seek to weaken their rivals, while challengers buying support drive high levels of corruption.
Grace Mugabe’s influence stems from her self-appointed position as the voice of a husband increasingly absent from day-to-day government. But if Mugabe is gone, his wife is weak. Her various nicknames – Dis-Grace, Gucci Grace – highlight her unpopularity. Her lack of liberation war credentials and willingness to disparage war heroes have made enemies within the security forces. While she may be able to throw her support behind a candidate more palatable to the generals, it is unclear who such a candidate would be.
Mnangagwa has support from the security forces and the international community; explicitly from China and allegedly from the UK. Perhaps most importantly for a party facing widespread electoral discontent, he can deliver an election. Mnangagwa is almost as unpopular as Grace; the ruthlessness from which his nickname is derived makes him more feared than loved. Yet according to knowledgeable sources it was Mnangagwa who orchestrated ZANU-PF’s 2013 general election victory through sophisticated manipulation of voter registration.
The post-Mugabe future
At first glance Harare looks prosperous. Africa Unity Square is filled with purple-flowered jacaranda trees and surrounded by the glass-fronted towers of the Central Business District. Yet inside the towers the carpets are faded and the walls in need of a new coat of paint. The elevators stutter. They stand as monuments to the potential that Zimbabwe has looked ever further from realising: to a manufacturing industry once three times its current size; an agricultural sector that has never exceeded its peak in 2000; and a GDP per capita higher in the early 1980s than in 2016.
The end of Mugabe’s reign will not automatically restore Harare to its former glory, nor turn Zimbabwe into a prosperous utopia. A Mnangagwa presidency will be politically repressive, especially as it seeks to counter the challenge of an emboldened opposition in the build-up to the 2018 general elections. Corruption will remain pervasive as Mnangagwa consolidates his support through patronage networks. Decades of under-investment in transport and power infrastructure will take decades to redress.
But Team Lacoste contains pragmatists. Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa has already tried to cut public-sector salaries, which accounted for 97% of government expenditure in the first half of 2017. Mnangagwa himself has spoken of the need to clarify or dilute the controversial indigenisation requirements that have deterred investors. There have been clear and concerted efforts from Team Lacoste to re-engage with an international community that has not offered any financial support since the early 2000s. These efforts have so far been undermined by Mugabe, and by the influence Mugabe’s continued presidency gives his wife and the ‘G40’. The removal of these obstacles means that the substantial opportunities offered by Zimbabwe may finally outweigh the risks.