When he came to power in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa rode a wave of local and global goodwill. But by March 2019, the USA had renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe that have been in place for nearly 20 years. In February, the UK held parliamentary discussions on Zimbabwe and the Africa Minister, Harriet Baldwin, made it clear that a full normalisation of relations with Zimbabwe was no longer on the table.
So how exactly did we get here?
Mnangagwa the ‘Reformer’
“I’m as soft as wool,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa stated in an interview with Sky News in August 2018, in response to a question from a journalist regarding his fearsome nickname – the ‘crocodile.’ Mnangagwa had worked hard in the 18 months since the ‘coup’ that had put him in state house, cleaning up his image and promising to be a president for all Zimbabweans, vowing to set the country on a new path. President Mnangagwa came to power promising extensive reforms, global re-engagement and repeating the mantra that Zimbabwe was “open for business.”
Ahead of the elections on 30 July 2018, on the main thoroughfares through the capital and scattered across the country, big billboards towered over Zimbabwe’s citizens as they went about their business. These billboards were filled with images of an engaging and smiling President Mnangagwa, making sweeping promises about universal healthcare, decent jobs, power generation and ‘free, fair and credible elections.’ The administration invited credible election observation missions from around the world – missions that had not been allowed to monitor the country’s elections since the violent 2002 polls. Between them, the observer groups spanned 46 countries and 15 regional blocks, making the 2018 election the most observed election in the country since independence in 1980.
Mnangagwa had traversed the globe promising change and a “new dispensation” in Harare, and was well-received in global capitals, with the UK’s Rory Stewart – at the time the Minister of State for Africa – the first to arrive in Harare following Mnangagwa’s installation in 2017. Zimbabwe applied to re-join the Commonwealth, with the UK supporting its application. The administration sought to re-engage with international financial institutions – the World Bank and IMF – from which it had been alienated since the early 2000s. The EU and USA began to discuss the relaxation of the remaining limited sanctions and it seemed that Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa might finally be welcomed back in to the international community, shedding its ‘pariah state’ status.
The July 2018 election
Despite all of the positive changes ahead of the polls, it was clear that there were rumblings of dissent from within the ruling party – and there were early indications that despite initial assurances about free and fair elections, some aspects of the playing field would remain skewed in the ruling party’s favour. The state media refused to give equal coverage to all 23 presidential candidates, particularly ignoring the ruling party’s key opponent – Nelson Chamisa of the MDC-Alliance. Despite their initial openness, the electoral commission soon began to stonewall key discussions on reforming the electoral process, making the electoral roll available for an audit and allowing the opposition to oversee the printing of ballots. Instead, an unconstitutional ballot was designed and printed, civic groups and opposition parties were left with little time to review and validate the roll and there were serious and widespread reports of intimidation in rural areas in the lead-up to the polls.
When 7 protestors were gunned down by soldiers in the streets of Harare in front of the global media on 1 August, the international community and political commentators were dumbfounded. The administration was so close to legitimating the 2017 coup with a flawed-but-meets-basic-standards election, that it seemed unthinkable that they would have squandered local and global goodwill so easily. At his inauguration, Mnangagwa condemned the violence, vowing that his new administration would usher in a “brighter tomorrow” – and he announced the creation of a commission of enquiry into the deaths on 1 August. He described himself as a “listening president”, and insisted that his government was committed to ‘constitutionalism, the rule of law and judicial independence.’ Again, the commentators were caught off-guard, and were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe that perhaps the military had acted without sanction – or worse, that the Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, had an eye on his boss’ job and had loosed the military on civilians to undermine Mnangagwa’s position.
To sanitise his image in the wake of the global outcry, several opinion articles appeared in the global media, ostensibly penned by Mnangagwa. He spoke of reconciliation, new beginnings and a better future for a long suffering populace. But when the commission of enquiry – headed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe – wrapped up its business, they had heard from soldiers that those killed had not been shot by soldiers but instead had been stabbed by members of the opposition; that the MDC-A was to blame for the violence and deaths; and that Mnangagwa had given the orders to set up the rapid response unit that had been mobilised to the streets in response to the protests. Despite all his assurances of being accountable, Mnangagwa is yet to publicly release the full report which was handed to him in December 2018.
A disastrous January
By January 2019, less than 6 months into the administration, a simmering economic crisis had prompted disgruntled and increasingly desperate members of the civil service to make more demands from the state. Inflation in the black market for the country’s surrogate currency was at over 50% in January, and long lines at fuel stations made basic tasks difficult.
Mnangagwa announced an enormous fuel price hike on 12 January, before jetting off in a private aircraft to Central Asia. The country’s labour unions called for a national stay away to protest the declining economy and unaffordable fuel prices, which was then enforced by unknown elements and angry youths. In the melee that ensued, shops were looted, cars were burned and a policeman was stoned to death. In the wake of this, the state launched a violent and angry three-week crackdown on the country’s poor, beating those who lived in close proximity to the worst of the looting and violence – and committing systematic torture and collective punishment. Nearly a thousand people were rounded up, beaten and put in prison. Fourteen women are reported to have been raped by soldiers, and at least 17 people were reported to have been killed.
In person, Mnangagwa seemed to condone the violence, though his Twitter feed condemned it and called for accountability for the state-sponsored violence. In a strange twist, his spokesman went so far as to tell the public not to believe everything said on the president’s Twitter feed. This fresh crackdown prompted yet another round of global concern, and it appears that all prospects for international re-engagement have stalled. ZIDERA has been renewed, and the UK has disowned any plans to support Zimbabwe’s bid to re-enter the Commonwealth. US sanctions will make the bailout that Zimbabwe so badly needs from international financial institutions even more unlikely.
Mnangagwa’s consistent inconsistency
While early in his presidency, many were willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt, it is increasingly clear that the new administration in Zimbabwe is both more authoritarian than its predecessor, and less strategic. Having denounced the January 2019 protests as a Western-backed attempt at regime change, the ruling party has dusted off its old anti-imperial mantra as a cloak for their repressive actions. They have charged key opposition and civic leaders with treason. In 25-year old Joanah Mamombe’s case, she is alleged to be the first woman charged with treason in the country in over 150 years. According to veteran journalist, Peta Thornycroft, “about 10 MPs from the opposition MDC Alliance are variously charged with incitement, subversion and treason.”
In light of all this, in early March, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced that it would send special rapporteurs to Harare to investigate the claims of human rights abuses. In another spectacular about-face, this has apparently been welcomed by President Mnangagwa. The Foreign Ministry’s official who was sent to brief the press appeared to be living in a parallel universe, and reported substantial gains at international re-engagement. In a similar vein, it was reported on 6 March that the government – who are currently unable to stabilise the economy, pay civil servant salaries or settle vast debts to neighbouring South Africa – have decided to engage the services of a Trump-affiliated lobbyist to have the US sanctions dropped. This comes at an annual cost of $500 000 dollars. The likely success of this initiative is low, and Zimbabweans will probably see little gain from their misspent taxes.
Unfortunately, this young administration has proven to be both erratic and tone deaf. Having had several chances at reform, they have consistently undermined their own case but still hoped to find themselves in a strong negotiating position. For now, the reform ship appears to have sailed, and the long-suffering citizens of Zimbabwe are likely to continue to suffer under a regime that seems to care little for their welfare, and less for their protest. As Panashe Chigumadzi stated in August 2018, “the old Zimbabwe is the new Zimbabwe.”