It has been 123 days since Zimbabweans went to the polls, in an election that was intended to usher in a new era for the troubled Southern African nation. But the fatal shooting of seven civilians by soldiers in the full view of the global media was an important reminder that the new administration looked much like the old. Although he positioned himself as a reformer, little appears to have changed in Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa came in on a wave of popular support after he and his military backers ousted former President Robert Mugabe in a coup that broke the continent’s longest coup-free stretch since the late 1950s. He promised accountable governance, a return to the rule of law and a tough stance on the pervasive corruption that has eaten through Zimbabwe’s social services like a cancer.
Following his election Mnangagwa appointed respected Cambridge-educated economist Dr Mthuli Ncube as his Finance Minister, sending positive signals to international investors and the IMF and World Bank that the country planned to turn over a new economic leaf. He also appointed a commission of enquiry into the killings on 1 August, headed by the respected former president of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe.
But the Military…
As if to confirm the fears of political scientists about the adverse outcomes of coups, the military has continued to play an outsized role in Zimbabwe’s post-coup dispensation. Rumours abound of the factional fights between the president and his Vice-President Constantine Chiwenga, the former Commander of the Defence Forces. It is widely reported that the deal between the two men was that Mnangagwa would serve just a single term before handing over to his second in command.
But repeated statements suggest that Mnangagwa has other ideas and hopes to run again in 2023. This was reportedly the reason behind the grenade attack at one of Mnangagwa’s rallies during the election campaign. The country’s independent media carries regular articles detailing the alleged factional fights within the state which continue to give lie to Mnangagwa’s ‘new dawn’ narrative.
At the same time, Chiwenga and Foreign Minister and former Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo (of the Chiwenga camp) are reportedly gravely ill, with Moyo apparently suffering from unexplained kidney failure. In a country where many leaders have died under unclear or suspicious circumstances – notably Mugabe’s former General, Solomon Mujuru, in 2011 – the illnesses amongst those said to be opposed to the President further raise suspicions.
As for Kgalema Motlanthe’s Commission, the military has bizarrely claimed that the deaths of civilians were caused by the opposition to destabilise and discredit the army and administration. Having refused to take any responsibility for civilian deaths, it appears that impunity will continue to plague the country’s armed forces. Zimbabwe’s civic groups have expressed grave concerns over the process, and confidence in the Commission appears to be waning rapidly.
What about the Economy?
Despite promises of massive international investment during the election campaign and the appointment of a technocratic Finance Minister, Zimbabwe’s economic woes appear to be deepening. Ncube has promised both austerity and wide-ranging reforms, vowing to cut down the country’s public sector wage bill which consumes 90% of the annual budget. In trying to restart the economy, he will need to bring the opaque extractives sector back under the wing of treasury and ensure that the burgeoning diamond and platinum sector remit finances to the state.
But in doing so, the Finance Minister will find himself up against entrenched interests in the military and the upper echelons of the governing party. Vowing to root out ghost workers in the public sector through biometric registration, Ncube will find himself up against the ZANU-PF elites who draw the salaries from these ghost workers in order to finance their own patronage networks. These reforms will also retire more than 6 000 ‘Youth Officers’ on the public payroll, who behave as little more than ruling party enforcers. This will certainly ruffle some feathers with their handlers.
The Minister faces a massive debt mountain; at the end of August 2018, public debt stood at $17.69 billion USD of which domestic debt accounted for 54%. This represents a national debt of over 100% of current GDP. But with industrial capacity operating at 20%, a massive trade deficit engendered by the collapse of local manufacturing and opacity in the minerals sector, it isn’t clear where the finances will come from to turn the listing economic ship around.
The country’s most important export earners are minerals (gold, diamonds, platinum and ferrous metals) but these sectors suffer from heavy involvement of the military and military elites and few of the proceeds from exports reach the public purse. Any attempts to introduce greater transparency in minerals and mineral governance is likely to come up against stiff resistance from those who benefit from the status quo.
Finally, Mnangagwa’s flagship project of 2017 was the country’s ‘Command Agriculture’ project which sought to incentivise and push agricultural sector growth to revitalise the ailing economy and return the country to its former status as a major agricultural producer. This project was run by the military and is said to have been lucrative for many government and military insiders. Ncube’s recent declaration of intent to scale down this programme will likely push him further into conflict with the beneficiaries of this scheme.
And the Opposition?
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has continued to loudly contest the legitimacy of Mnangagwa’s government and tries to capitalise on broad public dissatisfaction with the collapsing economy. On 29 November they held a massive march through the streets of the capital to deliver a petition to parliament demanding a new transitional government to address the financial and political crisis.
Although the opposition is a far cry from its strengths of the early 2000s and the country’s formerly indomitable trade unions are a shadow of their former selves, the widespread desperation brought on by 20 years of deepening economic crisis have pushed citizens to the brink. This has won the MDC many inadvertent supporters and poses a threat to the ruling elite.
Mnangagwa the Reformer?
There remains a robust debate in Zimbabwe about whether or not the president is honest about his intentions to reform the state – and many would like to believe that he is indeed trying to rein in the military. Even if he is sincere in his intentions to reform the state, he is facing threats from all sides – the military, the economy and the opposition – and it remains difficult to see how the administration can possibly dig their way out of the current morass.
The events following the July elections have reminded foreign governments and investors of the reasons for their long hesitation over investing in Zimbabwe, and consequently little foreign investment has been forthcoming in the three months since. The instability of the relationship between the military and the executive as well as the entrenched nature of the army in the country’s productive sectors continues to give investors pause.
Sadly, a year since Mugabe’s removal, the country’s battle-weary citizens hardly look any closer to the end of their long suffering.