As turmoil sparks the largest protests in years, where is Zimbabwe headed?

17 July 2016

Image: AP photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Things are not going well in Zimbabwe. Although its economy experienced some recovery in the early part of the 2010s, after nearly a decade of hyperinflation and political violence, it has again hit the skids. In recent weeks, the country has seen the largest street protests in a decade.

Local banks are limiting withdrawals to $100 per day—when they actually have cash. This lack of hard currency has also led to the introduction of restrictions on the imports of many goods, and local storekeepers have said they are unable to pay their suppliers. The export market for natural resources is nearly at a standstill. A multi-year drought, combined with uncertain land tenancy, has further undermined agricultural productivity. Foreign direct investment declined another 23 percent in 2015.

The government has sent a series of confusing signals about its plans to introduce “bond notes” to alleviate the currency crunch, raising questions about whether it is a backdoor effort to reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar, which was abandoned in 2009 when it was one of the world’s lowest-valued currencies.

The health sector has been thoroughly decimated by both a lack of supplies and an inability to pay personnel. Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced recently that Zimbabwe would repay $1.8 billion to international financial institutions by the end of June so that it could again borrow, but it has failed to make any payment.

Compounding the economic tumult is ongoing political infighting. President Robert Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since it achieved majority rule in 1980, and he is now 92 years old. That has led to rounds of jockeying and infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party over who will succeed Mugabe when he dies. The party has amended its succession procedures a number of times in recent years, but the party constitution with the most recent changes has never been made public.

Former Vice President Joice Mujuru was poised to take over until Mugabe’s wife, Grace, purged Mujuru and her allies from the ZANU-PF in 2014 over allegations that they were planning to assassinate Mugabe. This seemingly paved the way for current Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe, but Grace Mugabe then charged him with orchestrating an accident in an effort to kill her son, Chatunga. With the opposition parties to Mugabe in disarray, the political drama revolves around two factions within the ZANU-PF trading allegations against each other: Team Lacoste, named as a reference to Mnangagwa’s nickname, “the crocodile,” and associated with Mnangagwa and other liberation war veterans; and G40, also known as Generation 40, which consists of younger party members and is led by Grace Mugabe and Jonathan Moyo.

The ongoing tensions mean that Zimbabwe’s security forces are likely to be the key factor in determining which faction will ultimately win the succession battle. Given their role in propping up Mugabe’s regime over the past 15 to 20 years, along with their willingness to use violence against Mugabe’s opponents, the security forces are certainly cause for concern.

Amid this maelstrom, Zimbabweans have taken to the streets to protest. On the 36th anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence on April 19, a pastor, Evan Mawarire, posted a video of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag on YouTube. Mawarire lamented the political and economic crises befalling his country and called upon his fellow citizens to take action to improve Zimbabwe’s situation. Promoted by the hashtag #ThisFlag, the video’s message has resonated throughout the country, though the government has described it as part of a “Western-sponsored regime change agenda.”

Mawarire’s call for action has found a receptive audience among many Zimbabweans who have taken to the streets, only to be met with resistance from the government. Demonstrations earlier this month in the capital, Harare, and Beitbridge turned violent after police responded with tear gas and dogs. On July 6, Mawarire organized the biggest protest in Zimbabwe in a decade, essentially shutting down Harare. Demonstrators demanded that Mugabe fire and prosecute corrupt Cabinet ministers; that the government pay civil servants on time; and that police roadblocks be removed from the streets. Instead, police arrested Mawarire and charged him with trying to overthrow the government. But a magistrate threw out the charges against him. Mawarire has called for additional nationwide protests against the government, though they have not achieved the same level of turnout.

It is clear that Zimbabweans don’t just recognize the problems facing their country, but are fed up with them. The bigger issue for Zimbabwe and the #ThisFlag movement is figuring out where it goes from here, which will be particularly tricky for three reasons.

First, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF have repeatedly shown little tolerance for opposition. Mawarire and the protest movement are not explicitly anti-Mugabe or anti-ZANU-PF, but Mugabe and his supporters are unlikely to accept such nuance. Mawarire’s arrest is proof of that, and there have already been violent clashes with the police. The government has long demonstrated a propensity to use violence against its opponents, going back to the 1980s during the massacre known as the Gukurahundi, in which thousands of members of the opposition ZAPU party were killed, leading then-Vice President Joshua Nkomo to flee into exile. In 2008, when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change won the first round of the presidential election, it pulled out of the run-off because of the intense level of state violence against its supporters.

Second, there is no institutional framework to support #ThisFlag. Mawarire’s video spoke to larger frustrations in Zimbabwe, but he is an accidental activist and will need support if this movement is to have an influence. The once-strong Movement for Democratic Change has largely devolved into a series of factions set against one another. Leading opposition figures like Tendai Biti, Simba Makoni and Mujuru have started their own opposition parties, but these have little infrastructure themselves. The fact that Mawarire is a Christian pastor may allow for the country’s churches to take a more active role. Although Zimbabwean churches have long played a role in public affairs, they have largely shied away from overt partisanship. But this is a difficult balance to maintain.

Third, the problems facing Zimbabwe will take a long time to fix and require engagement with the international community. In the United States, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 predicates US involvement with the country on specific reforms that Zimbabwe still hasn’t undertaken. The country is closed off from international financial institutions so long as its loans are in arrears.

At the same time, too close an engagement with Western entities can undermine #ThisFlag, allowing the government to portray the movement as a puppet of Western interests—a refrain it has successfully used in the past.

<i>Jeremy Youde is a fellow and senior lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University</i>. This article origonally appeared in World Politics Review, 18 July 2016.

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