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After Mugabe: What’s next for Zimbabwe’s “guided democracy”

By Stephen Jaber Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, celebrated his 91st birthday on March 1st, 2015. Starting his 91st year off in decadent fashion, the President treated his guests to an absurd meal of elephant, buffalo, as well as a 90-minute speech criticizing American economic sanctions on his inner circle, his former Vice President, the opposition and a host of other political enemies.[1] The extravagant display is just a taste of Mugabe’s power and his willingness to use it for his personal gain. Costing the country approximately $1 million, and two elephants, the party is only the most recent example of Mugabe’s obscenity.[2]

Mugabe, the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has not lost an election since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, a troubling trend that will not soon subside. [3] [4] Beginning as a an anti-colonialist hero, Mugabe solidified power in his country through the aid of the military and his notorious North Korean trained militia, the Fifth Brigade. [5] Mugabe infamously ordered the Gukurahundi, the brutal and systematic violent offensive against the Ndebele populations in Zimbabwe during 1983 and 1985 elections.[6] The operation, undertaken by the Fifth Bridage, left about 20,000 people dead in the Matabeleland, and displays the lengths to which Mugabe and the ZANU-PF took to centralize power in the newly independent Zimbabwe. [7] Throughout his rule, Mugabe’s approach to governance has been coined as “guided democracy,” where the executive is afforded increased levels of autocracy and elections are relatively meaningless.[8]

As harsh and savage as Mugabe’s reign has been, it is quietly approaching an expiration date.. As of March 10th, Mugabe is set to spend three weeks abroad, with a medical stop over in Singapore before a state visit in Japan. [9] Mugabe spent last December and January in Singapore on a medical visit as well, a sign of his worsening health.

Questions of succession have been raised: George Ward, the former US ambassador to neighboring Namibia, has said “Mugabe may serve out his term and successfully hand off power to an anointed successor, but events may unfold in a less orderly fashion…Mugabe, has no clear succession plan, and considerable uncertainty exists about whether a stable succession will take place.”[10] [11]

Succession to Mugabe’s throne is becoming an extremely delicate case: a situation with a myriad of competing players all vying for their own sliver of authority. Moreover, Zimbabwe is by no means a stable country. Whoever succeeds Mugabe will immediately have to face a plethora of desperate circumstances.

One of the many roadblocks in Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe era is the fate and stability of the largest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Formerly led by Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC participated in a “power-sharing” coalition government with Mugabe and the ZANU-PF from 2008 to 2013. But then in 2013, after a heavily disputed election (Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission claimed that nearly 305,000 voters were turned away during the election), the MDC received 49 seats to the ZANU-PF’s 158. Tsvangairai ran against Mugabe for the presidency and only received 34% of the vote to Mugabe’s 61%.[12] [13] The MDC decided it would no longer cooperate in a coalition government with Mugabe. Subsequently, in 2014, party leaders forced Tsvangirai out, suspending him due to a “remarkable failure of leadership.”—in other words, his inability to defeat Mugabe at the polls.[14] Without Tsvangirai, the MDC lacks a viable candidate for the presidency, as he founded the party in 1999 and had been its sole leader prior to his ouster .[15]

With Tsvangirai’s suspension, there is serious doubt on the ability for the MDC to mount a feasible alternative to Mugabe’s government. [16] The party is demoralized, and is losing major support all over the country, boding ominously for political competition in Zimbabwe’s future.

Mugabe’s nearing death will endanger Zimbabwe’s already notoriously fragile economy. In 2008, inflation reached 231,000,000%, making the Zimbabwe dollar useless. While the economy has improved since the adoption of the United States Dollar in April 2009, recent IMF estimates say the economy will grow at paltry 3% in 2015, a sharp decline from the 12% growth the country saw in 2012.[17] [18] [19] Zimbabwe’s economy shrunk by 40% between 2000 and 2008, partly due to Mugabe’s targeted eviction of the country's white farmers.[20] In recent months Mugabe has threatened to expel even more white farmers, a move that would confirm Zimbabwe as an unsafe investment destination.[21] [22] The last unemployment survey held in 2008, reported that 94% of the population was unemployed, only 480,000 of the 12 million people in Zimbabwe formally had jobs.[23]

Still heavily based on commodities, the economy is heavily susceptible to demand shocks. A possible sign of Mugabe’s ineptitude can be found in his debt dealings with China. In late November 2014, Mugabe promised his country that Zimbabwe would stand to benefit from $30 billion in grants, and loans from China to jumpstart the declining economy. Things fell through, and after telling his people that the Chinese would be giving $400 million, Beijing backed out of the deal entirely: they told Mugabe his and his finance minister Patrick Chinamasa that they would not tolerate promises as security on the loan, they want profitable projects to invest in.[24] Mugabe’s lasting contribution to Zimbabwe’s economy will be its undependability and volatility as an investment location; his successor must deal with the economy’s reputation first and present Zimbabwe as a friendly and lucrative business hub. [25]

Zimbabwe also faces a large humanitarian crisis: the response to the February 2014 Tokwe-Mukorsi floods in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province has been severely lacking. 20,000 people had to be relocated, an operation that was fraught with human rights abuse.[26] [27] The government moved the refuges to the Chingwizi relocation camp, where protests erupted due to the abysmal government response to the refuges’ needs. The government responded by sending in “over 200 anti-riot police to quell the protests, indiscriminately beating and arresting close to 300 people.” [28] The substandard response is endemic of Mugabe’s ineffectiveness at dealing with the humanitarian crises in his country, and furthermore highlights his willingness to transgress whatever semblances of law exist in attempting to bring order to delicate situations. Additionally, it is estimated that 36,000 people are internally displaced by political violence in Zimbabwe.[29] These humanitarian crises reveal the potential for public unrest in the country; the people are aware of their government’s incompetence. This issue is likely to be compounded the uncertainty by Mugabe’s death.

Mugabe’s death could also lead to a crisis of secession within the ZANU-PF. With the opposition and the economy is disarray; all attention has gone to the ZANU-PF and the myriad of opportunists within the party who seek to become president. Among the numerous possible successors to Mugabe’s throne within the party are: his wife, Grace Mugabe; his former Vice-President, Joice Mujuru, who is speculated to have been removed from the Vice Presidency for planning to assassinate Mugabe; and the current Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.[30] [31] [32] These players are at the forefront of the succession crisis and each is attempting to gain the upper hand, politically, vis-à-vis the other. Although Mujuru was cast out of her position early last year, she still enjoys commendable support at local and village levels.

Lately Mujuru has been vocal about her future with the ZANU-PF. Having clashed with Grace Mugabe, Mujuru gave Mugbe an ultimatum in December, telling him to be up front with his displeasure rather than letting his wife abuse her.[33] Mujuru has blamed her dismissal from the Vice Presidency on elaborate smear campaign. Once poised to be Mugabe’s successor, Mujuru has fallen out of favor with the President as his wife, Grace Mugabe rises in stature.[34] Grace Mugabe was selected as the head of the ZANU-PF’s women’s wing in December, a move that has all but confirmed her as a pivotal player in the party’s future. [35]

Protection of Zimbabwe’s new constitution will pose the biggest pressure for the country after Mugabe. In 2013, an immense 95% majority of Zimbabweans approved a new constitution via referendum that would limit the President to two, five-year terms.[36] While this is a welcome development, the constitution does not apply actively: with Mugabe’s win in 2013, he is constitutionally eligible for another decade as President. If Mugabe dies (and he surely will) during the next decade, the ZANU-PF will have the ability to choose a successor without having to call for a new election.[37] The new constitution has also included provisions for the freedom to propagate views and affords all political parties the freedom to canvass support among the electorate. It also ties the government to a responsibility to “realize the rights to freedom of association, assembly, expression and information.”[38]

The constitution has also included provisions that limit the strength and partisanship of the military, which has historically supported Mugabe and the ZANU-PF. Military officers are obligated to be neutral, according to the constitution, but there is some worry that the security forces will ignore these provisions. The constitution, moreover, is supposed to be protected by the newly created constitutional court, an institution that will draw its ranks from the former Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, which has been thoroughly discredited as a judicial and legal bulwark and is merely a ZANU-PF mouthpiece.[39] Mugabe himself has shown a general disregard and ambivalence towards the rule of law, an executive that holds the constitution to the esteem it deserves will set a positive trend for Zimbabwe’s youth.

As has been the norm in Zimbabwe, the future is not bright. With a shaky economy and broken political system that is sure to get more fractioned in the event of Mugabe’s death, the country will have to bear the brunt of Mugabe’s fruitless succession game. Moreover, given the government’s demonstrated incompetence in handling humanitarian crises, the Tokwe-Mukorsi floods in particular, implicate that any tailored successor of Mugabe’s might not be able to fare much better. Given a historically mismanaged economy, bitter political infighting and fractioning and worrisome humanitarian conditions. Zimbabwe has makings of a failed state, and while things are relatively stable for the moment, Mugabe’s death could be a powder keg of change in the near future.[40]

As of March 10th, Mugabe is set to spend three weeks abroad, with a medical stop over in Singapore before a state visit in Japan. [41] Mugabe spent last December and January in Singapore on a medical visit as well, a sign of his worsening health. In Mugabe’s absence, the key issues highlighted above become more volatile. Without Mugabe, a leadership vacuum is likely to persist as the acting president, now Vice President Mnangagwa, is without significant constitutional authority to act – this would mean critical decisions regarding Zimbabwe’s fledgling economy and humanitarian crises will remain unsolved.

Mnangagwa is, for the moment, the heir to Mugabe’s throne. But given Mugabe’s fickle nature (sacking Mujuru because his wife told him to) Mnangagwa’s fate is in the air. Nonetheless, Mnangagwa is suspected to attempt to consolidate his own personal power in Mugabe’s absence. But Mnangagwa’s shaky consolidation is likely to come at a price, especially since the succession has yet to be formerly resolved; the Council on Foreign Relations’ George Ward has written: “political instability and potential violence could threaten Zimbabwe in the coming twelve to eighteen months,”[42]

This political instability and political violence could manifest itself in a plethora of ways. The various factions: the MDC, ZANU-PF and the military may all raise their own banners in the next coming months against the legitimacy of a Mnangagwa regime. Mujuru may be able to successfully siphon off a bloc of her own within the ZANU-PF and Grace Mugabe might not be content as the head of the party’s women wing and subsequently set her ambition towards the office her husband holds. Tsvangarai could make a return at the MDC and galvanize a resurgent opposition in upcoming elections.

In Zimbabwe’s succession game, there are endless outcomes. Above all, the succession game is not likely to be swift, and categorical with little resistance. All signs point to a significant clash between factions within the ZANU-PF, one side led by disgraced former Vice President Mujuru, another led by current Vice President Mnangagwa and a potential enclave led by Grace Mugabe. The economy, and Zimbabwe’s humanitarian crises require prompt and sound attention, but given the ZANU-PF’s dubious history in both fronts, new leadership is dearly needed. This leaves the MDC, and more importantly Tsvangarai, as the major alternative. Unfortunately, after a series of debilitating electoral defeats against the ZANU-PF, the MDC will need to rebuild its reputation at the national stage as a social democratic party intent on reversing the “indigenization” of the country’s farms and businesses. What Zimbabwe ultimately needs, is a clean break from Mugabe and his violent past and only a successor that is firmly removed from his circus may stand a chance at bringing Zimbabwe forward in the 21st century. Unfortunately, such an outcome seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

[1] Nianias, Helen. "Robert Mugabe Eats a Zoo for 'obscene' 91st Birthday Party." The Independent. March 1, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/robert-mugabe-eats-a-zoo-for-obscene-91st-birthday-party-10077805.html.

[2] Graham, David. "Eating an Elephant." The Atlantic. February 26, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/what-will-robert-mugabes-elephant-feast-taste-like/386108/.

[3] History.com Staff. "Robert Mugabe." History.com. January 1, 2009. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/robert-mugabe.

[4] Human Rights Watch. "Zimbabwe: Security Forces Pose Election Risk." Human Rights Watch. June 5, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/04/zimbabwe-security-forces-pose-election-risk.

[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7388214.stm

[6] http://concernedafricascholars.org/bulletin/issue80/scarnecchia/

[7] http://allafrica.com/stories/201401180029.html

[8] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9175.html

[9] Manayiti, Obey. "Mugabe to Spend 3 Weeks in Far East - NewsDay Zimbabwe." NewsDay Zimbabwe. March 10, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. https://www.newsday.co.zw/2015/03/10/mugabe-to-spend-3-weeks-in-far-east/.

[10] Mwiti, Lee. "Ousted Zimbabwe VP Breaks Silence, Hints at New Mugabe Battle Ahead, and How a Cornered US Has Few Cards Left." Mail & Guardian Africa. March 7, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-03-06-ousted-zimbabwe-vp-breaks-silence-hinting-at-new-mugabe-battle-ahead-and-how-the-us-has-few-cards-left-to-play.

[11] Ward, George. "Political Instability in Zimbabwe." Council on Foreign Relations. March 1, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/zimbabwe/political-instability-zimbabwe/p36230.

[12] BBC News. "Zimbabwe President Mugabe Re-elected amid Fraud Claims." BBC News. August 3, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-23563029.

[13] BBC News. "Zimbabwe Electoral Commission: Says 305,000 Voters Rejected." BBC News. August 8, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-23618743.

[14] BBC News. "Zimbabwe: Opposition MDC Suspends Morgan Tsvangirai." BBC News. April 26, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27173541.

[15] http://www.newzimbabwe.com/pages/opinion140.14149.html

[16] Thornycroft, Peta. "Morgan Tsvangirai Kicked out of MDC Party." The Telegraph. April 26, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/10790207/Morgan-Tsvangirai-kicked-out-of-MDC-party.html.

[17] The Economist. "In Dollars They Trust." The Economist. April 27, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21576665-grubby-greenbacks-dear-credit-full-shops-and-empty-factories-dollars-they.

[18] Voice of America, AFP, and Reuters. "Zimbabwe Suspends Use of Own Currency." VOA. November 11, 2009. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.voanews.com/content/a-13-2009-04-12-voa9-69816747/367559.html.

[19] Marawanyika, Godfrey. "Zimbabwe to Expand at Rate Matching 6-Year Low, IMF Says." Bloomberg.com. March 11, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-10/zimbabwe-economy-to-expand-at-rate-matching-6-year-low-imf-says.

[20] Marawanyika, Godfrey. "Zimbabwe to Expand at Rate Matching 6-Year Low, IMF Says." Bloomberg.com. March 11, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-10/zimbabwe-economy-to-expand-at-rate-matching-6-year-low-imf-says.

[21] CS Monitor. "Robert Mugabe Says No Whites May Own Land in Zimbabwe." The Christian Science Monitor. July 3, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2014/0703/Robert-Mugabe-says-no-whites-may-own-land-in-Zimbabwe?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily&utm_campaign=20140707_Newsletter:Daily_Sailthru&cmpid=ema:nws:Daily%20Newsletter%20(07-07-2014).

[22] MATENGA, MOSES, and WINSTONE ANTONIO. "Mugabe Will Die a Villain, Says Tsvangirai - NewsDay Zimbabwe." News Day Zimbabwe. March 10, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. https://www.newsday.co.zw/2015/03/10/mugabe-will-die-a-villain-says-tsvangirai/.

[23] http://www.news24.com/Africa/Zimbabwe/Zim-unemployment-soars-to-94-20090129-2

[24] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2014/0310/Desperate-dictator-China-refuses-Robert-Mugabe-s-request-for-Zimbabwe-bailout

[25] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2009/1013/p06s01-woaf.html

[26] Bekele, Daniel. "For Mugabe Uplifting Africans Should Begin at Home." Human Rights Watch. February 23, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/13/mugabe-uplifting-africans-should-begin-home.

[27] Haffejee, Ihsaan. "In Photos: The Aftermath of Zimbabwe’s Tokwe-Mukorsi Dam Disaster." Daily Maverick. April 14, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-04-14-in-photos-the-aftermath-of-zimbabwes-tokwe-mukorsi-dam-disaster/#.VKVoZivF-So.

[28] Bekele, Daniel. "For Mugabe Uplifting Africans Should Begin at Home." Human Rights Watch. February 23, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/13/mugabe-uplifting-africans-should-begin-home.

[29] International Displacement Monitoring Center. "Zimbabwe." IDMC. January 1, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.internal-displacement.org/sub-saharan-africa/zimbabwe/.

[30] Mwiti, Lee. "Ousted Zimbabwe VP Breaks Silence, Hints at New Mugabe Battle Ahead, and How a Cornered US Has Few Cards Left." Mail & Guardian Africa. March 7, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-03-06-ousted-zimbabwe-vp-breaks-silence-hinting-at-new-mugabe-battle-ahead-and-how-the-us-has-few-cards-left-to-play.

[31] Thornycroft, Peta. "Morgan Tsvangirai Kicked out of MDC Party." The Telegraph. April 26, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/10790207/Morgan-Tsvangirai-kicked-out-of-MDC-party.html.

[32] Ward, George. "Political Instability in Zimbabwe." Council on Foreign Relations. March 1, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/zimbabwe/political-instability-zimbabwe/p36230.

[33] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9175.html

[34] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/12/mugabe-sacks-vice-president-mujuru-2014129131452655782.html

[35] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/12/zimbabwe-first-lady-gets-ruling-party-post-2014126144951599658.html

[36] BBC News. "Zimbabwe Approves New Constitution." BBC News. March 19, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-21845444.

[37] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/26/zimbabwe-mugabe-constitution-die

[38] Human Rights Watch. "World Report 2014: Zimbabwe." Human Rights Watch. 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/zimbabwe.

[39] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/26/zimbabwe-mugabe-constitution-die

[40] http://www.theindependent.co.zw/2014/11/07/mugabe-fix-succession/

[41] Manayiti, Obey. "Mugabe to Spend 3 Weeks in Far East - NewsDay Zimbabwe." NewsDay Zimbabwe. March 10, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. https://www.newsday.co.zw/2015/03/10/mugabe-to-spend-3-weeks-in-far-east/.

[42] Ward, George. "Political Instability in Zimbabwe." Council on Foreign Relations. March 1, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/zimbabwe/political-instability-zimbabwe/p36230.

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