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The passing of founding president Robert Gabriel Mugabe is another step in the rites of passage towards what over 15m Zimbabweans hope will eventually become a secure and sustainable economy and society. However, the 95-year-old autocrat’s death offers no solutions for reversing economic decline or for easing political tensions, as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) calls for mass protests to remove President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.

Under finance minister Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe is far from being mired in the crazy hyperinflation of 2008 (AE 147/5), but the best efforts of the former African Development Bank chief economist and other administration officials seem unable to stem the decline. Some problems are not Mnangagwa’s fault, such as the severe drought that has left around one third of the population needing food aid (AE 389/22). But critics say other crises can be laid directly at the door of the president and his ruling Zanu-PF cronies.

The future seemed bright when Mugabe emerged as “an iconic liberation fighter and emblematic Pan-Africanist in the struggle for liberation and continental integration”, as African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat called him. Those who dealt with Mugabe draw a picture of an intense, erudite and deeply complex man, who created a violent and dysfunctional system that eventually submerged his country’s economy while cronies enriched themselves. Anti-apartheid campaigner turned British Africa minister Lord Peter Hain observed that while southern Africa felt obliged to stand foursquare with the man who ended white minority rule in Rhodesia, in private the late Nelson Mandela raged against Mugabe for exhibiting the worst aspects of ‘big man’ politics.

Zimbabwe under Mugabe became a fractured polity in which over 3m of the generally well-educated population fled to South Africa and beyond. The situation hasn’t greatly improved under Mnangagwa. While officials like energy and power development minister Fortune Chasi have talked up reform programmes and ambitious targets (AE 395/22), the population is living with persistent power cuts, fuel and even food shortages.

International financial officials have been publicly supportive of the administration’s reform programme since Mugabe’s fall, piecing together a financing package whose finalisation remains elusive (AE 381/1). Ncube has negotiated a reform package with the IMF that would challenge Zanu-PF’s control of key sectors, but as African Energy has observed, Mnangagwa and hardliners around him have been reluctant to buy into such potentially radical change. The mooted $2.3bn financing to repay arrears that are blocking donor lending was not even discussed at the 24-26 August G7 summit in Biarritz.

In this difficult situation, Mugabe’s death may further inspire opposition elements to move against Mnangagwa – who MDC leader Nelson Chamisa claims stole the July 2018 election (AE 375/23). London-based newsletter Africa Confidential – often an authoritative source on Zimbabwe – has observed that Chamisa’s new, more confrontational strategy owes much to Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga’s response to what he called the ‘fraudulent’ first Kenyan election of 2017. Chamisa has been unable to produce much hard evidence that the MDC actually defeated Zanu-PF just over a year ago, but anger at Mnangagwa’s increasingly autocratic rule and alleged economic mismanagement threatens a new political crisis.

While the MDC seeks to link what it calls Mnangagwa’s “legitimacy crisis” with much more widespread complaints at economic decline, other angry voices are being heard. Mugabe obituaries pointed to the early 1980s turning point when his government ordered a crackdown in Matabeleland, where tens of thousands of civilians died. In Bulawayo, Ndebele secessionists are again making themselves heard. Mugabe is dead, but the problems he did so much to create remain the Zimbabwean reality.