The five months since the fall of Robert Mugabe have been far from easy for his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Zimbabwe’s new government has made all the right noises towards the West and China. The West has made some noises back, but is waiting on a free election. Despite a show of warmth towards Mnangagwa, China wants assurances that its future investments will be safeguarded and balance of payments support used responsibly – in short, a marked reduction in corruption.
Internationally speaking, Zimbabwe has started to re-enter the fold. But at home, Mnangagwa has yet to make a convincing case that real change is underway.
So far, there is no sign of Zimbabwe’s long hoped-for economic transformation; the same number of people are unemployed as before. But the problems go beyond the economy. Mnangagwa has yet to apologise for (or even plainly acknowledge) the Gukurahundi – a series of terrible pogroms that were inflicted upon the Matabeleland provinces in the 1980s for which Mnangagwa himself has often been blamed.
Taken together, this all means Mnangagwa has yet to earn Zimbabweans’ confidence as he tries to move on from the Mugabe years. And his lieutenants in power aren’t helping.
Mnangagwa’s vice-president, General Constantino Chiwenga, makes a far-from-convincing civilian ruler. Faced with striking nurses who were dissatisfied with a government pay offer, he simply sacked them all – as if he were still in the army and under no obligation to negotiate, or to value key workers in a health system that cannot be allowed to deteriorate further.
Behind the scenes, but surfacing just enough to be annoying, is Jonathan Moyo, a proxy for Grace Mugabe, who tweets incessantly about the illegality of the coup that brought Mnangagwa to power. And Robert Mugabe himself, while essentially impotent, is audibly grumbling. Mnangagwa wisely ignores these irritating background noises – but he could certainly do without them.
Step by step
The one bright spot is the new foreign minister, Sibusiso Moyo. Another former army general, who in fact announced Mugabe’s ousting on television, he recently secured from the British foreign secretary the declaration that Zimbabwe could rejoin the Commonwealth provided its next elections were clean. This he did at the Commonwealth summit in London – perhaps Boris Johnson had carefully pulled together a Commonwealth consensus before agreeing, but the announcement nonetheless made Moyo seem like a statesman who could deliver results.
Instantly, the Harare gossip circuit started touting him as Mnangagwa’s likely successor. That would bypass the hamfisted Chiwenga, but it would still hand power over to a military man, cementing the impression of a full-on military takeover.
Still, none of this looks set to affect the elections mooted for this year. With the death of Morgan Tsvangirai, the greatly weakened opposition has little chance of making headway – at least unless ZANU-PF keeps making unforced errors such as firing nurses en masse.
So what if ZANU-PF doesn’t start getting it right? Will its flustered leaders try to rig the polls yet again? It wouldn’t be all that difficult – and will be highly tempting if the party wants to win big. If the riggers do their homework and massage the results rather than blatantly falsifying them, they might well get away with it. But then again, ZANU-PF isn’t known for its subtlety.
Should he oversee and win a genuinely clean election, Mnangagwa could yet secure new inflows of liquidity. If he does, his next job will be to rein in the country’s greedy oligarchs. Too many in Zimbabwe’s elite still think their mission in life is to accumulate capital rather than circulate it, to buy cars and mansions rather than build industries, employ people and create things. Many think they still haven’t quite stolen enough to fund their indecently ostentatious habits.
The new Zimbabwe has very unpleasant growing pains ahead of it. To get the foreign help he needs to clean all this up, Mnangagwa will have to make iron-clad reassurances to the West, to China, to the IMF. And the IMF will surely demand public sector job cuts. Perhaps the nurses will have to be sacrificed again.
Stephen Chan is Professor of World Politics, SOAS, University of London. This is from The Conversation