As Robert Mugabe enters his thirty-eighth year as president, Zimbabwe approaches a critical phase in its politics. Mugabe is adamant that no one but God can remove him from power. At ninety-two years old and increasingly frail, many are predicting that God may choose his moment soon.
Why now? Each year pundits predict that Zimbabwe will enter a ‘post-Bob’ world by coup or total collapse. However, this week Mugabe admitted that it might be time for a ‘regime change‘ despite the fact that he has already secured the endorsement of the Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the ruling party, to run as their candidate in 2018.
‘If I am failing,’ he said, ‘let me know. I will go.’ This was an unusual admission from Mugabe. Though he has always been a ruthless survivor, his increasingly rambling speeches and failures of memory are encouraging potential replacements to hover like vultures.
Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, is embroiled in a bitter split over the succession. Grace Mugabe, at one time thought to be a serious contender for successor, has lost credibility in the face of her leading ZANU-PF supporters after being accused of corruption. Furthermore, the faction that pushed for Grace, the so-called “Generation 40”, is dwindling. Without the support of the police or army, her position at the top counts for little. Though she has secured the position of head of the women’s wing of ZANU-PF, it is questionable whether Grace Mugabe has the political survival skill of her husband, who has for years played off different interest groups against each other with remarkable skill. The other main contender for leadership is Emmerson Mnangagwa, known to international spectators mainly for allegations of complicity in the human rights abuses of the 1980s in Matabeleland. Mnangagwa is even less popular than Mugabe and would struggle at the polls, even with the blatant rigging tactics currently in use.
Though it is hard to foresee an outcome that is not directed by ZANU-PF, this power vacuum at the top explains the atmosphere of uncertainty in Zimbabwean politics. There has been talk of leading political figures shipping belongings abroad and keeping escape vehicles on standby. Whatever happens, Mugabe’s legacy will be a long and weighty one. In order to defend from challenges, his party has essentially dismantled the economic and political systems of the country, notoriously annihilating of the Zimbabwean dollar that lost its value to hyperinflation in the years leading up to 2008. This was a reaction to the gross overspending of the government, who put the printing presses on full tilt. The Zimbabwean dollar eventually reached a comical exchange rate of 35 quadrillion to one US dollar.
Now the regime is apparently trying to ruin a second currency by replacing physical dollars in the banks with electronic ‘IOUs’, essentially doubling the amount of currency in circulation while making it extremely difficult for people to withdraw their cash. These IOUs have started to behave as a currency in their own right, with rates of conversion between electronic dollars and hard cash on the black market in flux.
The scrapping of Zimbabwean dollars did not solve the economic problems caused in the wake of hyperinflation; it is hard to see how this new system will aid problems such as food shortages. Gone are the days when Zimbabwe acted as a large exporter of food in Southern Africa. Hyperinflation in conjunction with Mugabe’s land redistribution of the late nineties has left Zimbabwean agriculture barren. Importing is unappealing in this economic climate, and Zimbabwe can no longer support itself through agriculture. Changing these structural problems and indeed the daily reality for ordinary Zimbabweans will take a long-term vision. It is hard to imagine a successor that could drive the political and economic systems any further into the ground, but to tackle the multi-faceted problems of land and agriculture stagnation, the post-Mugabe leadership will need to be ambitious and long sighted.
Economic recovery will take a backseat if the end of the Mugabe regime will see an eruption of chaos and violence, something that is highly possible given the climate of political violence and oppression that has characterised much of Mugabe’s rule. Even with a stable transition, the international community will have to be convinced that a successor regime is not just a self-interested, oppressive and patronage-based leadership before foreign governments and potential investors can justify aiding the economy’s recovery. Though many currently reside in the ‘anyone but Mugabe’ camp, this risky attitude ignores the fact that anyone who does not work on the structural weaknesses in Zimbabwe will inevitably maintain the country’s current state of crisis.
Of course, making specific predictions about the future should be avoided. But though optimism is in short supply for Zimbabwe’s future, there are some key features that could be crucial in defining what happens next. Demographically, Zimbabwe is a very young country. Nearly 60 per cent of the population of the south African nation are under twenty five and as such cannot remember a time without Mugabe in power. How will this young generation respond? Some hope that the weight of novelty will be enough to spur on meaningful change. Furthermore, Zimbabwe is home to one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, at around 80 per cent. Though this in itself is not enough to predict behavioural or voting patterns, an educated population is a cause for optimism in regards to political development. If Zimbabwean civil society and the public are able to advocate for reform in a new post-Mugabe political environment, they will ultimately determine the future of the country.
Though there is a tremendous sense of pessimism about the impending regime change, his admission this week is encouraging. ‘Change should come in a proper way. If I have to retire, let me retire properly,’ he said. Maybe Mugabe is just scared of assassination. But without a peaceful transition, the country will find it even harder to pick up the pieces of the last 38 years. The clock is ticking and the stakes are high. Zimbabwe is right to think ahead.