Zimbabwe in turmoil


Economies don’t come much more broken than Zimbabwe’s. After 37 years of misguided and ruinous rule by Robert Mugabe, who was forced from power two years ago, the country, once a major exporter of food and tobacco, had become an economic basket case with a currency made worthless by stampeding inflation. Incompetence, cronyism, corruption and payback land seizures from the once-dominant and highly-efficient white farming community wrecked Zimbabwe, which had once been one of Africa’s most prosperous countries.

In trying to straighten out the economy, Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa always had a mountain to climb. As much as anything, he needed to build the all-important confidence, both domestically and internationally, that the wallowing hulk of the Zimbabwean economy could be re-floated. However, his planned trip to Davos this week, where he was going to try and sell his national turnaround plan, had to be cancelled because of riots back home.

The protests arose because of his government’s announcement of a steep hike in fuel prices, which suddenly confronted Zimbabweans with some of the most expensive domestic gas and vehicle fuel prices in the world. It’s hard to escape the view that introducing these steep increases at the very moment he was preparing to glad-hand the international great and good at Davos was singularly inept. Nor has Mnangagwa’s handling of the crisis to which he hurriedly flew home appeared particularly adroit. He messaged on social media “Let’s put the economy first. Let’s put people first”. In a modestly flourishing and stable economy such ambitions would be complementary. In struggling Zimbabwe they appear to be contradictory.

Citizens need to be able to afford the basics of life and for that they need jobs with half-decent salaries that are actually paid. Officially, the jobless figure is put at something around 12 percent but unofficial estimates are as high as 95 percent. In the gap, of course, is an unofficial economy based on barter and blackmarket activity which escape both government statistical capture and also, no less importantly, taxation. Put bluntly, most Zimbabweans have had to learn to survive outside the official economy. But even they will bridle when the cost of a simple bus ticket doubles overnight.

To an extent, the popular protests, which have been put down with deplorable harshness by soldiers firing live rounds on the streets, have been instigated by opposition parties who still question the results of last July’s elections. These left ZANU-PF still firmly in power after 39 years. Even the government-appointed human rights organization has condemned security force brutality, alleging the torture of detained demonstrators. Some opposition MPS have also been arrested.

Mnangagwa and the military and civilian kingmakers in ZANU-PF have a big decision to make. Are they going to clamp down on all dissent or will they really, as the president tweeted, seek to form a national consensus to fix the country’s economic ills? Does Mnangagwa have the political courage to admit opposition leaders into a government of national unity that will demolish at least some of the financial privileges of the long-ruling political elite? What is certain is that if Zimbabwe continues to be so bitterly divided, no economic solution that does not look to the interests of absolutely every citizen is going to stick.