Zimbabwe has not had a change in leadership since 1980 when now-President Robert Mugabe was elected as Prime Minister. Mugabe’s present physical frailty, however, has touched off an unprecedented succession battle within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Widespread popular demonstrations against the government’s brutality, corruption, and dunderheaded economic policies have added to the ferment. One way or another, a transition is coming to Zimbabwe. The U.S. should prepare for that transition by building a strategy for engaging with Mugabe’s eventual successor, avoiding overt support for the protest movement, and resisting any international bailout package that would buttress the current regime.
The Mugabe Dictatorship
Robert Mugabe became prime minister after Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980, and soon began consolidating power. In what was dubbed the “Gukurahundi,” his forces from 1983 to 1987 murdered or starved more than 20,000 people from the Ndebele tribe who supported his primary political rival. The killing mostly ended in December 1987 when parliament named Mugabe executive president, granting him virtually complete control over all aspects of governance.
Ruthlessness has been a hallmark of Mugabe’s tenure as the leader of Zimbabwe. He routinely uses intimidation and violence to “win” elections. The 2008 elections were so bloody, in fact, that the opposition withdrew from the run-off election to spare any more of its supporters being killed.
Mugabe’s lust for power has brought economic calamity to Zimbabwe. Beginning in the early 1990s—and intensifying in 2000—Mugabe initiated a campaign of land reforms ostensibly designed to rectify the land ownership imbalance between white farmers and poor black farmers. The result was waves of often-violent seizures of economically critical white-owned farms and businesses. Tens of thousands of skilled whites fled the country, and many of the 400,000 black Zimbabweans employed by them were left jobless.
These and other ruinous policies brought hyperinflation up to 500 billion percent in 2008, forcing the government to dump its currency and adopt eight foreign currencies to control the inflation. However, the country is now running out of U.S. dollars because of its dependence on imports, continuous looting of state coffers by ZANU-PF officials, and a downturn in global commodity prices. Starting in late 2015, the government began delaying salary payments to parts of the bloated civil service, widening the practice in June 2016 to the army and other elements of the security services.
As a fix, the Zimbabwe government announced that it will issue bond notes that will be traded one-for-one for U.S. dollars and will be backed by an international loan. Its announcement touched off fears of hyperinflation’s return, and thousands of people have protested the plan in the streets. Unemployment now runs at about 90 percent, and the economy has shrunk by 50 percent since 2001.
Despite the ineptitude, cupidity, and cruelty of his reign, only recently has Mugabe’s iron grip on power weakened. He insists on running for re-election in 2018, yet senior ZANU-PF officials are openly maneuvering to succeed him. Mugabe remains powerful, but has not been able to unequivocally appoint a successor or stop the jockeying to follow him as president.
Several frontrunners stand out amidst the internecine struggle. Mugabe appears to prefer his secretary mistress-turned-wife, Grace, as successor. The 51-year-old, derisively known as “Gucci Grace” for her profligate spending, vaulted to political importance when she became head of the powerful women’s wing of ZANU-PF in December 2014. She is part of what is known as the “Generation 40,” or “G40,” faction mostly led by ZANU-PF officials too young to have liberation struggle credentials. A number of powerful ministers, such as Jonathan Moyo, Patrick Zhuwao (Mugabe’s nephew), and Saviour Kasukuwere, are prominent within the G40.
Sixty-nine-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa is a long-time Mugabe lieutenant who fought in the independence war, and was appointed vice president by Mugabe in December 2014. Mnangagwa is ruthless, one of the architects of the Gukurahundi and of Mugabe’s crackdown during elections in 2008. His faction is known as “Team Lacoste” (named after the French clothing brand with a crocodile logo, a play on Mnangagwa’s nickname of “The Crocodile”). Much of his support is drawn from the military, and the powerful Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) has endorsed him.
At 61 years old, Joice Mujuru is a hero of the independence war, but was fired as vice president by Mugabe in 2014. Later expelled from ZANU-PF after a ferocious defamation campaign led by Grace Mugabe, she responded by forming the Zimbabwe People First (Zim-PF) party. She once enjoyed significant military backing due primarily to her and her deceased husband’s independence struggle credentials, but it is unclear how much she still retains. Much of her power lies in the support she has in her home region of Mashonaland in northern Zimbabwe, a traditional ZANU-PF stronghold.
Zimbabwe also has a hodgepodge of opposition groups, five of which joined together in May 2016 to form the Coalition of Democrats. However, the coalition does not include the Zim-PF or the MDC-T, which are the most powerful opposition parties. (The MDC-T is led by Zimbabwe’s most famous, albeit presently diminished, opposition politician, Morgan Tsvangirai.)
A recent peaceful protest campaign shows there is appetite for change that could propel a unified opposition to victory in 2018 elections. In April 2016, Pastor Evan Mawarire posted a video online lamenting unfulfilled government promises. His plea for government accountability went viral on social media inside Zimbabwe under the hashtag #ThisFlag, and burgeoned into a mass peaceful protest campaign that has rattled the regime. President Mugabe’s security services have used intimidation and violence against #ThisFlag protesters but have failed to quell the movement.
Time for a Plan
To prepare for the coming transition and to assist Zimbabweans striving for reform, the U.S. should:
- Plan for how—or if—to engage with Mugabe’s successor. Whoever replaces Robert Mugabe should have to take substantive, measurable steps towards good governance before the U.S. offers any support. The U.S. should start thinking now what these steps might be.
- Avoid tainting the protests with direct support. The protests defying the regime are part of a grassroots, Zimbabwean-led movement. Direct U.S. support would fuel the narrative the regime is pushing that the movement is a neo-colonial plot. The U.S. should focus its support on Zimbabwean nongovernmental organizations assisting those suffering from the regime’s crackdown on the protests.
- Oppose any bailout package for the regime. The Zimbabwean government is seeking support for a plan to clear—via an opaque loan restructuring program—its $1.8 billion in debts, which would make it eligible for emergency International Monetary Fund loans. The noxious ZANU-PF regime is the root cause of the Zimbabwean people’s suffering, and any money lent to it will only serve to sustain its tyranny.
Hope or Status Quo?
Robert Mugabe’s approaching departure could herald a new era of Zimbabwean democracy and prosperity, or result in the continuation of the disastrous status quo. The U.S. should plan for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, and use what influence it has with the country and the region to encourage a transition that brings hope to all Zimbabweans.
—Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.