Zimbabwe is teetering on the edge of a precipice — and potentially a military coup. The country, long dogged by political turmoil and economic instability, is facing more uncertainty than ever before as infighting within its ruling party intensifies.
Sparked by a looming general election and President Robert Mugabe’s ailing health, a power struggle within the incumbent Zanu-PF party has come to dominate the country’s politics over the last year. Two warring factions are competing to seize control of the southern African nation when 93-year-old Mugabe, the only leader the country has had since independence, dies, resigns or is ousted after more than 37 years in power.
The current political crisis began in early October when 75-year-old vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa alleged he had been poisoned. His supporters accused Mugabe‘s wife, Grace, 52, of orchestrating the assassination attempt, which left Mnangagwa in hospital.
Mugabe — who has previously claimed he will rule the beleaguered nation until ‘God himself’ removes him from power — retaliated last week by accusing Mnangagwa of plotting a coup against him. Mnangagwa was forced to flee the country and remains in exile, but is reportedly seeking support to challenge Mugabe.
It appears that by ousting competition Mugabe is seeking to cement his wife’s status as ‘heir apparent’, but given her low popularity amongst the military and the people, his political manoeuvrings may be his undoing. On Tuesday armoured vehicles were filmed driving through the outskirts of the capital, Harare, leading to speculation a coup could already be underway.
These events — the culmination of years of political upheaval — have taken place in a country whose economic woes also only ever seem to be worsening.
According to 2016-2017 Fragile State Index Zimbabwe ranks as the 13th most fragile state in the world. Analysts have attributed a series of droughts, financial mismanagement, corruption and a poorly executed land reform programme which redistributed white-owned farms to black Zimbabweans who were ill-equipped to handle them as the key factors that contributed towards the economy’s collapse. In particular the controversial land reforms proved pivotal to the country’s economic decline — black farmers who inherited the land lacked the resources and technical skills needed to restore the previous levels of agricultural production and were not supported to do so. Seeing as agriculture was the main source of export income in the early 2000s, the reforms hindered the economy’s development greatly and had long lasting effects. Despite Mugabe’s insistence that the nation is not a fragile state, 90% of the 16 million population are reportedly unemployed.
The current economic climate is exacerbated further by the government’s continued printing of money and the steady rise of inflation has brought fears hyperinflation, which ravaged the country in 2008, will return with a vengeance. In essence, Mugabe and his party have presided over the economic deterioration of the country at the expense of its citizens, reaping the rewards for their own agenda. In 2016, Transparency International released a report citing that Zimbabwe loses at least $1 billion annually due to an endemic system of corruption, with those in the highest tiers of political power enjoying immense impunity.
With Mugabe having established a cult of personality, any direct challenge to his authority has been quelled with deadly force. Human rights groups have documented that under Mugabe’s rule thousands of citizens who have opposed the government have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, detainment, political intimidation and violence. The human right violations have been so grave, that many have called for Mugabe to be indicted for war crimes, but the international community and regional African powers have turned a blind eye. In the West, Zimbabwe holds little strategic or political significance. Perhaps because of this western nations have only occasionally bothered to condemn the regime on its human rights violations. Meanwhile, for most African leaders Mugabe is celebrated as the revolutionary hero who liberated the country from the tyranny of white minority rule. Consequently they are reluctant to intervene or condemn the President’s actions.
Many Zimbabweans believe true change will come when Mugabe dies, but their burgeoning hope for a political shift may be misplaced. The demise of one dictator doesn’t necessarily lead to the birth of a benevolent ruler and in the absence of a recognised successor Mugabe’s death may lead to a power vacuum large enough to engulf the entire country.
The recent fallout between vice-president Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe is a microcosm of the country’s rapidly deteriorating political stability. The party has long been split into two sides, Grace Mugabe, Defence Minister Sidney Sekeramayi and their supporters are known as Generation 40 (for their relative youth) or G40, whereas Mnangagwa spearheads the Lacoste faction, which derives from his nickname “crocodile”.
After the allegations of Mnangagwa’s poisoning, Mugabe stripped the vice president’s control over the justice ministry and assigned other key posts to supporters of the G40, bolstering Grace Mugabe’s control of the cabinet and edging her closer to the political throne. Mnangagwa’s most powerful ally, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa was among those removed from their posts.
However, though Grace Mugabe’s position as ‘heir apparent’ has been bolstered, there is a great ambiguity surrounding her capabilities as the country’s next ruler. Grace Mugabe’s reputation has been mired in a series of controversies that have led many to believe her to be an unfit presidential candidate. Her frivolous overspending and lavish shopping trips has invoked ire amongst many Zimbabweans who languish in abject poverty and her recent behaviour abroad hasn’t been well received. In September, Grace Mugabe physically assaulted a South African model and later gained diplomatic immunity to escape prosecution which led to a political uproar. To many analysts Grace Mugabe is a wild card, a candidate who has the favour of the president but appears to have trouble garnering the allegiance of others.
Mugabe’s declining health has also created a cloud of doubt as to whether a successor will be chosen before he dies. Should such an eventuality occur Zimbabwe would be plunged into chaos given that the Zimbabwean government is formed primarily of Mugabe and his allies, a sudden political shift would collapse the country’s already weak infrastructure and induce greater instability. The opposition is weak due to decades of political repression and intimidation; the most viable candidate to oppose the Zanu-PF, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is gravely ill and cannot be expected to galvanise a strong challenge to the government in his present state.
Zimbabwe is locked in a state of two intertwining struggles; the battle to succeed Mugabe when he dies and the direction the country should take after his reign has ended. Though widely regarded as a dictator, Mugabe is ironically the thread that is stopping the country from unravelling, but his time will soon come and in the aftermath it will be up to people of Zimbabwe to determine their own future. If they are allowed to do so.