President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa

President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photo: Flickr

‘Deep concern’ over Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political, economic situation

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF government faces mounting opposition amid an imploding economy, deepening political discord and social strife.

President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa

President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photo: Flickr

In a rare diplomatic manoeuvre, Western diplomats in Zimbabwe expressed “deep concern” last Friday over the rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation in the country, and urged President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government to stop using the COVID-19 pandemic to curtail rights and freedoms.

Heads of mission from the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Norway and Poland said in a joint statement that Mnangagwa’s initial promises of uniting the country and reforming the economy when he came to power had given hope of a break with former president Robert Mugabe’s rule — then promptly proceeded to list ways in which he has veered off script.

The diplomatic cohort urged “the government to address corruption and the illicit extraction of Zimbabwe’s wealth for personal gain, which continue to undermine Zimbabwe’s development.”

Mnangagwa reportedly dismissed the concerns as “rubbish” and accused the West of sponsoring the opposition to destabilise his government.

It’s the economy Emmerson…

Zimbabwe is facing an economic catastrophe, considerably worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2019, Zimbabwe was hit by severe drought and Cyclone Idai, and that phenomenon coupled with shortages of foreign currency, has led to double-digit contraction of agriculture, electricity, and water production and pushed more than half of the population into food insecurity, according to the World Bank

“Policy missteps—lack of effective fiscal-monetary-forex policy coordination and significant quasi-fiscal activities by the Central Bank—undermined the de-dollarization effort and resulted in a rapid depreciation of the local currency and high inflationary pressures.”

Inflation reached triple digit levels last year – surging to 521% year-on-year in December 2019 – and is projected to remain high in 2020 as COVID-19 disrupts production and trade. 

The World Bank says the surge in inflation was fueled by a rapid exchange rate depreciation, poor harvests, and reduction of subsidies on fuel and electricity, while food prices increased by 725%, resulting in a severe loss of purchasing power for the poor.  

Tailwinds and headwinds

Zimbabwe’s currency is in free fall, with inflation running at 800 percent, reviving memories of the hyperinflation more than a decade ago during Robert Mugabe’s rule. 

This has led to severe food, fuel, medicine, and currency shortages. Power outages and water shortages compound the misery.

Nurses are on strike and a series of arrests of political opponents have raised the alarm about a crackdown on dissent.

With salaries worth just 10 percent of what they were two years ago, poverty levels have risen by a third, making many basic goods out of reach for most Zimbabweans. 

More than 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line and 34 percent live in extreme poverty. In 2019, the number of Zimbabweans classed as extreme poor is estimated to have reached 6.6 million, double the level in 2011, according to World Bank figures.

The healthcare system, already limited and starved of resources, is on its knees, struggling to respond to the pandemic which is disrupting other healthcare services.

Fifteen thousand nurses, at the forefront of the struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic, have been on strike for nearly two months, vowing not to return to work—despite government threats and intimidation—until their demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) and the payment of their wages, in US dollars, are met.

Last month, 13 nurses and union representatives were arrested in Harare after they staged a demonstration demanding better wages and working conditions.

Political tensions spilling over

Mnangagwa appointed his vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, as health minister after being forced to sack the previous minister, Obadiah Moyo, due to corruption in the awarding of a $20 million contract for COVID-19 testing kits. The corruption was exposed by investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who is now in prison facing charges of inciting violence against the state. 

Bloomberg reports that relations between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga are “acrimonious,” which is why he has now been given the poisoned chalice of the health ministry. 

Mnangagwa accused Chiwenga during a “heated exchange” in a politburo meeting of attempting to use the July 31 protests to embarrass him. Chiwenga, a former general with strong support in the military, is seen as a possible rival for the presidency.

While Chiwenga played a prominent role in the 2017 coup that ousted longtime ruler Robert Mugabe and brought Mnangagwa to power, the president has, according to reports, attempted to undermine his influence by reassigning those seen as being loyal to Chiwenga to less influential posts or deploying them outside the country.

Such is the economic turmoil that last June, in an unprecedented move, the Joint Operations Command (JOC) made up of officials from the military, police and secret service, intervened to order the closure of the stock exchange and to ban large mobile-money transfers in a bid to avert collapse. 

And when Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation seized fliers from the home of Cleveria Chizema, a member of ZANU-PF’s politburo, denigrating the president and calling for ZANU-PF supporters to join the opposition protest on July 31, while praising Chiwenga, Mnangagwa was swift to label the developments as an attempted coup. 

Military leaders denied they were planning a coup, but ZANU-PF suspended Chizema for plotting against Mnangagwa.

Mugabe and Mnangagwa, same difference?

The euphoria that accompanied Mnangagwa’s ouster of his longtime ally Mugabe in a military coup, when he advanced himself as the strongman required to restore order necessary and secure international investment, soon fizzled out. 

It’s been two years since Mnangagwa won a disputed election—marred by allegations of irregularities and the killing of at least six protesters—and as economic conditions worsen, critics say his government is reverting to the authoritarian tactics used by his predecessor.. 

A few months later after the election in August 2018, his government deployed the army to suppress protests over the deteriorating economic conditions, killing at least 18 people.

Analysts say the West initially backed Mnangagwa in the hope of weaning him off relations with China. Beijing had for decades supported Mugabe, investing heavily in the country’s extractive industries, agriculture, telecoms, and hydropower.

Earlier this month, the US Treasury sanctioned Mnangagwa’s wealthy business ally Kudakwashe Tagwirei, chief executive of Sakunda Holdings and majority owner of Landela Mining Ventures. 

He is widely seen as a proxy for Mnangagwa, whose personal fortune is estimated at $500 million, thanks to the president’s stakes in several banks, mines, agribusiness, and transport companies.

This indicates that any international assistance will be dependent upon clearing out the corrupt circle of plutocrats around Mnangagwa, including the president himself. 

Clampdown on critics

Mnangagwa has accused Washington and other major western major powers of inciting the opposition to his government.

In the wake of the coup attempt, whether real or imaginary, the government reimposed lockdown restrictions and flooded the streets of the capital Harare with police and the military to prevent the July 31 protests over the deteriorating economic situation. 

The demonstrations had been called by the MDC-A, which seeks to normalize Zimbabwe’s relations with Western powers, and some smaller oppositional parties.

The security forces used checkpoints and roadblocks set up during the COVID-19 lockdown to stop protesters reaching the city. 

This followed the arrest of around 100 oppositionists, journalists, and other prominent critics in recent weeks. 

Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was one of the protest’s organisers and has spent the last four weeks in prison on charges of inciting public violence. Last week, he appeared in court to make his third appeal for bail wearing leg irons.

Activists charge that president Mnangagwa’s government is abducting, torturing and arresting critics, including a Chin’ono and an opposition politician who has spent more than a month in detention because of anti-government protests.

“The government also has a responsibility to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violating human rights,” the diplomats said.