Zimbabwe's Government Prepares to Defend Itself

8 MINS READAug 4, 2016 | 09:32 GMT
Zimbabwe’s Government Prepares to Defend Itself
Replacing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe may be the ruling party's best option for staying in power as the country's economic crisis drags on.

Zimbabwe's economy has gone from bad to worse this year, and any hopes that it might improve have all but faded. In July, the government admitted that it would be unable to pay its civil servants' salaries, which total roughly $200 million a month, for much longer. The country's dire financial situation has sparked protests in recent weeks by groups across the economic spectrum, including unemployed university graduates and the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association. When the demonstrations turned deadly in the capital, the government was forced to convene an emergency meeting to address the outbreak of violence. As popular pressure mounts against the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, it may be forced to consider replacing longtime President Robert Mugabe in a last-ditch effort to keep its grip on power. 

The participation of the war veterans association, a group of soldiers who fought in the country's war for independence, is perhaps the most notable aspect of the protests. The group was once counted among Mugabe's most stalwart supporters, and its members often acted as his political muscle. Last month, however, the group — whose ranks number in the tens of thousands — wrote a letter denouncing Mugabe for his "dictatorial tendencies." Since then, the organization's top leaders have been arrested by governing officials seeking to quash dissent. The group's reversal was likely motivated by the Mugabe administration's inability to maintain the level of patronage the veterans once enjoyed, a sign of the government's broader struggle to hold on to the loyalty of its key constituencies.

The veterans' withdrawal of support is also only one of several factors driving the latest uptick in social unrest. Protests began in earnest in April as thousands of citizens led by the Movement for Democratic Change took to the streets, the first anti-government demonstrations the country had seen in years. Since then, many other protests — though smaller than April's — have been held, often fueled by the proliferation of social media platforms throughout Zimbabwe. The resulting tension, albeit a less serious threat than that seen in 2008, has no doubt been exacerbated by concerns about the country's aging president. Mugabe, now 92 years old, has steadfastly stood by his declared intention to stand for re-election in 2018.

At the heart of the unrest, though, is Zimbabwe's economy, which is falling into disrepair for several reasons. The first is Harare's domestic policies, including the nationalization of farmland — a move that is largely responsible for driving out Zimbabwe's white farmers, leading to the collapse of the country's commercial agriculture industry. Since 2001, Zimbabwe has not been able to produce enough maize or other grains to meet the demands of its population, let alone to export throughout the region to generate revenue. Recent estimates suggest that the country's agricultural sector would have to receive at least $2 billion in investment to boost its output high enough to meet domestic needs. Instead, actual investment in the sector has steadily declined over the past few years; in 2014, the government was barely able to commit even $150 million. Meanwhile, over the past two years low global demand for mineral resources — crucial exports for Zimbabwe — has cut even deeper into the government's funds.

Decreasing exports, productivity and foreign investment have exacerbated Zimbabwe's cash crisis. U.S. dollars, the country's de facto currency since the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in the late 2000s, remain in short supply. This has made it increasingly difficult for the government to pay its employees, so much so that discontent with the Mugabe administration's handling of the economy has risen to a level not seen in years. In the face of nationwide political and economic gridlock, officials have tried to pull every resource available to honor the salaries of civil servants, who make up the largest pool of workers in the country since the government's previous policies weakened the private sector. Teachers, medical professionals, soldiers and police — institutions that the ruling party has heavily leaned on to maintain its position in power — are now slowly beginning to receive their long-awaited paychecks. But based on the government's recent statement, it appears more and more likely that the money may soon dry up.

The Ruling Party Runs Out of Options

If the government is unable to solve its wage crisis in the months ahead, new splits could open up within the ruling party. The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, with Mugabe at its helm, has led the country since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. In all that time, it has proved able to work around or eliminate any threat to its reign that has emerged, whether by engineering electoral outcomes, nationalizing industries, intimidating opponents or doling out patronage.

Few of those options exist today. For one, Zimbabwe has no more farmland left to nationalize, unless the ruling party is willing to confiscate it from its new owners: the party's own followers. The government is considering charging black subsistence workers for the right to farm land previously owned by white farmers, according to reports on Aug. 1. If implemented, the measure would be widely unpopular, and the revenue gained from it would not be nearly enough to help the administration cover its bills. Second, the country's next major election will not be held until 2018. With no opportunity to whip up nationalist sentiment on the horizon, the ruling party cannot easily rely on its tried and true method of fixing votes in its favor. Furthermore, because Zimbabwe's political opposition is weak compared with the ruling party, the latter receives not only all of the benefits of leading the state but also all of the blame for the course it takes.

Scenarios for Succession

The question is, who will take the fall for it? The exact nature of Mugabe's leadership role within the government is unclear, but there are a few ways in which power might be wielded among Zimbabwe's upper echelons. These methods, in turn, inform several potential scenarios in which Mugabe could be removed from power, should it become necessary in order for the ruling party to avoid its own ouster.

The first possibility is that Mugabe acts as the chairman of a system led by the ruling party, rather than as a solitary strongman with all the decision-making authority. After all, historically his political success has relied on the support of an array of factions, and his advanced age makes it likely that he has less control over them than he once did. It may be that now he is the puppet of the ruling party's core leadership. Should this be the case, Mugabe's party would likely send him into a comfortable exile abroad if the situation continues to deteriorate, using him as a scapegoat for the country's woes.

The second possibility is that Mugabe still has a measure of political control but is balancing the various factions of the ruling party. One faction, for instance, has formed around his wife, Grace Mugabe, who has taken on a greater party role recently and whose proximity to the president has made her a natural option for succession. Another faction has formed around Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who handled Zimbabwe's key security portfolios prior to his current position and has the backing of the country's powerful security apparatus. Should Mnangagwa feel that his chances of becoming Mugabe's successor are being threatened, either by the president's wife or by another candidate, he and his supporters could step in and remove Mugabe before it is too late.

Regardless of which scenario occurs — or if both are negated by the aging president's demise — the country's poor economy and political instability are no doubt worrying ruling party officials. Some may even assume a change in leadership is imminent, and the rank-and-file members do not want to lose the influence and perks that the party has been able to provide while in power. Others would even view the ruling party's defeat as an existential threat: A new government could choose to investigate and prosecute party figures for their excesses, and possibly, for crimes committed while in office.

Motivated by these fears, the ruling party's leaders may feel compelled to pre-empt a popular uprising in the event that the economy continues to crumble and security services are overwhelmed (or join the protesters to demand their paychecks). This extreme scenario — which, as of this writing, is still unlikely — would probably occur amid widespread defections from the security services' lower ranks, which are tasked with cracking down on dissent. Presently, these figures remain loyal to the government, and their support for Mugabe has not wavered. The shifting allegiance of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, however, shows that a breakdown in patronage can undermine even the strongest of support bases.

Should party officials decide to force the president into "early" retirement (Mugabe has said he will rule until his death), it could free his replacement from the entrenched ways of the Mugabe era. Calls for reforms that restore investor relations, business confidence and other forms of economic aid could grow louder. And if such reforms were to be made, it would engender goodwill among international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, perhaps even enabling the ruling party to halt the Zimbabwean economy's downward slide and avoid an electoral defeat. The party has survived political and economic crises before, and it can do so again — but only if it can find a way to pay its institutions, especially the military and security services. And given its current predicament, replacing its aging leader is no longer outside the realm of possibility, particularly if he becomes a threat to his party's political future.

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