Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Zimbabwe: A ticking time bomb in southern Africa

At 92, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is the world’s oldest head of state. He has been more or less in charge of the country since its independence in 1980, converting it from the jewel and breadbasket of southern Africa into an economic basket case and a political quagmire. While it can be argued just how ‘in charge’ he has been (and recent events certainly call his  control into question), his ability to manipulate people and events has helped him hang onto his position. 
But, all things, good or bad, have an end point, and Mugabe’s time would appear to be running out. Not just in the sense of the calendar, either, although that is a significant factor, after all, a 92 year-old man with health problems can realistically only look for a few more years. But, it seems that it’s the political clock that’s beginning to toll his final hours. 
After junking its own worthless currency in 2009, and going to the US Dollar as the official currency, Zimbabwe’s economy came out of free fall and enjoyed a few years of relative stability. Not prosperity, or even growth, but at least the hyperinflation was ended, and people were once again able to buy goods from store shelves that for a few years been empty. 
Political violence was rampant during the period 2007-2008, but even that abated somewhat after the political marriage of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, was pushed by South Africa. The one-sided coalition government left most of the power ministries in ZANU-PF hands, with MDC running the soft ministries such as Education and Finance. ZANU-PF ‘won’ the 2013 election, and was able to form a government without the opposition. Since then, things have been sliding downhill, politically and economically. Friction within Mugabe’s party increased, resulting in the ousting of Joice Mujuru, formerly number two in ZANU-PF and one of the country’s vice presidents, from both party and government positions. Mujuru was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, formerly defense minister, and one of the people considered a possible replacement for Mugabe when he’s gone (the other was, not coincidentally, Mujuru). Mujuru has now formed her own party and has been reported to have reached out to the MDC. While political violence since 2009 has been nowhere as rampant as it was in 2008, it has been no less deadly. In 2012, Mujuru’s husband, Solomon Mujuru, a liberation fighter greatly respected by many in the military, and the only person in the country who could stand up to Mugabe, died in a mysterious ‘accidental’ fire. Opposition figures, and those within ZANU-PF who spoke critically of Mugabe have been arrested, beaten, or forced to flee the country Mugabe has appeared increasingly erratic and autocratic. 
Mugabe’s wife, Grace, has inserted herself into politics, and is now pitted against Mnangagwa. One can only speculate as to who among the legions of vultures waiting for Mugabe to die is in her camp. 
To make matters worse, the country’s ‘war’ veterans, those associated with the liberation struggle, who once were among Mugabe’s most vocal supporters, are now railing against him. 
The stable—actually stagnant—economy is also showing signs of trouble. Currency controls are once again in place, limiting the amount that account holders can withdraw from their bank accounts, and some in ZANU-PF are calling for a return to the Zimbabwean Dollar, which would once again plunge the country into an inflationary cycle that could make the 2008 hyperinflation look like a blip on the account books. 
Mugabe has never named a successor, and should he die or become incapacitated before the scheduled 2017 elections, there will be a mad, and probably bloody, scramble to replace him. No matter who wins that battle, the losers will be the people of Zimbabwe, once again caught in a vicious cycle of economic upheaval and political violence. And, the sad thing is that for all the power the West has, or the influence that South Africa thinks it has, there not a damn thing either can do about it. 
Zimbabwe is rarely mentioned in western media until it starts to erupt. I predict that during the next 12 months, though, it will appear often.