Whatever happened to Zimbabwe?

For over 10 years the crisis in Zimbabwe weighed heavily on the minds of British policy-makers and featured regularly in news bulletins. Yet over the last year or so, the country appears to have disappeared from view. Why? Well, plenty else has been going on. But it is also perhaps because the hopes for change were frustrated and the old order successfully reasserted itself. But this does not mean that Zimbabwe’s history has ended. Indeed, a resumption of political and economic turbulence in the near future is a real possibility – not least because Robert Mugabe (the only president Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980) is now 90 years old and cannot live for ever.

Zimbabwe held presidential and parliamentary elections in July 2013. They resulted in an overwhelming victory for Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and a shattering defeat for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T). The elections brought to an end over four years of ‘power-sharing’ under the February 2009 Global Political Agreement (GPA) which followed the violence-ridden elections of 2008, which by common consent were stolen by ZANU-PF.

The 2013 elections were certainly extremely flawed – it had been obvious for some time that they would be – but there was no escaping the fact that President Mugabe and ZANU-PF had comprehensively outmanoeuvred their rivals since 2009, gradually rebuilding a domestic political constituency on promises of ‘indigenising the economy’, combined with an often ruthless reassertion of a self-proclaimed ‘right to rule’. As one analyst, James Muzondidya, put it in a book published in 2013:

The ZANU-PF strategy, consistent with its hegemonic political culture, has been to engage in cosmetic political and economic reforms that will not result in further democracy or result in a loss of its historic monopoly on power […] Indeed, over the last four years, ZANU-PF has kept the strategic doors to its power, such as the security sector and the mining and agricultural industries, firmly closed.

While acknowledging the major constraints that the opposition faced under the GPA, Muzondidya was highly critical of its performance, viewing its top leadership as often having been naive and noting that a significant number of MDC-T councillors at the municipal level had become embroiled in corruption scandals, damaging the party’s claim to represent change.

Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s victory might seem complete, but it is not. Another analyst, Brian Raftopoulos, argued in June that:

While the combination of a radical land programme, deindustrialisation and a rapidly informalised urban sector, and a strong reliance on the mineral sector, reconfigured the social basis of the electorate in Zanu PF’s favour, it also presents major challenges for economic growth in the post-election period.

Raftopoulos added that the Zimbabwean Government still faces many economic challenges, including

an unpayable external debt, an adverse balance of payments position, capital flight from banks and the stock exchange, a national budget consumed largely by recurrent expenditure, a massive need for infrastructural development, and a GDP rate that has declined from 10.5% in 2012 to just over 3% in 2013.

ZANU-PF has moderated its anti-Western rhetoric since the elections and demonstrated greater pragmatism in its dealings with business. Arguably it has had little choice, given that it needs large-scale foreign investment to carry out its indigenisation programme. But foreign businesses are hesitating, all too well aware that future political crises could lead to a sudden abandonment of moderation.  The International Monetary Fund recently indicated that it would not be making new loans to Zimbabwe due to its failure to pay back debts already owed to the Fund.

ZANU-PF is still struggling to resolve the issue of who should succeed President Mugabe. Factional rivalries within the party between supporters of the two main candidates, Vice-President Joice Mujuru, and Minister of Justice Emmerson Mnangagwa, are long-running and have flared up again since the elections. In the process, embarrassing corruption scandals in Zimbabwe’s parastatals have been publicly exposed. In recent months, there has been growing speculation that the president’s controversial wife, Grace, could one day be his replacement. An important party Congress is scheduled for December at which these rivalries will once again be played out.

Meanwhile, the political opposition is in very poor condition. Tensions within the MDC-T boiled over at the start of 2014. The party’s Secretary General, Tendai Biti, convened a meeting of its national council at which Tsvangirai and several allies were suspended for abuse of power and intimidation. Tsvangirai responded by declaring Biti and his supporters persona non grata. Biti has set up MDC-Renewal and is supporting moves to create a broader opposition grouping called the ‘Coalition of Democrats’.

The EU has been relatively quick to ‘normalise’ relations with Zimbabwe. After the elections, it removed all names from its list of “restrictive measures” (asset freezes and travel bans) apart from those of President Mugabe and his wife. Restrictions on military cooperation also remain in place. This has happened with relatively little protest from either local or international civil society groups. The US, publicly much more sceptical about the elections but with less of a trading relationship, is yet to relax its sanctions.

What of British policy on Zimbabwe? Britain has moved towards ‘normalisation’ too but it remains fairly cautious about the country’s prospects. It seems likely that, behind the scenes, UK policy-makers are watching carefully for signs of renewed instability. DFID’s total project budget for 2014/15 is just under £70 million. Support for the health sector makes up nearly half of that figure. Having peaked in 2013/14, the trend year-on-year is downwards and by 2016/17, the budget is due to be under £20 million.

Want to know more?

Take a look at the International Crisis Group’s recent briefing “Zimbabwe: Waiting for the future” (29 September 2014).

Author: Jon Lunn