A New Era for Zimbabwe

Jack Walsh

November, 2017

Zimbabwe's Head of State Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe's Head of State Robert Mugabe


On November 14, elements of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces seized control of the country’s capital, Harare, and placed 93-year old Robert Mugabe under house arrest, ending 37 years of his dictatorship. 

Until three weeks ago, Mugabe was the only head of state that the nation of Zimbabwe has ever had.  During the 1970s, when the country was known as Rhodesia and immersed in a struggle between the white-minority government and black nationalist rebel forces, Mugabe gained prominence as a guerilla leader.  After taking part in the 1980 Lancaster House Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict and established black-majority rule, Mugabe was elected as the new state’s first prime minister. 

Over the next decade, Mugabe’s administration made considerable headway in addressing the litany of issues facing the young nation – advocating reconciliation with white Zimbabweans, courting foreign investment, and significantly expanding access to free education and health care.  By 1990, with Mugabe at its helm, Zimbabwe was still one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

But his early policies were overshadowed by what followed.  Mugabe espoused a blend of socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric, but to support the cost of various schemes, he spent public money wildly, wasting much of it on patronage.  When he eventually ran out of cash in the late 1990s, his two solutions were to print more and to seize the predominately white-owned commercial farms that formed the primary source of Zimbabwe’s export revenue.  Agricultural production dropped almost overnight, foreign investment dried up, and hyperinflation became so severe that at one point in 2008, prices were doubling every 24 hours.

After three decades of economic mismanagement, Zimbabweans are now “on average a fifth poorer” than they were before Mugabe took power, and almost the entire professional class has emigrated in despair.  Economic collapse has also inhibited the government’s ability to deliver critical public health services, leading to a cholera outbreak in 2008 and a pervasive HIV/AIDS epidemic.  In 2007, the World Health Organization declared the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe to be 34 for women and 36 for men, down from 63 and 54 respectively in 1997.  This measurement of life expectancy reveals how economic factors have ravaged the social fabric of the country.

Ultimately, how Robert Mugabe clung to power and squandered Zimbabwe’s tremendous natural wealth and human capital is a microcosm of what has bedevilled African democracy and development in the post-colonial era.  His rule was characterized by oppression, corruption, and ineptitude, and although he is still widely regarded as a national hero for his role in the country’s liberation struggle, few Zimbabweans are sorry to see him go. 

However, even if a coup d’état or popular uprising is a necessary circumstance for a country’s transition towards liberal, democratic governance, conflicts in Africa’s post-colonial era suggest that the conditions engendered by involuntary regime change are hardly conducive to the implementation of a government that is both more stable and less repressive than its predecessor.  And under Mugabe, Zimbabwe avoided the civil wars, ethnic strife, and major humanitarian crises that have plagued other states in sub-Saharan Africa[xi].  In light of the chaos that has supplanted brutal, but strong autocracies in countries like Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia, even Mugabe’s sordid authority may be superior to the unknown regime that will take its place.

The greatest hope for Zimbabwe might just be that the generals and politicians who engineered this coup are not radical reformers.  Many have been members of Mugabe’s inner-circle for decades, and have profited handsomely from a broken system they helped create.  Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 75-year old who was inaugurated as president on November 24, is a longtime Mugabe loyalist and appears just as likely to keep the lid on political dissent as his former boss. 

The plotters that compose this cadre are dubious saviors, unlikely to implement the full scope of social, economic, and democratic reforms that Zimbabwe desperately needs.  But in failing health and increasingly prone to erratic behavior, Mugabe’s rule was on its last legs, coup or no coup.  His implicitly chosen successor, his 52-year old wife, Grace, is known for her extravagant shopping sprees and raw ambition, and is loathed by the senior military command, the ruling-party old guard, and much of the population.  It is unlikely she would have succeeded her husband without immense resistance.

Mnangagwa may be corrupt and a thug, but he is a pragmatic one, free of the bizarre Messiah complex that left its imprint on so many of Mugabe’s misguided policies and that Grace Mugabe seems to share.  Unlike Mugabe, Mnangagwa has demonstrated he has no illusions about the state of Zimbabwe’s economy and the sources of its troubles.  With the backing of the military, he has the both the credibility and the knowledge to enact long-awaited economic reforms, and there should be optimism that he will do so.

However, Mnangagwa should be alert to the fact that many of those celebrating Mugabe’s departure do not have much love for the coup’s actors, even if they seem to support its implications.  Zimbabweans are aware of the roles that he and his allies played in Mugabe’s regime, and know that he is not a democrat.  Although many are willing to give the Crocodile, as Mnangagwa is called, a chance, his mandate depends on persuading Zimbabweans that he can immediately improve their lives after three decades of decline.

A democratic election is planned for the middle of next year.  Should Mnangagwa’s actions revive the economy and distinguish his presidency from that of Mugabe’s, perhaps he might even win it fairly.