Security crackdown won’t solve Zimbabwe’s economic woes
A year ago, Emmerson Mnangagwa sat for lunch with a Financial Times reporter and famously declared: “I am not a crocodile.” Keen to shed his reputation as a security enforcer and long-time Mugabe apparatchik, the new president sought to woo international audiences as the man who would deliver Zimbabwe from rogue nation status.
This year, forced to cut short an international tour aimed at securing new investments, Mnangagwa has returned to a chaotic country with thousands protesting a 150 percent hike in fuel prices. Amid reports of torture, indiscriminate beatings, live fire and the deaths of at least 12 people and the arrests of hundreds, it is little wonder that the international community was less than welcoming during the president’s investment roadshow. Little more than a year into his presidency, it seems he has reverted to type, using the military to crush protesters and leading Zimbabweans to ask whether they should have removed Robert Mugabe at all.
As head of state security during the subjugation of Matabeleland in the early 1980s, when government forces killed as many as 20,000 people in the southwest of the country, Mnangagwa earned a reputation as an efficient enforcer for the ruling party. Last summer, the army opened fire on fleeing protesters following contentious elections, raising questions about the president’s commitment to reform. And in the last week, after the president arbitrarily more than doubled fuel prices, the government has acted with the same impunity as it always has, with security forces targeting boys as young as 10 and 11.
Though initially viewed as a more liberal successor, Mnangagwa is becoming increasingly authoritarian despite public professions that “violence or misconduct by our security forces is unacceptable and a betrayal of the new Zimbabwe.”
It seems Mnangagwa has reverted to type, using the military to crush protesters.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Positioning himself as the architect of Zimbabwe’s new dawn, the president will face an increasingly uphill task to drum up foreign investment. Having expected to court international money at Davos this year, the president cut short his European trip as the economy hurtles toward another economic catastrophe. The country is running out of money, has no viable economic policy, and the highest fuel prices in the world.
Inflation is at a 10-year high and has been estimated to be at 236 percent, as opposed to the government figure of 42 percent. Under these challenging circumstances, the country’s bond note surrogate currency, which is supposed to be equal to the US dollar, is rapidly losing its value. As key public servants, schools and other businesses demand payment in US dollars, the situation of having to import foreign currency for local use is unsustainable, as current foreign exchange generation is insufficient to meet the country’s import demands.
For a veteran of the independence movement, the challenges of modern Zimbabwe are immense. The government that Mnangagwa heads is a hugely dysfunctional organization built on 39 years of gross patronage. With billions of dollars in overseas debt, Zimbabwe has yet to offer a plausible plan of how it will meet its obligations. Simultaneously, an estimated 90 percent of government revenues are spent on salaries, while civil servants use their positions for personal financial gain.
South Africa, a patient and long-time supporter of its northerly neighbor, has itself grown reluctant to extend further credit to Mnangagwa. The Lima agreement, which sought to pay back $1.8 billion in debt arrears out of a total of over $10 billion owed to multilateral and bilateral institutions so as to secure fresh funding, is now dead in the water. Within this context, Zimbabwe must stabilize its economy if it is to attract new loans, meaningful foreign direct investment inflows and resuscitate its ailing industries to alleviate the circumstances of its long-suffering citizens.
It is unclear who the president enthusiastically tweets his agenda to following the government’s directive to the country’s biggest mobile operator to shut down social media. Earlier this week, he told his followers “in light of the economic situation, I will be returning home after a highly productive week of bilateral trade and investment meetings,” seemingly unaware of the acuteness of his country’s problems.
There is no doubt, however, that Zimbabweans are aware of the challenges their country faces. Bankrupted and unpopular, the president must seek solutions other than a heavy hand to stay in power. Ethiopia and Rwanda have managed to pull themselves out of horrific national circumstances to build successful economies, without the natural advantages of Zimbabwe. Boasting a young, anglophone workforce, rich in agriculture, and with considerable mineral resources and hydroelectric power opportunities, its future need not be bleak.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).