Zimbabwe’s economy is running out of cash. Its worst drought in decades is aggravating financial collapse. The ruling party is rived by infighting. And a marriage counsellor turned social media hero is mobilising thousands of workers to paralyse the country.
These are just some of the challenges encircling President Robert Mugabe, 92, the world’s oldest head of state.
He has cracked down on opponents, dialled up anti-Western rhetoric and threatened anyone who steps out of line. This month, the government moved to increase surveillance of social media and phone operators and raised prices for mobile data following orders from the regulator. The army said it was on high alert for cyber-terrorism targeted at destabilising the government.
But with protests now spreading to some of Zimbabwe’s rural areas that have traditionally been a Mugabe stronghold, the growing scale of the challenges has prompted former party officials, Western diplomats and political opponents to question how much longer the man who led Zimbabwe’s independence war — and ruled this southern African nation for 36 years — can stay in power.
“What you have is highly incendiary conditions in Zimbabwe … (It’s) ripe for a power grab,” said Charles Laurie, of political risk firm Verisk Maplecroft.
Leaders of 18 opposition parties — among them a former prime minister, vice-president and finance minister — were expected to meet overnight in Harare to form a coalition to challenge Mugabe in the 2018 elections. But without a clear constitutional path for replacing the President before then, it is unclear what would happen should be die or be forced to step aside.
Although not formally on the agenda, the recent upheaval — and uncertainty over a potential successor to Mugabe — are likely to come up at a summit of southern African leaders in Swaziland that starts next week.
Political chaos in Zimbabwe would risk unsettling a region struggling with a downturn in commodity prices and China’s economic slowdown. Neighbouring South Africa, which hosts more than a million Zimbabwean immigrants, is bowing under near record unemployment and a further influx of cheap labour could reignite anti-foreigner tensions there just as opposition is rising to the ruling African National Congress.
Mugabe has survived crises by cutting deals with rivals and ruthlessly quelling dissent. “It’s always easy to call the end of Mugabe too early,” Mr Laurie said.
But now the President faces a growing public challenge from a protest movement personified by Evan Mawarire, a Pentecostal pastor who until this year was doling out relationship advice to a congregation of 60 people in the capital, Harare.
In April, Mr Mawarire posted a video on Facebook in which he recorded himself lamenting the downfall of his country while dissecting the colours of a Zimbabwean flag.
The video sparked a social media movement under #ThisFlag and on July 6, a “stay away” called by Mr Mawarire shut much of the capital as workers stayed home and schools closed. The pastor’s call for a national strike led to his arrest a week later.
He was released after thousands of supporters held a vigil and has since left for the US, where he says he is meeting exiled Zimbabweans and planning his next move.
A few days later, a group of influential veterans of Zimbabwe’s national liberation war denounced the President’s “dictatorial tendencies”. They vowed to no longer support Mugabe in elections and threw their weight behind Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a liberation war hero and long-time party leader.
The backlash comes as Zimbabwe’s economy is sliding towards its biggest crisis since 2009, when hyperinflation forced it to effectively adopt the US dollar as its national currency. For the past two months, the government has been late in paying military, police and other public employees.
On payday, long lines form at Zimbabwean banks, which have restricted the amount of cash that can be withdrawn. The central bank said lenders at the end of May had enough dollars to cover just 4 per cent of deposits. On July 26, daily volume at the Zimbabwe stock exchange dropped to $US105, down from about $US1 million at its peak.
Meanwhile, an El Nino-induced drought has left about four million Zimbabweans, among them 40 per cent of the rural population, with insufficient food, the US Agency for International Development said.
The economic challenges are exacerbating a power struggle within the ZANU-PF party. It pits Mugabe’s wife, Grace, 51, against Mr Mnangagwa. The divisions spilt into the open at the ZANU-PF headquarters on July 27, when Mugabe met with veterans who had expressed their loyalty to the President. Addressing the gathering, Provincial Affairs Minister Mandi Chimene called for Mr Mnangagwa’s ouster.
In an erratic speech, Mugabe skipped over the attack on his Vice-President. Instead, he spelled out his response to dissenters: “If you interfere with our politics you are courting trouble.”
That night, police arrested two senior members of the veterans group that issued the statement.
Mr Mawarire said his movement was not backing a candidate to succeed Mugabe and he had no plans to seek political office. “We know exactly what we don’t want,” he said. He said there was a risk the country’s security services would step into the void. “There is that worry that we could end up with something that is worse or the same.”
The Wall Street Journal