Zimbabwe’s Big Man falls ill

With one year left until the next general election – due to take place between July and August next year – the battle to succeed President Robert Mugabe is heating up. Again. Mugabe, the nonagenarian president who would rule Zimbabwe in perpetuity if he could, has travelled to Singapore three times this year for medical treatment. The authorities have stated that he has travelled there for routine medical checks, but his age and a growing number of demands for him to name a successor suggest otherwise. Although Mugabe’s succession has repeatedly been on the agenda for the past decade, the 2018 general election is likely to be a watershed moment for Zimbabwe’s future trajectory.

The succession race is on

Calls for Mugabe to anoint a successor, which would be against the constitution, have increased over the past months. Even his wife, Grace, urged him during an event in July organised by the ruling party’s women’s league to name an heir. As unorthodox as such statements might be, they suggest that something is brewing beneath the surface of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Patriotic Front (Zanu-P.F.), which appears increasingly split. On one side, there are the ‘Young Turks’ or Generation 40 (G40), who are led by Jonathan Moyo, an established Zanu-P.F. politician. So far, the group has tried promoting Grace Mugabe, but infighting has caused them to turn towards Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi who is now the G40’s main, albeit unofficial, candidate for Mugabe’s succession. The inclusion of someone from the security apparatus could be an attempt to court voters from the opposing camp, Team Lacoste, which is loyal to Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Political attacks by G40 loyalists against Mnangagwa led to him to tender his resignation in July, but President Mugabe refused to accept it. However, the president could be forced into doing so, as 75-year-old Mnangagwa travelled to South Africa on 14 August for medical treatment after falling ill during a political event he attended with Mugabe. Despite the president’s calls for the infighting to stop, the schism within Zanu-P.F. will likely continue snowballing ahead of the party’s national conference in December.

Infighting within Zanu-P.F. would, in theory, provide an opportunity for opposition groups to roll out their political strategy ahead of next year’s elections, for instance through the formation of a wide coalition. Although two main opposition coalitions have emerged, fighting within party structures as well as between parties and their leaders is likely to continue to stifle the prospects of a grand coalition. On the one hand, there is the opposition coalition led by the head of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change Tsvangirai faction (MDC-T), Morgan Tsvangirai. In early August, he launched the MDC Alliance, a coalition which includes MDC-T, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Welshman Ncube’s smaller MDC formation. Other parties that have joined that coalition are Transform Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe People First.

On the other side, there is an opposition grouping loyal to the former Zanu-P.F. stalwart and former vice-president, Joice Mujuru. She was ousted from the ruling party in 2014 after being accused by Grace Mugabe and G40 loyalists of plotting a coup against the president, and went on to form her own opposition last year: the Zimbabwe People’s First (ZPF). It was rebranded to National People’s Party (NPP) after a period of internal quarrelling; over 50 members from several constituencies in the southern Matabeleland region resigned from the party in June, due to infighting and alleged tribalism within the party. Mujuru looks like the main contender of the second opposition faction, the Coalition for Democrats (CoDe), of which the NPP is not (yet) a formal member. It is likely to join CoDe within the next few months as Mujuru is trying to increase support for her presidential aspirations.

Preceding the growing mobilisation of opposition parties, civil-society organisations (CSOs) have become emboldened over the past year and have organised the largest march in a decade. Two large movements stood out in 2016: #ThisFlag and Occupy Africa Unity Square (situated in the capital Harare). Although the leader of #ThisFlag, Pastor Evan Mawarire, has faced several legal battles following the movement’s momentum last year, further mobilisation is likely ahead of next year’s elections. Political rallying is likely to be most intense in the country’s main urban areas, such as the cities of Bulawayo and Harare.

Dollar shortages, bond notes, and goats

At the core of growing anti-government sentiment are the executive’s abysmal economic policy decisions made over the past decade, which continue to create problems for ordinary Zimbabweans and businesses. The situation has been made worse by erratic policy decisions, such as the expropriation of commercial land in 2008, the printing of bond notes due to U.S. dollar shortages last year, the limitation on U.S. dollar withdrawals, sensitive levels of inflation, and a general refusal to adopt policy recommendations by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The country’s economy continues to suffer from chronic cash shortages, particularly of U.S. dollars, which were caused by massive government spending. This, in turn, caused hyperinflation of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2008. In response, Zimbabwe adopted the U.S. dollar as a formal currency in 2009 because the Zimbabwean dollar had by that time become virtually worthless. However, cash shortages have continued to grow to the point that, last year, the central bank decided to issue a new currency it called ‘bond notes’. The bond notes serve as legal tender to regulate financial transactions rather than a full-fledged currency. While the bond notes’ value was meant to be on par with that of the U.S. dollar, their value quickly dropped as Zimbabweans realised that they were not convertible to the U.S. dollar and that they could not be used to pay for imports. Most business transactions in Zimbabwe therefore continue to rely on U.S. dollars and digital transfers. The situation is so dire that earlier this month the government proposed that ‘moveable assets’, such as cows, goats and sheep, as well as farm machinery and vehicles, could be used as collateral for loans; in the current economic environment, it is difficult for businesses to access credit from Zimbabwean banks. Rather than a policy to help low-income households rise from poverty, it is more like a desperate move by the government to court its voter base ahead of next year.

The situation is unlikely to change drastically in the six-month outlook, given that budgetary pressure on the government remains high due to a large public payroll. The national deficit of 7.3 per cent of GDP has hampered the government’s ability to pay its civil servants, including the security forces, a key player in keeping Mugabe in power. Last July and August, the government struggled to pay its soldiers, who protested in Harare. A similar situation in 2008 led to soldiers rioting on the streets of the capital. Further pressure on the government budget, could lead to more job cuts. These will mainly occur in the public sector, by far the largest employer in the country, and will further increase Zimbabwe’s already high unemployment rate of over 94 per cent.

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