On Wednesday 20 December, President Mnangagwa delivered his first State of the Nation Address (SONA). The nation had waited in anticipation since the announcement of the address the previous day by the Speaker of the National Assembly, Advocate Jacob Mudenda. It’s a new presidency the arrival of which was accompanied by much drama, excitement and high hopes and expectations. Naturally, most Zimbabweans are following every step the new administration takes in these formative stages. The interest extends beyond borders, with major international media organisations such as Al Jazeera giving prominent coverage to Mnangagwa’s first address to parliament.
Mnangagwa’s address was short and contained all the right sounds, consistent with the positive tone he has been trying to set in the early days of his presidency. This was Mnangagwa’s second major public speech since assuming office. The first was the speech he gave on the day he was sworn in as president on 24 November. The SONA was more of an extension of that inauguration speech. It was a speech made on account of duty, because the Constitution requires the president to address parliament at least once a year on the state of the nation (section 140(3)). If he had a choice, he probably would have skipped this particular shift because he really wasn’t saying much that he has not said before.
Homage to the defence forces
Mnangagwa began his speech by paying homage to the security services, the major propellers of his dramatic rise to power. He praised the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, whom he described as having defended the national interest “by initiating Operation Restore Legacy”. This was the military operation which forced the long-serving Mugabe to step down after 37 years in power. Interestingly, Mnangagwa repeated the claim that the actions of the defence forces were consistent with their mandate of defending and protecting Zimbabwe as well as upholding the constitution in terms of section 212 of the Constitution. This is the narrative that has been propagated by the military generals and confirmed by Justice George Chiweshe in the High Court judgment in which he ruled that the military’s actions were constitutional and lawful.
It is interesting that the new administration continues to see the need to justify the military intervention on constitutional and legal grounds. However, this may be unproductive because the more it is mentioned, the more critics and doubters continue to wonder whether the administration feels unsure of the legality of its authority. It is as if there is a ringing voice which continues to bother the new administration that their legality is in doubt to the point that they must restate the legality of the military intervention so often. Whatever the legalities of what happened in November, the fact of the matter is that the administration has effective control of the state and is therefore, in any event, the de facto power. To the extent that it has unrivalled de facto power, it has, by virtue of necessity the authority to govern. The administration must simply get on with the business of governing without feeling the need to justify their authority. No one, after all, is seriously challenging the legality or legitimacy of its authority, whether politically or legally.
If anything, the new administration should be wary of reaffirming the legal authority of what the military did because as the government in power, it is now a potential target of similar military action. Therefore, continued reference to and emphasis of the legality of the military intervention only serves to strengthen the belief that what the military did in November was perfectly constitutional and therefore can be done again in future. The government would not have the moral authority to condemn it. In my view, far from normalising what happened, it is in the government’s interests to treat the November chapter as closed and if anything, it should be classified as a rare exception, the repeat of which is not to be condoned or encouraged.
Naturally, the economy featured heavily in the address. It is the Mnangagwa administration’s most important point, the success of which could propel it to a proper term of office without the need to resort to underhand tactics in the next elections. It is common cause that the economy is in dire straits. Many people are prepared to give the new administration a chance in the hope that it can turn around the country’s economic fortunes.
Once again, Mnangagwa’s speech struck the right chords. He admitted the economy was in trouble and unlike his predecessor, he did not blame others. He acknowledged the panic sparked by recent price hikes of basic commodities and appealed to the business sector for restraint. Notably, it was more of a plea than a command. This is a government that is promising a market economy but at the same time wary of the escalating prices which could produce disgruntlement among the people. Such a state could lead to protests which might require government to resort to the coercive apparatus of the state, something that could fundamentally affect the image that it is trying to build. How far this plea will hold remains to be seen but they must surely know from previous experience that price controls ultimately backfire.
The message to the investment community was also loud and clear: Zimbabwe is open for business and everything will be done to make the country an attractive destination. In this regard, the Mnangagwa administration used the economic argument to kill two birds with one stone. By presenting the investment argument as a bi-partisan responsibility cutting across the political divide and going beyond partisan interests, Mnangagwa was politely rebuking his opponents who have been accused of calling for sanctions against Zimbabwe after the controversial trip to the US. Second, it is also an attempt to claim the moral high ground, presenting the new administration as the more reasonable of the political actors which is interested in working together with others to advance the national interest. In this regard Mnangagwa’s approach is markedly different from Mugabe’s who might have been more direct and vitriolic in his attack of the opposition and the West. He was fond of the sanctions argument and would probably have made the most of it. Unlike Mugabe who had long thrown caution to the wind, Mnangagwa is still coy as he tries to court the West. He has to portray a softer and less combative approach towards political opponents and the West.
On corruption, the same message was repeated, but words alone will not suffice. People want to see more action. Mugabe's speeches over the years promised much by way of anti-corruption policies but ultimately corruption flourished under his rule. Even his Ten Point Plan delivered in his SONA of August 2015, anti-corruption was a key part. The Prevention of Corruption Act was enacted under Mugabe's rule. The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission was established under his rule. Each time, people's hopes were raised but ultimately it came to nothing. So far, the arrests have targeted allegedly corrupt individuals who were associated with the vanquished political faction of G40. This alone will not persuade people to believe the new administration is serious about corruption. If anything, it gives an impression that it is all about vindictiveness dressed as a genuine anti-corruption drive. In short, while it's too early to judge, more will need to be done to demonstrate that this promise to deal with corruption is actually real and different from previous promises under Mugabe.
In this regard, international re-engagement featured again in the speech, echoing his inaugural address in which he promised efforts to join the community of nations. Mnangagwa knows Zimbabwe has suffered great harm as a result of international isolation. His Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa had long made efforts to re-engage with the international community since his first appointment in 2013. This is probably why Mnangagwa brought him back to his role in his first Cabinet. The next 8 months will be critical, for if the Mnangagwa administration can make strides in its re-engagement efforts and if it makes a difference to the economy, it will be warmly received by the people. Some nations will be quicker than others in how they embrace the new administration but clearly there is some goodwill, which Mnangagwa referred to in his address.
In this regard, it’s worth noting that Mnangagwa has an important opportunity in January to advance his message of re-engagement and wooing foreign investors. The annual edition of the World Economic Forum, the global elites’ jamboree, will be held in Davos, Switzerland. The global elite in politics and business will gather in the mountain resort town to debate the global economic agenda. For much of the past decade, Morgan Tsvangirai was the face of Zimbabwe at this economic festival. Tsvangirai, the man who had challenged and demystified Mugabe, was a popular guest. Mugabe himself was a notable absentee, He had last attended a WEF event in 2010 at the Africa edition in Tanzania. He only returned for another African edition in Durban this year. Now however, if he goes, Mnangagwa will be the new face of Zimbabwe at the WEF.
After dethroning Mugabe in circumstances that grabbed the attention of the world, Mnangagwa will be a man in demand and therefore under intense spotlight. It will also be his first opportunity to present his case for Zimbabwe on a truly global stage. It will be a glorious moment but it could also be a slippery slope if it is not well managed. The hawks in global media will be hovering with very tough questions that must be carefully answered. In the short period before the next elections, he will get few more critical opportunities to address the global investment community than the Davos stage. SONA allowed him to present his vision to Zimbabweans, but in Davos, he will have a global audience and there will be plenty of hard questions too from investors, peers and the media.
Some critics are less than impressed by Mnangagwa’s speech delivery. Unlike Mugabe, he is not blessed with the gift of the gab, a fact that is not lost on him. “I recognise that the urgent tasks that beckon will not be accomplished through speeches” he said in his inaugural speech, an admission of his limitation. He is unlikely to have been a student who volunteered for reading duties in class. But he probably made up for that weakness by excelling in tasks that required action. It is in this department, the department of action, where he will be judged and where most Zimbabweans are interested in his performance. They had enough great speeches from Mugabe, but they were left in poverty. They will allow Mnangagwa to bungle through his speeches as long as he delivers on the economic front. With just 8 months till the next elections, he only has a small window to win their trust and confidence.
The elections question
Mnangagwa knows much will hang on how his administration manages the next election. Winning and retaining power won’t be enough, as Mugabe’s past contested victories have shown. He will have to win in a manner that passes the legitimacy test. He repeated the commitment to ensure there will be a “credible, free and fair election” and that his government “would do all within its power” to achieve this objective. However, disappointingly for the critics, there was little by way of detail on the issue of electoral reforms, which the opposition has been demanding. There is a clear contrast between the way the economic and electoral issues are receiving attention. On the economy, there is specific detail and demonstrable interest. On elections, there are bold claims, but no detail. The administration will win critics and doubters if it begins to add flesh to the promise of free and fair elections.
Clearly, there is need for inter-party engagement on this issue early in the New Year. If, as the president rightly said, making Zimbabwe attractive for investment is a bi-partisan issue which requires collective effort and parties must not be swayed by partisan interests, the same logic must apply to the key matter of elections. This is so because the credibility or otherwise of elections ultimately affects the investment climate. The opposition must accept Mnangagwa’s investment challenge but the Mnangagwa administration must also accept that elections are an investment issue. This way, they can both forge a way forward on both fronts and in the end, it is the ordinary Zimbabwean who wins. They get free and fair elections and possibly, some investment.