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Big Saturday Read: A Grim Harvest, Sanctions and the Big Idea

A Grim Harvest

It is an indictment on the post-Mugabe regime that 12 months after taking power, the country is still mired in troubled waters. Indeed, it is not unfair to say that economically, citizens are worse off today than they were last Christmas. This is an odd circumstance given the high hopes that swept across the nation this time last year. The high hopes were a product of euphoria following the dramatic removal of former President Robert Mugabe in a coup last November.

It has now dawned upon most people that these were misplaced hopes. The investment in hope has not yielded tangible dividends. Much of this is down to the the failure of the post-Mugabe regime to arrest the deteriorating economic situation. The young people are frustrated and restless, worrying constantly over a bleak present and an unpromising future.

Critics point to the long fuel queues, increase in prices of goods and services, looming shortages of basic goods, closure of businesses, flourishing parallel markets in currency and commodities, unemployment as indications of the increasingly challenging economic environment. That this has come a few months after an election which ought to have opened a new pathway for the nation is a sign of a failure of politics.

After investing so much hope in the regime that took over from Mugabe, many feel it has been a grim harvest. The Mnangagwa administration over-promised but, regrettably, it has under-delivered. Regime loyalists plead for more time and indulgence, arguing that the collapse of Zimbabwe took place over many years hence recovery will be equally slow and painful. But the long-suffering citizen is at the end of his tether.

This abundant goodwill in the post-Mugabe regime extended beyond the borders, with the international community willing to indulge the coup and the new set of rulers’ past indiscretions and gross violations. For many of them, the removal of their long-time nemesis, Robert Mugabe, was good enough. The language used betrayed the biases of the time. Thus, the removal of Mugabe was dubbed a “military-assisted transition” or simply “a transition” without any mention of the military. This vocabulary demonstrated an underlying belief that there was indeed a transition in Zimbabwe.

Nevertheless, to the extent that this meant a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, it was terribly mistaken. The new rulers were the same men who had propped up and operationalised Mugabe’s ruling machinery. They weren’t democrats by any stretch of imagination. They wanted power, yes, but democracy was not a priority. It had never been a priority during their many years with Mugabe at the helm. They might perform some gimmicks here and there, to win the favour of the international community, but beyond those token gestures the mean machinery with inherently authoritarian features would be maintained.

It soon became clear that despite the smiles and clichés of being “open for business”, there were more continuities than changes from the old regime. It has become a truism that Mugabeism managed to survive the departure of Mugabe and unless there are fundamental changes, it may live much longer after him.

There has been no serious effort to disentangle the state from the grip of the party or to reduce the role and impact of the military in civilian affairs – both in the party and government. If anything, the coup enhanced the hand of the military and gave it confidence that it had not just a de facto but de jure role in the affairs of the party and government. The war veterans are still being an embarrassment, revealing their partisan and autocratic tendencies. Traditional leaders are still tied to the party and the system of patronage persists. Instead of strengthening public institutions, such as the electoral authority, the judiciary, prosecution authorities, the central bank and others, the ruling party still emasculates them.

In this regard, the narrative of transition reflects an obsession with form over substance. In other words, the change of personnel from Mugabe to Mnangagwa is seen as a transition but in fact, substantively, the structure and content of government has not changed. That is why even procedural matters such as the declaration of national heroes are still performed by the party, rather than through a truly national, non-partisan process. This is also why Mugabe-type rituals of power, such as the routine of Cabinet Ministers and Military Chiefs lining up at the airport to greet or bid farewell to the President persist. State media continues on its divisive, partisan and vindictive path. State TV, radio and newspapers are just as biased and bad today as they were during the Mugabe era.

In some cases, the deification of the President has increased, as shown by the expulsion of opposition MPs for allegedly being disrespectful to the President, something that never happened under the bad old days of Mugabe. The August 1 killings after the deployment of the military also demonstrated excesses of the post-Mugabe regime or at the very least, its inability to contain excesses of its constituent elements. It is not surprising that as the year comes to an end, upon review, for many citizens it is indeed a grim and bitter harvest.

A Man Without a Big Idea?

So what went wrong after so much promise and belief twelve months ago, when Zimbabweans were prepared to give the post-Mugabe administration a chance? Why did the myth of transformation and transition explode within a period of just twelve months?

Part of the challenge is that the new leader did not seem to be sufficiently prepared for the opportunity to lead after it landed on his feet in rather dramatic circumstances. This emerged starkly at a business conference this week when he revealed that there is no Big Idea behind his administration.

A Big Idea is the myth or imagined reality that one sells to the people and uses as the compass for leadership. It encapsulates the normative ideas and beliefs that a leader aspires to implement and achieve. It might also be referred to as the leader’s ideology.

After a long period of political internship under Mugabe, Mnangagwa might have been expected to have developed a solid set of ideas and plans of his own that he would implement upon taking the leadership. An aspiring leader must have a Big Idea that motivates and drives him to lead in a particular direction. Yet it seemed that Mnangagwa’s Big Idea was merely that he was not Mugabe. The major preoccupation was to succeed Mugabe and to take over power. There was no clear blueprint as to what to do with that power. Not being Mugabe is not an idea.

That Mnangagwa has no Big Idea was revealed this week when he attempted to answer a question over the economic ideology of his administration. The interlocutor had enquired from Mnangagwa’s Minister of Industry and Commerce the nature of the government’s economic ideology which informed their policies. Mnangagwa chose to respond on his Minister’s behalf. “Someone is asking about ideology?” he asked rhetorically before remarking, “That’s a leisure” (sic). Presumably he meant an ideology is a luxury. It was a shocking revelation of the lack of a Big Idea behind his regime.

There is a reason why the interlocutor at the business conference had asked the question, He had helpfully qualified his question by making reference to the problem of lack of policy clarity and consistency. The interlocutor may have seen, like many others that the current government tends to contradict itself in material respects, which leads to confusion. It is hard to tell what exactly it stands for in terms of its ideas. This is why he was asking for clarity on the government’s economic ideology, if it had one at all. He was asking for the government’s Big Idea in relation to the economy. It was this that Mnangagwa surprisingly dismissed as “a leisure”, showing scant regard for ideology.

Why ideology matters

There is a tendency in recent years to question the relevance of ideology or to even dismiss it. “What works” is the rhetoric that is often used as an alternative. But “what works” must be based on a set of ideas and beliefs. Ideology matters because it informs and shapes the direction of the government. It might be good or bad but that is a separate qualitative question. Government’s economic, social and political choices are informed by the ideology that it adopts.

An ideology is often defined as constituting a system of ideas and ideals that inform and shape the political or economic path of a nation. It encapsulates a set of beliefs in what is sought to be achieved - the goals and aspirations of the nation. It is normative in that it seeks to prescribe what ought to be achieved if certain ideas and beliefs are followed and implemented.

Another way to look at ideology is that it is the myth that the leadership constructs and asks the citizens to believe in. This myth is important because as Yuval Noah Harari has argued in his book, A Brief History of Humankind, large networks of cooperation are built around such myths or imagined realities. Every successful large-scale enterprise be it the nation-state, the church, money and business organisations are built around a particular myth or imagined reality which they are able to sell to the public.

What makes one myth more successful than others is its ability to draw significant numbers of people who believe in it. That is why one currency is successful while another fails - currency is a myth whose success depends on whether users believe in it. To use an example in our context, the myth of the US dollar is more attractive than the myth of RTGS or the Bond Note, which is why one retains its value while the other continues to fall. Basically, more people believe in the myth of the US dollar than they believe in the myth of the RTGS or Bond Note. Likewise, the Big Idea behind a political system – what we are calling the ideology is also a myth that must be packaged in a way that makes it persuasive and attractive to a significant number of people.

Ideology helps to shape how a government perceives the relationship between the state and the market. Thus one set of ideology might see a greater and more interventionist role of the state in providing goods and services while another might see a lesser role for the state but instead a greater role for market forces. The policy direction of a government is shaped by which of these ideologies it prefers. It might choose a command and control system where it intervenes and controls the production and allocation of goods or it might choose to take a lesser role where it allows the market forces to dominate and allocate goods and services. It might choose to do a bit of both.

Leaders who have made great impact in their nations have been driven by their desire to implement their Big Ideas, for better or worse, informed by ideologies which they have adopted or developed. Singapore is where it is today because of the big idea generated and implemented by its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Likewise, China is where it is today because of the Big Ideas of Deng Xiaoping, widely credited for laying the foundations of modern Chinese economic success. Thatcher and Reagan were at the forefront of neo-liberal capitalism. Paul Kagame is widely credited for Rwanda’s economic revival and success, but that is because he too has a Big Idea that drives him.

This is why it is important for Mnangagwa to have ideological clarity. No, ideology is not “a leisure”. Ideology is as important to a leader as a compass is to the pilot of a ship at sea. It constantly gives him direction. It reminds him when he is off track. He might take a detour, because of adverse conditions, but eventually, he must return to the main route. Thus the leader needs an ideological compass. It helps him steer the nation in a specific, predetermined direction. Without it, one ends up lost at sea, unsure where to go and what to do.

The fact that Mnangagwa is so dismissive of ideology is an important indicator as to why the country is currently all at sea, roaming around without direction. It explains the policy inconsistencies and contradictions, where on the one hand he preaches openness for business while imposing taxes and other measures which actually stifle business. The government promises to promote business and yet its foreign currency retention policies, where US dollars are exchanged for devalued pseudo-currency constitute theft from business. The government promises tolerance to free speech and other rights and yet responds with excessive force when citizens express themselves. The government preaches free market ideas and at the same time extols the virtues of command economics. These apparent contradictions are a key indicator of a government that has no sound ideology.

This is why one day, Mnangagwa is a Deng and another he has Thatcher as his lodestar. On another occasion he is admiring Kagame. You can’t be all things to all people. He has to be Mnangagwa but to do that, he has to formulate and pursue his own Big Idea. He has to create and sell his own myth.

Some may think that ideology is limited and limiting. They may argue that there is no need to be boxed into pre-existing ideologies. But that is to miss the point. There is no requirement to fit into existing ideologies. Leaders who have made an impact have not always followed existing wisdom. They have challenged it and formulated their own paths. But they have not driven blindly into the future. They have generated their own ideas which they have pursued relentlessly and with determination.

By the time Mnangagwa took office and after understudying Mugabe for so long, he should have developed his own set of ideas which would guide his administration. He should have had a blueprint. Not being Mugabe is not an ideology. He is only a few months into his first term as president and if he does not have an ideology, he needs one. He needs it because that should be his ideological compass. Otherwise he is steering the Zimbabwean ship to nowhere without an ideological compass.

When Deng said it did not matter whether the cat was black or white, as long as it caught mice, he was suggesting a lack of ideology. On the contrary, the Chinese have successfully adapted their communist ideology by blending it with free-market ideas to create a blend that works for them and it has served them well to date. It is that ideological line that informs their political and economic policies and indeed, their general direction as a nation. Mnangagwa should not shy away from defining and selling his ideology.

The Sanctions Issue

This week saw Zimbabwe once again occupying the Sub-Committee of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Congress. Dubbed, Zimbabwe after the Elections, it was a review of progress in the country since the elections held on 30 July. Just before the elections, the US had amended the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA), the sanctions legislation.

The new amendment was seen as a blow for the Mnangagwa regime which was trying very hard since the coup to court and endear itself to the West. Indeed, Mnangagwa had made a deliberate choice not to blame sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic woes. This was probably meant to coax the West into believing that he was different from Mugabe, who always moaned about sanctions. For a while, some believed him.

This changed after the elections, when the narrative began to emphasise sanctions as a key factor in Zimbabwe’s economic troubles. The business community joined the fray, with telecommunications mogul, Strive Masiyiwa wading in to call for the removal of sanctions. This week, it was the turn of another business executive, Joe Mutizwa to raise the anti-sanctions flag when he appeared before the Congressional sub-committee. The former CEO of Delta Corporation, one of the biggest companies in the country urged the US to reconsider the sanctions which he said are hurting the private sector in Zimbabwe.

The Mnangagwa regime would have been pleased with Mutizwa’s performance. He was effusive in his praise of Mnangagwa and his regime, which he said was committed to transformation. For Mutizwa the problem was one of a crisis of expectations, where much was being expected in too little time. He urged patience while reassuring that the new regime was on the right path. He placed heavy emphasis on economic reforms, especially the budget which he believed was critical to reducing the debilitating deficit.

At the other end of the scale were the more critical voices of Todd Moss and Harrington. While Harrington acknowledged a change of tone in the Mnangagwa regime and that access had been widened, he believed there was more rhetoric than action in respect of political reforms. This view was echoed by Moss who was critical of the elections which had been adjudged by US and EU observers as having failed to meet the mark. Mugabe may have left but there had been little change.

The case of Tendai Biti, former Finance Minister and Deputy Chairman of the MDC Alliance whom the US believes is being harassed for political reasons was raised on several occasions. Senator Flake made it clear that normalisation of relations would not be possible as long as he is being persecuted. In this regard, the Mnangagwa regime is falling into the same trap as its predecessor which was regarded as persecuting political opponents.

The difference in the testimonies can be summed up as reflecting parallel views on reforms. Whereas Mutizwa placed emphasis on economic reforms, the US view focused on political reforms. Nevertheless, these reforms are not mutually exclusive. Both sets of reforms are important. As pointed out at the hearing, the political reforms that have been stated do not cost money. They can also be achieved in a time-efficient manner.

Repealing or reforming POSA and AIPPA and all other laws that are not consistent with the constitution can be achieved without spending much time or money. After all, when government wants urgent laws, it often moves very swiftly to achieve that end, using the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act if need be. In this case, the government doesn’t even have to use that draconian law. With a two thirds majority, ZANU PF can reform these laws with great ease.

The ball is firmly in the government’s court. It is the party that wants sanctions removed. The reality is that ZDERA exists and there are conditions that ought to be fulfilled. All that’s required is to clear the laundry list of reforms and then to put it to the US that it has met the requirements and there is no longer justification to maintain ZDERA.

However, a more important strategy is a bi-partisan approach to the challenge. History reminds us that getting sanctions removed requires bi-partisan effort. This not the first time that Zimbabwe has been under sanctions. The sanctions imposed on Rhodesia after UDI were only lifted after sufficient demonstrable bi-partisan efforts. For such a bi-partisan effort there has to be dialogue and consensus between the key parties in Zimbabwe. The private sector is unlikely to carry much weight on its own because it is not a key party to the political conundrum. Their contribution does not carry the political weight that is necessary to shift positions.

As for the private sector, which was represented by Mutizwa, it will be easier for them to lobby Congress for the repeal of ZDERA if the government has complied with the requirements. The argument that sanctions are damaging is logically pointless and self-defeating because it simply confirms to those imposing them that they are having effect, which is why they would have imposed them in the first place. If the private sector is truly desirous of achieving its goal of getting the sanctions removed, they too must focus on the domestic parties whose political logjam is preventing a bi-partisan effort.

Therefore, the private sector is best advised to avoid taking a politically partisan approach between the contesting parties in Zimbabwe. They should instead seek a strategy to lobby the government and the opposition to find each other and unlock the political logjam. Mutizwa claimed at the Congressional hearing that he had played a key role in bringing the parties together in 2008 after the disastrous elections. If that is true, then they have a precedent to use. What steps have they taken given that the 2018 elections, ten years later, have also produced another political cul-de-sac?

The problem for the private sector is that it has taken sides when it could have been an honest broker. If they intervened and helped in 2008, their efforts basically rescued ZANU PF which had lost elections and unleashed violence on the opposition, leading to a sham election. They did not pick a side but recognised that there was a political problem which could not be resolved outside of a bi-partisan effort. They could, if they wish to help the situation, engage both sides of the political divide and create a path towards such a bi-partisan efforts.

Business leaders should not delude themselves into thinking that their testimonies at the US Congress or elsewhere will unlock the problem, but the reality is that their voice carries far little weight compared to the voice of the political actors. Moss summed it up well when he said, “... fixing Zimbabwe’s economy is not about tweaking the budget deficit by a percentage point or two. It’s not about employing more accounting gimmicks. Until the government deals with the dominance of the military in the economy, the ongoing rackets by predatory elites and the flouting of the basic rule of law, Zimbabwe’s economy cannot be fixed. The roots of the economic crisis are political, the solutions must start with genuine political reform.”

There was some acknowledgement in Mutizwa’s testimony that the absence of loser’s consent was a political problem which had affected the post-election era. The challenge then is how to fix this political stalemate at home, because unlocking it will make it easier to unlock external doors.

What this means is there is need for less arrogance, less finger-pointing and at the very least a bi-partisan approach involving key political actors and at best a multi-party approach involving political parties, civil society, the private sector and others who can lend weight to the voices.Current measures are not going to be removed by shouting at or hurling insults at the opposition. It only increases the tensions and makes things far worse than they are already. It would be so different if the government and the opposition sat before a Congressional committee in unison. The day that happens, it will lend more weight to the calls for change.

However, for that to happen it is important to resolve the domestic political conundrum. It is here that parties like the private sector, civil society, churches and other stakeholders can play an important role. Outsiders are less likely to pay much attention to calls from all these parties, including the private sector, unless the political actors are involved and can speak with a bi-partisan voice. For that to happen, it must be accepted that the story of the jungle is not that of the lion alone, but of all the animals, great and small.


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