(photo credit: voazimbabwe.com)
The situation in Zimbabwe is tense. There has been a wave of spontaneous protests mainly in the capital, Harare and Bulawayo, the second city.
The protests turned violent, with government properties including at least a police station, toll gate and police vehicles burnt by protesters. Some private vehicles have also been burnt, with rocks and mounds of sand dumped on some roads.
For the second time in six months, armed soldiers have been deployed in the streets and suburbs in order to contain protests. Several people have been injured in running battles between security forces and protesters. The situation remains taut overnight.
The last time soldiers intervened in August 2018, six people were shot and killed, while 35 others were wounded. An official investigation blamed the police and military, but no one has been brought to book. This is ominous in light of current protests and the latest military deployment.
A "Sarajevo Moment"?
The immediate trigger of the current storm is the dramatic and unpopular announcement at the weekend of a big increase in fuel prices.
Flanked by his deputy and senior ministers, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that price of diesel and petrol had risen to $3.11 and $3.31 per litre respectively – a rise of more than 140%. It sparked anxiety and panic, given that fuel is one commodity whose pricing has a multiplier effect in the entire economy.
The government argued that it was necessary to raise the cost of fuel to contain consumption levels which have risen beyond sustainable levels in recent months. It has previously accused foreign truck operators of taking advantage of hitherto cheaper prices in Zimbabwe compared to regional prices.
It offered relief to businesses in only four sectors, but the effect is muted by the exclusion of the retail sector which directly interfaces with the public. Besides, the conditions of relief appear hard to implement and given the deterioration in the local surrogate currency, the relief might be worth little when the refund comes. So businesses are likely to forgo the relief and charge higher prices instead.
Critics argue that the government is merely trying to raise funds by raising taxes under the guise of raising fuel prices. This is because according to one fuel retailer excise duty on fuel had risen by around 68%. Of the $3.11 per litre of diesel, $2.11 is tax that goes to the government, an increase of 358% on previous levels. The government did not say it was raising tax. It simply buried it in the high fuel price.
Zimbabweans are frustrated by the tax policies of the current regime. The fuel tax increase comes on top of a controversial 2% tax on electronic money transfers, announced last October. Other taxes and charges were introduced in the Finance Minister’s maiden budget last November. And all the while, the government has maintained an unrealistic currency policy under which a surrogate currency is supposedly equal to the US Dollar. No-one believes this fiction, not even government itself.
Despite all this, wages have remained stagnant and, in many ways, have been eroded. Clients who had pre-paid fuel coupons woke up t be told that they would be getting less fuel than they had paid for in the wake of the price increase. If one had a coupon for 200 litres, they would now get just 80 litres. State workers have threatened to go on strike, rejecting the government wage offer which they believe is paltry.
Major companies have been shutting operations, citing foreign currency shortages. Government intervened to stop the major drinks manufacturer from charging in US Dollars. A food manufacturer recently announced closure, citing the same challenge.
In all this, the government has preached the gospel of austerity. The theme of the Finance Minister’s budget was “Austerity for Prosperity”. And yet, for many they see little effort among political elites to live by their own gospel. Many have been incensed by the allegedly high cost of hiring a private jet for the president’s current trip to Russia and former Soviet satellite states. The nation faces a crisis, and he has gone ahead with his trip on a luxury jet. Meanwhile, the national airline does not even have a single operating plane – the two it remains with are both grounded.
The government has in the past splashed out on vehicles for traditional leaders ahead of critical needs at hospitals where patients have to bring their own provisions. About 90% of medical drugs in public hospitals are donated by foreign donors. Meanwhile, political elites, including the president seek treatment in foreign countries, South Africa being a favoured choice.
The gap between the political elites and the ordinary people has grown too wide.
So when the president convened a press conference late on Saturday night to announce the fuel price hikes, it merely drove people further into a tight corner. Sun Tzu says do not drive an opponent into a corner without leaving a way to life, because the only option for them is to fight to the death. Mnangagwa did not heed this advice and he drove desperate Zimbabweans into a wall, without an escape route.
To be sure, the situation has been incendiary for some time and the price hikes are best seen as a “Sarajevo moment” - the spark that triggered an inferno. The powder-keg was already there. It didn’t help that Mnangagwa promptly left on his trip to Russia hours after the price hikes. It suggested insensitivity to the plight of the people. Did he have to do it on the eve of his departure?
He knew or ought to have known that the price hikes would spark trouble. That he chose to leave at this time instead of resolving a predictable crisis is not a good sign. It suggests a man with a tendency to run away at the first sign of trouble. He has left the mess to his deputy, a military man, who has struggled in the past to handle lesser crises. A man holding a hammer thinks every problem is a nail so goes an old cliche. No wonder the first option is command and use of force.
Zimbabweans are disheartened by the apparent failure of the Mnangagwa regime to arrest the deteriorating economic situation. Comparisons with the Mugabe regime, whose ignominious departure most people welcomed euphorically in November 2017, have been a serious indictment on the Mnangagwa regime.
After Mugabe, the only way was up, or so it seemed. But the decay is palpable while the regime looks and sounds clueless with each passing day. They have even latched on to an old Mugabe strategy, which Mnangagwa had previously disavowed. It is called take no responsibility and blame Western sanctions.
As I have said before in these pages, the Mnangagwa regime overpromised but it has under-delivered, leaving many citizens underwhelmed and disappointed. Where they were calling for Mugabe to go, now they say Mnangagwa must go. It is a massive fall from grace for a man who came in amid so much goodwill.
Mugabe used to say he stayed so long in power because he failed to identify a successor. It was a self-serving excuse and annoying, but now some joke that the old man was right after all. This does not mean Zimbabweans think Mugabe was great or that his rule was better, no. Merely a damning indication of their utter frustration with the Mnangagwa regime.
The current unrest has a lot to do with the dire economic situation, which affects all regardless of their political inclination. But part of the frustration in opposition circles also stems from the controversial election last year, which they still feel was stolen. The opposition has never officially acknowledged the validity and legitimacy of Mnangagwa’s victory. This is a source of bitterness between the parties.
For the opposition, they see the failure of the Mnangagwa administration as a vindication of their position. They always argued that ZANU PF had no viable plan for the economy and they could not do it alone. They have strategically proposed dialogue in recent months but this hand has been spurned by ZANU PF, which is not amused by the opposition’s refusal to accept its controversial victory.
So what is the position of the opposition in the latest wave of unrest? The opposition has been very careful not to be at the forefront of the protests. The leaders are mindful of the fact that their rivals are always looking for scapegoats. Last August, the government blamed the MDC leaders of inciting protests. A controversial commission of inquiry set up by Mnangagwa to investigate the post-election violence also made a similar finding.
With that in mind, the opposition knows it must tread carefully, lest it is blamed once again in the court of public and international opinion where the battle for the moral high ground is ever-present. In fact, some citizens, have accused the opposition of not grabbing the opportunity and leading from the front, which ironically, adds weight to the view that the opposition leaders have nothing to do with the current protests. This is not something that favours the ruling party’s strategy of blaming the opposition leaders of fomenting and leading violent protests.
Instead, this is a broad response of ordinary citizens. It is a conflagration of diverse interests, which include workers, formal business, informal traders, millions of unemployed youths and a general citizenry that has become desperate and sees little hope under the current regime. The next election is not due for another four years but more significantly, after the farce of the last election, many young people have lost hope in the electoral process as a means of affecting political choices.
Generation with nothing to lose
The government has underestimated the enormous challenge posed by the growing numbers of the young, unemployed and desperate. Their parents and older brothers and sisters may have been patient over the years but this is because they had memory of a better past and always clung on to it.
On the other hand, the younger generation does not have that memory because they have never had good times. The older generation might have had something material to lose, but the younger generation has nothing to lose. It is not surprising that it is the young and unemployed youths who appear to be at the head of the current wave of unrest.
Mnangagwa himself should know. Back in 2015, when he was interviewed by Baffour Ankomah, he was asked for his opinion on today’s youth. He was quite dismissive. “In the 1960s, our leaders decided that we must take up arms, and the youth were very enthusiastic to go to war. We had nothing to lose at the time. We had no wives and no property. The only property we had was the clothes we wore,” Mnangagwa said. “Now the generation out of school, they have wives and children, they have homes and mortgages, so to tell them to sacrifice and die for the nation [laughs], they think twice.”
He may have to revise his opinion because the generation which their leadership has produced since 1980 is not what he described in 2015. Some may have wives/husbands and children but they have no jobs, no homes, have never held a payslip all their life and might not even know how to spell the word “mortgage”. In short, it’s as highly combustible a generation as his was in the sixties. They too have nothing to lose and it is Mnangagwa’s generation that created this incendiary generation. The chickens are coming home to roost.
From Russia, with love?
It is ominous that Mnagagwa travelled to Russia and a other regimes with no tradition of democracy and tolerance. For Russia, Zimbabwe is probably ripe for the picking, given the regime’s desperation. For Mnangagwa, he may be goading the West by cosying up to a major geopolitical rival after the apparent rejection last year. Seeing Zimbabwe fall into Russia’s arms may not please either the West or China.
But Russia’s leader Vladmir Putin is cunning operator. We are a pawn in a larger game. He was not even at the airport to receive his counterpart. Not even Sergei Lavrov, the heavyweight diplomat was there. A grim sign perhaps of how the guest is regarded. It remains to be seen whether anything will come of that expensive trip apart from more headlines of mega-deals.
For the region, Zimbabwe is a hot-spot which cannot be ignored any longer. The military deployment has to be monitored. As we have seen, the last time it happened people died and many were injured. And the failure to hold individuals accountable could prove to be an incentive for impunity. Human rights and freedoms are at stake and it is important to remain vigilant. Civil society has a key role but it will need broad support.
Any further chaos will have major regional implications, particularly for our southern neighbour, South Africa. We have had a coup before and it is often said coups beget coups. SADC cannot bury its head in the sand and pretend all is well. This latest wave might be put down by sheer application of force but such action will not heal the ailment. It’s important to keep a vigilant eye and better still, to lend a hand to steer the country away from permanent trouble.