Messages from Harare paint a picture of a country on enhanced lockdown and this is not because of the COVID19 pandemic. The reason for the increased military presence is the government’s fear of demonstrations slated for Friday 31 July 2020.
So worried has the Zimbabwean government been that it called upon the apparatus of coercion long before the appointed day. The people themselves have appeared uncharacteristically determined even in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
Not even the fear of COVID19 virus has dampened their spirits. They are determined to express themselves and have been given signals all month long. That in itself is a measure of the extent to which Zimbabweans are fed up with the government led by Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Zimbabweans are usually a rational and calculating people, often erring on the side of caution. They have weighed the costs of the pandemic and the costs of challenging the inept administration. They have concluded that it is better to challenge the regime, the pandemic notwithstanding. The regime is aware of this determination and the desperation that is driving the people. This is why it has chosen to pre-empt the people's action by deploying armed forces and targetting persons it believes to be ring-leaders.
ZANU PF has also increased threats of violence as evidenced by the aggressive statements of its spokesperson, Patrick Chinamasa. Chinamasa is stoking violence among his party's youths, reminscent of rhetoric which precede genocide. Activists who reported Chinama's hate speech found thesemlves being the suject of arrest and police harassment, such is the uneven nature of the political playing field in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe was already in severe trouble when Mnangagwa took over in November 2017, following a military coup that toppled long-standing dictator Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa was given a free pass by the regional and international community when they could have disapproved of the coup. They took a cue from most Zimbabweans who, fed up with Mugabe, were ready to embrace anyone. They thought Mnangagwa meant well.
It was a misguided choice, as many learnt later, with the benefit of hindsight. The Mnangagwa regime sold itself as the New Dispensation, but it was old wine in new bottles. Mnangagwa had long been Mugabe’s chief enforcer. The bulk of his regime had faithfully served Mugabe during his long reign. Mugabe had failed Zimbabwe together with them. They were not capable of bringing anything new to the table. The rhetoric that it was the Second Republic proved to be as hollow as it sounds.
Still, there was an unfounded belief in some circles that Mnangagwa was a "pragmatic leader" who somehow "understood business". These PR stunts were vacuous. Although he started with a positive signal by amending the unpopular indigenisation laws, which compelled foreign investors to give up 51% of their investments, he soon ran out fo steam. Mnangagwa’s reign has been pro-business only to the extent that cronies have taken full advantage to accumulate personal wealth.
Sakunda's Kuda Tagwirei, a beneficiary of the Mugabe regime, has amassed a fortune under the Mnangagwa regime. His ocrporate vehicle Landela Investments, has been hoovering assets at an alarming rate, mostly in the mining, agriculture and financial industries. Along with other Mnangagwa allies, his Sakunda company has been a significant beneficiary of cheap foreign currency allocations by the central bank. The central bank itself has been at the centre of economic mismanagement and cronyism.
When cronies are not accumulating wealth, the regime has been waging war against longstanding legitimate businesses. In recent months, the country’s biggest companies, Old Mutual and Econet, have been the targets of assault. EcoCash, the biggest mobile money provider, is restricted, while Old Mutual along with other dual-listed companies, PPC and Seed-Co are suspended from the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange. The ZSE itself was arbitrarily suspended more than a month ago, locking in funds that could be put to productive use and scaring foreign investors.
Like its predecessor, Mnangagwa’s regime has been reckless with public funds. His much-vaunted Command Agriculture programme has been a disaster. The Public Accounts Committee of Parliament found that more than US$3 billion was unaccounted for under that programme. Far from helping to feed the nation, it became a conduit for siphoning public funds. The only difference from the Farm Mechanisation Scandal which the BSR revealed in the last two weeks is that Command Agriculture is a bigger and more expensive scam whose story is yet to be told.
These schemes are for political elites who are always at the front of the queue to collect the loans which they never repay. In 2015, US$1,4 billion worth of the central bank’s debts were transferred to the government, and therefore the taxpayers after Parliament passed a law to that effect. The bill for Command Agriculture also falls on the taxpayers.
Just this week, the government agreed to pay US$3,5 billion to the white former commercial farmers who were dispossessed of their properties during the land reform programme in the 2000s. The bill covers the value of farm improvements - including crops and livestock. This bill should be paid by the beneficiaries of the land reform programme. But, yet again, it is being shifted to the taxpayers. It's an odious debt to ordinary Zimbabweans.
Zimbabweans now see more clearly than before, that they are funding the lifestyles of political elites. These elites enjoy lavish lifestyles. They live in mansions, drive fancy cars, their kids go to expensive private schools, they seek treatment outside the country while local schools and hospitals are in a decrepit state. Yet it is ultimately the taxpayers who carry the cost. Mnangagwa’s reign has increased the gap between the small wealthy elite and the poor.
In June 2019, the Mnangagwa regime brought back the Zimbabwe dollar. Since then, it has been collapsing at an alarming rate. After maintaining an unsustainable fixed rate of 1:25 to the US dollar, it fell to 1:57 when the foreign currency auction system began a few weeks ago. This week, it traded at 1:76,76 to the US dollar. But even then this auction rate lags behind the parallel market rates hovering around the 1:100 mark. The annual inflation rate is over 750% and rising. Food shortages mean Zimbabweans are dependent on donor support, a terrible circumstance for a country that used to feed its neighbours.
The arbitrary clampdown on mobile money payment systems has hit the poorest the most in light of the perennial cash shortages. A year after abandoning the multi-currency system, the old system is creeping back by stealth. Just this week, the government issued another decree, forcing businesses to quote prices in both local and foreign currency at the official rate. The government’s management of currency rules is symptomatic of the inconsistency that has characterised the regime since it took over, itself a continuity from the Mugabe era.
Most Zimbabweans were hoping for a new kind of politics, with tolerance and respect for human rights. These were misguided hopes because Mnangagwa and his allies who took over were the chief architects of human rights violations during the Mugabe era. The most egregious violations took place during Gukurahundi, when Mnangagwa was State Security Minister and in the 2008 election violence, when he was Mugabe’s campaign manager. Old habits die hard. Mnangagwa’s readiness to make use of soldiers has been in evidence during his short reign.
Even on the eve of the demonstrations prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and a leader of an opposition party, Jacob Ngarivhume are languishing in remand prison. The two are accused of inciting public violence. Their treatment by the justice system has been utterly abysmal. While bail is a constitutional right, the justice system has made excuses, leading to unnecessary postponements designed to keep them in custody.
On Wednesday, the day of the scheduled appeal, the High Court said it did not have the record of proceedings from the Magistrates Court. This led to a postponement to the next day. On Thursday, the State said it needed more time to prepare its opposition to bail. The Court granted the delay by 5 days, long enough to keep the two men in jail past the day of demonstrations. It’s a complete mockery of justice.
Many observers believe Chin’ono is unfairly targeted for exposing Mnangagwa and his family in corruption scandals concerning procurement of COVID19 goods. For weeks, the investigative journalist was relentless in his exposure of the corruption, linking it to members of the Mnangagwa family. This led to the arrest and dismissal of the Minister of Health, Obadiah Moyo.
Interestingly, Obadiah Moyo was treated with kid gloves. He did not even spend a night in police custody. He came to Court accompanied by his bodyguards, carrying a stash of cash to pay a prearranged bail fee. The stark irony is that corrupt elites are granted comfort and protection while the vindictive system punishes the journalists who expose them. The other accused person who is connected to the Mnangagwas was let out after the State deliberately built a case that was designed to collapse.
On these eve of the demonstrations, police today raided the home of another prominent journalist Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of Zimlive.com. Mathuthu broke the corruption story concerning COVID19 procurement. The message is clear: those who are critical of the regime; those who embarass the regime by exposing its misdeeds are not safe.
The Mnangagwa regime has not hesitated to use deadly force. Twice, in August 2018 and January 2019, soldiers and police have shot and killed civilians in cold blood. No one has been held accountable for the murders. Instead, commanding officers have been rewarded with diplomatic missions. Then there has been the systematic effort using arms of the state to dismantle the main opposition led by his biggest challenger, Nelson Chamisa. This included the hostile takeover of the opposition headquarters with the aid of the security forces and the dubious expulsion of opposition MPs.
The strategy of international re-engagement has also been a disaster. This week saw a return to the old era of bombastic, hardline and aggressive rhetoric from the old guard. ZANU PF’s acting spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa called the US ambassador a "thug" and threatened to “give him marching orders”. The prospects for successful re-engagement under the Mnangagwa regime are all but over.
The regime is now pursuing a scorched-earth policy, without any care as to the consequences of its actions. One of the previous occasions this happened was in the early 2000s when Chinamasa led an aggressive charge against judges of the Supreme Court. Chinamasa's declaration that the security of the judges could no longer be guaranteed, Chief Justice Gubbay was left with no choice but to resign.
Economically, Zimbabwe is no better than it was under Mugabe, despite initial promises. More than 90% of the population is out of formal employment. The younger generation are the hardest hit. Their only ambition is to leave the country. But even then, they must wait a long time to get a passport. The COVID19 pandemic has limited opportunities in neighbouring countries. Thousands are turning back to face a dark and uncertain future.
Internally, within ZANU PF, a storm is brewing with reports of increased tensions between Mnangwa and his deputy Retired General Constantino Chiwenga, who led the coup against Mugabe. The two have maintained an uneasy cordiale for a long time, despite rumours of simmering tensions. How long this will last a matter of time.
But the recent suspensions and conflicts are reminiscent of the last days of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe and Mnangagwa pretended all was well between them until the very last moment when, acting with uncharacteristic haste, Mugabe sacked his protege. This precipitated the coup, a counter-move which toppled Mugabe. These tensions between Mnangagwa and his deputy can no longer be concealed, ignored or underestimated.
It is this cocktail of social, economic and political factors that's creating a perfect storm for Mnangangwa. After waiting in the wings for 37 years, it has been a short but dismal reign so far. There is no hope that he will do any better in the two and a half years before the next election. If this was a boxing match, this would be a good time to throw in the towel. But as so often hapens, pride gets in the way. But this only leads to more punishment.
The hardest option from Mnangagwa when he took over from Mugabe in November 2017 was to fail. Incredibly, he chose that option. He only has himself to blame. For its part, unless it takes pre-emptive action, ZANU PF will sink together with him.