President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in November 2017 promising to tackle Zimbabwe’s legacy of economic mismanagement and dictatorship. But his government’s handling of recent protests makes it clear he is not the reformer he claimed to be. Find out more with your subscription to World Politics Review (WPR).
The military coup that ended the ruinous 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe in November 2017 was greeted with genuine enthusiasm both in Zimbabwe and abroad. Any skepticism of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor, was drowned out by the new president’s calming rhetoric about unity and reconciliation and his commitment to a “new beginning.”
Yet that spirit has been dashed recently as Mnangagwa’s reforms have been exposed as cosmetic, at best. Instead of a new Zimbabwe, it is the same old state within the narrow parameters imposed by the ruling party, ZANU-PF, with no prospect of any change that might encroach upon its power.
Even before this month, the hope for fundamental political and economic change had largely waned with last July’s disputed election and the killing of unarmed demonstrators protesting its outcome. Daily harassment of grassroots civil society activists and trade unionists has continued under the radar. And despite the repeated claim that Zimbabwe was “open for business,” Mnangagwa has presided over further economic decline.
All this culminated in January with the extraordinary decision to announce a doubling of the price of gasoline, an economically irrational decision with damaging knock-on effects throughout the economy. The regime’s response to the subsequent protests in the streets reminded observers of the underlying character of Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF. Live ammunition was used against protesters, killing 12 and wounding hundreds, to say nothing of the beatings, abductions, mass arrests, and the use of the army and police as the ruling party’s paramilitary enforcers. The mask of reform finally slipped.
To learn more about Zimbabwe’s return to Mugabe-era repression, read The Mask Slips to Reveal the Grim Reality of Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe with your subscription to World Politics Review.
The Early Signs of Economic Trouble
When he became Zimbabwe’s interim president following Robert Mugabe’s ouster, Emmerson Mnangagwa immediately tried to focus the world’s attention on his ambitious economic agenda. He repeatedly declared that, following years of isolation under Mugabe, the new Zimbabwe would be “open for business.” After being named the winner of the July 2018 presidential election, he spent part of his inauguration address urging citizens “to unite as a nation and grow our economy,” offering a vision of Zimbabwe as a middle-income country with ample jobs and declining poverty. But already by October 2018, Mnangagwa’s broader predictions of a robust economy were hard to square with scenes on the ground in Zimbabwe. News reports described a country in crisis, beset by crippling currency shortages, sky-high debt, long fuel lines, rising drug prices and empty grocery store shelves. Beer has been rationed and, in a development that made global headlines, KFC was forced to close for lack of chickens.
To learn more about the early signs of trouble for Zimbabwe’s economy, read Mnangagwa’s Vision of a Booming Zimbabwe Seems to Be Going Bust with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Why Zimbabwe’s ‘New Dawn’ Stubbornly Failed to Arrive
After Zimbabwe’s elections in July 2018, the first without Robert Mugabe on the ballot, it was increasingly clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite pre-poll speculation that the vote might usher in an era of change and renewal after 38 years under the ruling ZANU-PF party—and two decades of steep political and economic decline—a new dawn stubbornly failed to arrive. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who forced Mugabe out with the help of the military in November 2017, retained the presidency with 50.8 percent of the vote over Nelson Chamisa of the opposition MDC Alliance, who got 44.3 percent. ZANU-PF has entrenched itself in power for four decades by turning Zimbabwe into a de facto one-party state. What the July vote confirmed is that the axis between ZANU-PF and the military continues to regulate the tempo of Zimbabwean politics.
To find out why real change was never likely in Zimbabwe, read Zimbabwe’s Election Was Never Going to Be Free and Fair with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Zimbabwe Declared Itself ‘Open for Business,’ but Skeptics Were Right to Doubt
After his appointment as the new president of Zimbabwe in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa spread the word that Zimbabwe is “open for business.” Mnangagwa’s global charm offensive was designed to restore the country’s reputation, which was badly battered by the turmoil of President Robert Mugabe’s regime. Though he forced the Zimbabwe dictator out of office, Mnangagwa was a central figure during Mugabe’s rule, including a leading role in a campaign of state terror against opposition voters in 2008. However, in stark contrast to the belligerent anti-imperialist rhetoric of Mugabe, Mnangagwa adopted the vocabulary of “reform” while seeking to build bridges to previous adversaries such as Britain and the United States. Still, skeptics were right to take his charm campaign to win the good graces of the international community with a grain of salt.
To learn more about the early talk of reform in Zimbabwe, read Can Mnangagwa’s Charm Offensive Bring Zimbabwe In From the Cold? with your subscription to World Politics Review.
Learn more about the disastrous legacy the new president of Zimbabwe inherited and why he has failed to deliver promised reforms, and a wide variety of other challenges facing democracy in Africa and elsewhere in the vast, searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):
- To learn more about Zimbabwe’s return to Mugabe-era repression, read The Mask Slips to Reveal the Grim Reality of Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe
- To learn more about the early signs of economic trouble, read Mnangagwa’s Vision of a Booming Zimbabwe Seems to Be Going Bust
- To learn more about what Zimbabwe’s 2017 election told us about the post-Mugabe era, read Zimbabwe’s Election Was Never Going to Be Free and Fair
- To learn more about why skeptics were right to doubt Mnangagwa’s charm campaign, read Can Mnangagwa’s Charm Offensive Bring Zimbabwe In From the Cold?
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.