In the early hours of the morning on 15 November 2017, the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) announced through the country’s state broadcaster the intervention of the military in the politics of Zimbabwe. Major-General Sibusiso Moyo, who made the announcement, claimed the intervention was not a coup, saying that the army’s involvement was designed to target “criminal” elements in government “causing social and economic suffering in the country”. President Robert Mugabe was placed under house arrest until his formal resignation in a letter sent to Parliament ended his 37 years in power. His axed deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was sworn in days later as the new president of Zimbabwe. The bait that was dangled was the concept of ‘transition’, which implied a new era to come.
Since then, political analysts and observers have been musing on the subject of the Zimbabwean transition, pointing out its positive prospects, relishing the supposed birth of a new era and the return of democracy. Yet there is more to the Zimbabwean transition than meets the eye. There is an underlying pessimism that stems from Africa’s sad historical precedents when it comes to military-controlled transitions. In all the supposed liberative military interventions in Africa, whether in Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya or Ghana, the eventual outcome differed substantially from the initial hopes. So, judging by the past and the present circumstances in Zimbabwe, what hope is there that the new administration will succeed? Could the new administration be a welcome break from the country’s tumultuous past?
The first hurdle
The most difficult situation facing the new government would be to re-position the Zimbabwean economy, which has been shattered by a series of enduring economic challenges such as inflation, an empty foreign reserve and massive unemployment. Mugabe’s government has been accused of causing the economic collapse, which has been characterized by rampant food shortages, unemployment, inflation and endemic corruption.
Mnangagwa is inheriting a comatose economy. In his inauguration speech, Mnangagwa promised to address most of the issues that had been triggered by the mismanaged economy and chaotic land reform. However, in practical terms, the new president has not outlined the plan for the turnaround. Critics remain skeptical, pointing out that earlier this year, when Mnangagwa was the vice president, he claimed that the government had exceeded their employment creation target by creating 2,2 million jobs, which was blatantly untrue.
Mugabe gone, but the entrenched Zanu-PF system intact
Although Mugabe is gone, the situation in Zimbabwe is pretty much the same. There are no major changes in the politics that should inspire new optimism. The only change, it appears, is the reduction of Mugabe’s power in the politics of Zimbabwe and Zanu-PF, the country’s ruling party.
It appears that the transition is just an exercise of the agenda of Zanu-PF, aided by the military. The expectations of the people of Zimbabwe for a holistic transformation have been dashed. Mnangagwa has retained the same old faces in leadership positions – his new Cabinet features many of the same ministers from Mugabe’s government, some of whom have been accused of corruption. Worryingly, the new faces in Cabinet are members of the army who were part of the coup, or ‘intervention’, if you like. As Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Harare-based Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), said to Al-Jazeera, “The vice-like grip of the military on political affairs is likely, if not certainly, going to continue in the post-Mugabe era.”
Worryingly, the new faces in Cabinet are members of the army who were part of the coup.
While Mugabe’s fall is indeed cause for celebration, observers have been cautiously optimistic. This emphasis on caution points to the dangers of trusting the new transition, especially when we consider the continued presence of Mugabe’s old allies in government.
In an interview with the PBS News, Johnnie Carson, currently a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under president Barack Obama, said: “Zimbabwe has thrown out a dictator, but it’s uncertain whether the country is moving towards the political and economic reforms that so many Zimbabweans want. Emmerson Mnangagwa is virtually a younger version of Robert Mugabe. In many ways, he is a clone of President Robert Mugabe […] He, however, has served as the enforcer and is responsible for some of the country’s worst human rights violations in 1980 and again in 2008 and 2009, when Robert Mugabe stole an election.”
Why the transition could fail to bring change
While expectations and hopes of positive change are still high, the fact that politics is still isolating the vast majority of ordinary citizens while paradoxically placing the military at the centre of political decision-making is worrying. Aside from the role of the military in the coup that removed Mugabe, the government of Zimbabwe has over the years been run as a pseudo-military government shrouded in secrecy. This situation can be traced to the struggle for liberation.
The two military groups that led the liberation war – Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) affiliated with Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), while the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) affiliated with the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) – merged to create the Zimbabwean army.
The two political movements, ZAPU and ZANU, controlled Zimbabwe’s politics after independence in 1980, before merging into one party, called ZANU-PF, in 1987. Somehow, the current ruling party, Zanu-PF, was largely drawn from the military. The situation created an opening that was often exploited by generals in the Zimbabwe National Army, who interfered unduly in the politics of Zimbabwe. This happened despite the provisions of Section 208(2) of the constitution of Zimbabwe, which states that the military must be apolitical.
The way forward
As Blessing Zulu, a reporter for the Voice of America, said, “The situation is not looking that good, unless the international community comes in to ensure that they institute reforms.”
With the voices of the citizens of Zimbabwe almost eliminated and their calls for a new chapter, marked by inclusivity, ignored, the initial optimism seems to have been severely dashed.
The opposition was ill prepared on how to take the fight further once Mugabe was taken out of the picture.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the opposition seems to have lost its momentum now that its rallying point – the mantra that Mugabe must go – has been nullified. It seems that the opposition was ill prepared on how to take the fight further once Mugabe, the figurehead, was taken out of the picture. The opposition and civic groups urgently need to regroup and intensify the fight for reforms in the electoral, media and security sectors to ensure holistic change. If these changes do not come, and soon, the fall of Mugabe could turn out to be a meaningless change of faces while a corrupt and repressive political system continues to endure.