On Sunday, the eve of his five-nation trip to Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Switzerland, Zimbabwe president Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a 150% fuel price hike that immediately sparked fury across the country.
In response to the second fuel increase since December, which makes petrol in Zimbabwe the most expensive in the world, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Union (ZCTU) called for a three-day stay-away to protest against the hike. On Monday and Tuesday, heeding the exhortation, young people went out on the streets; they barricaded highways, forced people out of cars, looted shops, burnt police cars, stormed a police station in Chitungwiza, a small town to the south east of Harare, and set it on fire. On Monday, the acting president, retired general Constantino Chiwenga, deployed the army and police, who reportedly shot some 24 people; according to News Day, a daily newspaper in Zimbabwe, five people have reportedly died.
The latest conflagration is a culmination of a long-running crisis that began in 1997; even though the country is nominally under a new administration led by Mnangagwa, the crisis continues. Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s closest lieutenant from the late 1970s until November 2017, when Mugabe fired him from his position as deputy president. The fall-out resulted in the November coup, masterminded by Chiwenga, which then brought Mnangagwa into office.
At the end of July last year, eight months after the coup, Zimbabwe held an election. Some new faces were introduced to the government – most prominent being finance minister Mthuli Ncube, a Cambridge University trained economist – but the core of grizzled, bloodied-hands military men remained. With this army elite still in charge, the conditions preceding the elections were naturally skewed in favour of Mnangagwa and Zanu PF; no chance, then, of a break with the excesses and contortions associated with Mugabe.
Army and media turn election enforcers
The army, ever so partisan, was involved in the elections effectively as Zanu’s election agents (not a surprise when Chiwenga, previously the head of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, is now Zanu PF’s and the country’s deputy president). Months before the elections, thousands of army officers were deployed to the rural hinterlands, as a reminder to the electorates to vote “responsibly”. Even though no one was assaulted or killed, as in previous elections, the prowling presence of the soldier was both an omen and a mnemonic: vote otherwise and we will go back to the old, blood-soaked ways. Since 2000, hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, have been killed by the army, veterans of the 1970s war against Ian Smith’s government and Zanu PF-aligned youth militias, as the ruling party fought off the popular Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
In the July election, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, which owns the only television station and several radio platforms, and Zimpapers, the biggest newspaper group in the country, tilted the media landscape against the opposition MDC. Following the coup, ZBC and Zimpapers, for long used to extolling the virtues of Mugabe, reset and recalibrated its settings, now in thrall to a new lord. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which is supposed to be nonpartisan, is staffed with former soldiers and others aligned to Zanu-PF.
About the polls, the European Union observer group said the results announced by the ZEC “contained numerous errors and lacked adequate traceability, transparency and verifiability”. Referring to the army’s killing of seven people in Harare’s CBD following the polls, the EU wrote that “the excessive use of force by security forces and abuses of human rights in the post-election period undermined the corresponding positive aspects during the pre-election campaign. As such, many aspects of the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe failed to meet international standards.” Soon after the election, the United States just amended and updated the Zimbabwe Democracy Recovery Act (Zidera), the legal instrument under which American sanctions on Zimbabwe are applied.
Playing at reform
Following the coup, Mnangagwa and others in the regime recast themselves as reformers who had brought about the end of the Mugabe era, the hope being that biting economic and financial sanctions from the EU and US would end. However, following the disputed elections, the international community refused to be fooled by the manoeuvres of the people who were really Mugabe’s enforcers.
Ncube, the face of the “Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra that is espoused by the regime, has gone back on the measures he once championed – retrenchments of the bloated civil service and the decommissioning of the hated Bond note currency.
So, shunned by the EU and denied access to international finance because of sanctions and arrears the country owes to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the situation worsened in October when the currency, which had largely held its own, suddenly lost some 400% of its value. Zimbabwe’s industry has been decimated by years of decay, so the country imports more than it exports, resulting in a trade deficit.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the player at the centre of the financial firestorm, has been reduced to scrounging and doling out scarce foreign currency to keep the country afloat. But there isn’t enough foreign currency for everyone; so fuel queues have returned (significantly, Mnangagwa’s itinerary includes visits to several petroleum states); some companies, most prominently Delta Beverages – the manufacturers of Coca Cola and Castle, Zambezi and other beers – have been unable to meet demand for supplies, because of the foreign currency shortages. Over the Christmas holidays, most shops had no Coke, Castle, Zambezi and other beers on their shelves; this thirst seems to mirror the El Nino weather conditions that are certain to bring drought conditions.
At the beginning of the year, Delta Beverages put out a desperate statement in which it announced that it would not be accepting local currency for its products. Rattled, the government met with the managers of the company, and, after being promised foreign currency, Delta withdrew its statement. Last week another major player, Surface Wilmar, the country’s biggest cooking oil manufacturer, stopped its operations because of the foreign currency shortages.
Doctors working at public hospitals, who have been on strike since 1 December last year, ended their industrial action on 10 January. “Our members have begrudgingly resumed work with effect from today as dialogue continues,” the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association said in a statement. “Poor remuneration and the current fuel shortage remain a threat that may spontaneously hinder our members from reporting to work daily.” Teachers and other civil servants have been grumbling about deteriorating standards and want to be paid in US Dollars, which the government doesn’t have.
The junta unmasks
As these fires spontaneously combust, the military junta has gone back to its old ways, peeling off the mask with which they have put on in their claim to be “a new dispensation”. Anecdotal reports emerging from Zimbabwe (the internet and phone system has been shut down) point to a brutal campaign to contain and snuff out the fires. But as long as the economic fundamentals remain wrong, these fires will burn, perhaps not as brightly as they did on Monday and Tuesday.
The current regime conducted its campaign to remove Mugabe and sideline his wife Grace under the self-entitled rubric of, “chinhu chedu ichi” or “chine vene vacho chinhu ichi” (this presidency is our thing). What chances, then, that they will reluctantly let the “thing” they got through the barrel of the gun slip away easily?
In The Fire Next Time, the sulphurous pocket-sized masterpiece by James Baldwin, the American wrote, “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” On Monday and Tuesday, hundreds and thousands of Zimbabwean youth went out into the streets knowing fully well that the junta would launch a revanchist crackdown. Maybe Zimbabwe’s youth have had enough and have nothing left to lose. The past two decades has created hundreds of thousands of people like these.
Mugabe, the man who presided over this project that created successive lost generations, is bitter and alive, trapped at his gargantuan mansion in an endless cloistral autumn.
It’s only January but for Zimbabweans it seems that we have had enough already, that we are in October, the hottest and hardest month.