In 2011, the late Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe riled against sanctions, launching a campaign to collect the signatures of millions of citizens on a petition against sanctions imposed on him and other top ZANU-PF officials for alleged human rights violations and election rigging. The ruling party went on to host organised ‘million-man marches’ and had Africa believe that Zimbabwe’s political collapse was a well-orchestrated ‘imperialist’ project to effect a regime change. The ruling class intellectuals, of varied sorts, within the halls of political power, expanded the narrative without end and the public media became the platform in which the colonial project was on the march again and this time the imperium was using ‘sanctions’ to punish Zimbabwe for the land reform program.
This narrative was extended to brush opposition, civil society and any critical voices outside the state as ‘subversive’, or ‘unpatriotic’ and outright ‘treasonous’. And yet just before and after the putsch of November 2017, the political class changed tact and openly accused Robert Mugabe of using sanctions as an excuse for failing to run the economy and the country at large. The current President is on record stating that the country cannot use sanctions as an excuse. Addressing traditional chiefs in Gweru, January 2018 Mnangagwa said Zimbabweans should stop complaining about the impact of Western sanctions on the country and instead focus on creatively leveraging on available human and natural resources to steer growth and development. And this position was cemented by then President’s Advisor, Chris Mutsvangwa, who said if Mugabe was failing to lead then he should surrender power.
However, fast-forwarding a year after the election that promised ‘a new dispensation’ the Mnangagwa’s “new administration” has revived the Mugabe narrative and this time with spectacle including ‘prayers against sanction’, a public holiday on the 25th of October, soccer matches and a music gala in a campaign dubbed ‘regional solidarity’ against sanctions. Amidst all this hullabaloo and melodrama, the big question of the day is simple: what is it that has changed since the putsch of November 2017 and also the disputed election of July 2018?
The answer to this question is easily evident when one looks closely at the political power matrix at the apex of the party and state in Zimbabwe. The military-nationalists who took over power in Zimbabwe are not interested in any kind of reform process because they have vested interests in making sure that the sanctions stay in place and subsequently kill the reform agenda. The class that now has political power is taking an attitude that ‘it’s our turn to eat’ and therefore, to achieve this mission of feeding off the country’s fat political reforms are not part of their agenda at all. This is the major reason why they allowed some reform bills introduced in parliament to lapse as if sending the message that ‘the reform agenda’ is dead in the water.
Austerity and Command Agriculture
The new Finance Minister has preached about ‘austerity for prosperity’ and has attempted reform to be re-admitted into the ‘good books’ of international financial institutions especially the International Monitory Fund and the World Bank. However, what has emerged is that there are powerful interests at two levels. Firstly, the President has a network of elites that are feeding directly from the patronage of the central bank and also from various state contracts including what has been labelled cartels. In the fuel sector here is what Eddie Cross, a member of the central monetary committee said:
The new monopolists and cartels then started taking a high margin at the wholesale level and sharing these premiums with political players and persons of influence and power. The result; a form of ‘State Capture’ with the new fuel oligarchs controlling the flow of millions of dollars and thereby dictating what was going on in the country. The result is that we have spent probably US$2 billion in secret premiums on the purchase of fuel on the world market. Much of it banked externally (Eddie Cross, May 2019).
The cartels are not only in the fuel sector. They are also dominant in the Command Agriculture Scheme, which the government has since changed to what they are calling SMART Agriculture. The level of disconcerting and opaque public finance management was revealed when National Treasury officials admitted that they had no paperwork that recorded and tracked the disbursal of US$3billion over two years into the Command Agriculture program. That same program was extended by the current Minister of Finance meaning the ‘austerity for prosperity’ was just a mere slogan while the real power behind the state, in this case, the military, will continue to be fed without restraint. What this means is that if the government were to have ‘sanctions’ lifted then Zimbabwe’s public finance management system will become subject to more scrutiny by international financial institutions.
Political and Electoral Reform Threaten the political class
When the putsch of 2017 happened and then followed by a relatively free election of 2018 the military men were playing a baiting game. With political power now firmly under their hands the ruling political class is no longer interested in reforms because these will threaten their political existence. The project to keep political power means that any rhetoric to reform the electoral laws, to reform repressive legislation and reform the media is being thrown out of the window. Let us remember that the ruling class poured hundreds of millions in the election; a new fleet of cars, new billboards, social media presence, consultants across the board, millions of party regalia and yet the “victory” was not convincing especially for the Presidency. The President’s thin margin ‘win’, of about 50.7% means that he is not politically secure enough to venture into the territory of reform.
Even those that have been close to power have been saying the following:
Zimbabwe needs constitutional reforms to make sure that future election results are not contested. Among the most urgent matters is the repeal of the laws that restrict the right to political expression and the freedom of the press. As recently as last month, Mnangagwa stated that these reforms mattered because they were demanded by the constitution and not because they were an external demand linked to sanctions (Petinah Gappah, The Guardian, September 2019).
But beyond the insecurity of the President, genuine political reform in the country will mean that the military and associated security agencies will be taken out of the national electoral landscape. Adherence to the constitution, a return to the rule of law would be logically followed by the full implementation of the Mothlanthe Commission recommendations. These recommendations will mean that some military offices will have to be investigated and prosecuted and yet these are the officers that were key in the putsch that cleared the way for the current President. This is highly unlikely.
Political Stasis and a Collapsing National Economy.
The Minister of Finance has consistently boasted about a month on month surplus in the budget yet the government cracks down on striking doctors. A recent IMF mission report on Zimbabwe made a sober conclusion:
Social conditions have deteriorated sharply, with more than half of Zimbabwe’s population (8.5 million people) estimated by the UN to be food insecure in 2019/2020. Weakening confidence, policy uncertainty, a continuation of FX market distortions, and a recent expansionary monetary stance has increased pressure on the exchange rate. Since the February currency reform, the exchange rate has depreciated from USD 1:1 ZWL to USD 1:16.5 ZWL (as of September 23), fostering high inflation, which reached almost 300 per cent (year-over-year) in August (IMF, 2019).
In conclusion, the sanctions debate and narrative is nothing but a digression from the major crisis of a ‘deep state’ which has become largely rogue and has its hands deep in the national treasury. While the government is gloating about ‘regional solidarity’ with Zimbabwe against sanctions the national political economy is fast collapsing. The glaring evidence of this is the impasse with the medical doctors who have been on strike for almost two months and there is no relent. Teachers and other civil service workers are likely to join as incomes are eroded by inflation and prices of basic commodities skyrocket. The public holiday against sanctions will come and go, international lobbying firms will make a killing milking the national treasury in Zimbabwe and yet the problematique will remain- this is a political crisis generated by entrenched ant-reform elites.
Tinashe L. Chimedza is a co-editor of Gravitas, a political economy bulletin on Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.