Zimbabwe is expiring, again. More banks are failing, beer sales – a key indicator – have slumped dramatically since 2013, tourist arrivals are down, and the business confidence index is at lowest ebb since the wildly inflationary days of 2008. Most tellingly, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe in January told civil servants to be patient – he “hoped” that they would soon be paid their monthly wages on a regular basis (something which had not happened often in 2014). President Mugabe also told soldiers to leave their bases on alternative months so that the government would not have to provide food and other services for them every month.
According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe is the third poorest country in Africa with a GDP per capita about $250. Other analysts assert that Zimbabwe, on a per capita basis, inflation adjusted, is functioning economically at 1953 levels. Nearly 3 million (of 12 million) citizens have fled to South Africa and other neighboring countries. Hospitals are barely functioning. Students lack teachers, textbooks, and classrooms. Roads are full of potholes. If a civil war were to occur, Zimbabwe – once among the wealthiest and best educated of African countries – would be a classic failed state.
Plunder has led Zimbabwe to this parlous state. President Mugabe and his many cronies have grown immensely wealthy by taking contract “cuts,” controlling diamond and platinum concessions, stealing farms from previous (mostly white) owners, arbitraging currency (during the inflation days of 2006-2008), and giving “permits” to shady entrepreneurs. Zimbabwe was always corrupt, but corruption began to flourish about 1995 and has grown exponentially in scale ever since. Corruption oils the wheels of patrimonial rule and thus keeps Mugabe in power.
In most developing countries, an aging president would hardly be able to treat his bureaucrats and security personnel cavalierly. But Mugabe has been in office since 1980 and rules autocratically with the backing of at least the officers in his military and police services. Despite monthly medical visits to Singapore, where a private clinic somehow treats his supposedly cancerous prostate, the aura of implacable retribution still manages to cow both his followers, his opponents, and most of his nominal citizens.
This ability to cast fear exists even as Mugabe ages in place. He turns 91 this month, and stumbled badly when walking off an aircraft after returning from Zambia. He is obviously frail, and dozes often during meetings. But Mugabe still appears in control and capable of both pulling the patronage strings that tie his corrupt political network together and giving orders to intelligence officers and securocrats.
Since the cleverly rigged election of 2013, when Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) political machine coasted to victory over an outwitted and hapless Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, no serious opposition to Mugabe has emerged nationally. The MDC has also split into several pieces. Some of those fragments may be coming together as new unity democratic movement, but nothing noticeable had congealed when I was in Harare late last month. Most democratically-inclined observers could not hide their despair.
Nevertheless, Zimbabwe has not been without its political tragicomedy. About the middle of last year Mugabe began helping to promote the political fortunes of Grace Mugabe, the 49-year old first lady, and his second wife. After a whirlwind campaign across the country, with the flamboyant use of the presidential helicopter, and a big publicity splash in the three government-controlled newspapers, Grace Mugabe ousted the incumbent head of the ZANU-PF women’s league and took her place. She therefore joined the party politburo. In October, the University of Zimbabwe suddenly awarded her a Ph. D. for a thesis on orphans. Few university professors were aware of the award until it was announced. President Mugabe, the chancellor of the university, awarded the degree himself.
Then Grace Mugabe launched a brutal campaign against vice-president Joice Mujuru, President Mugabe’s nominal successor. Successfully accusing her of treason, she managed to oust her from the ruling party, along with a handful of her supposed co-conspirators – all onetime Mugabe loyalists. At a ZANU-PF annual congress in December, President Mugabe gave himself (and not the congress) the power to appoint vice-presidents. Emmerson Mnangagwa, in 2014 an ally of Grace Mugabe and minister of justice (formerly minister of defense), was vaulted into the first vice-presidency. He suddenly became heir-apparent to the aging authoritarian, with Grace Mugabe (the mother of Mugabe’s three children) presumably also a beneficiary if Mnangagwa assumes the throne after Mugabe becomes incapacitated or leaves the scene.
Grace Mugabe this month, however, remains in a Singapore hospital, officially with the after-effects of appendicitis but unofficially with what is believed to be treatment for cancer of the colon. Her various enterprises, including a massive game farm that she has begun stocking with government funds on land taken from furious villagers north of Harare, her diamond mining schemes in eastern Zimbabwe, and her cleverly orchestrated political maneuverings will all languish if the first lady is truly incapacitated.
Mnangagwa, however, is exactly where he wants to be. No popular figure (he has rarely managed to win contests for a parliamentary seat in his home area), he works closely with the police, army, and intelligent chiefs and has remained close to President Mugabe since 1980 without suffering proximity burns. He knows who is corrupt in a quintessential patrimonial universe. Thuggish and determined, he has in recent months tried to charm the diplomatic community, claiming a desire when in power to moderate or do away with Mugabe’s “foolish” economic policies, especially the indigenization policy that has driven away foreign investors and helped to impoverish Zimbabwe. As a fox guarding the hen house, he could conceivably act against corruption and begin righting the nation.
But everything waits, as it long has, for the old man to go, or for some viable and persuasive opponent to overcome his seeming impregnable hold on power. Zimbabwe molders and waits.