MOGADISHU, Somalia—At the end of a remarkable week for Zimbabwe—and for the African continent—President Robert Mugabe finally agreed, after 37 years in power, to resign on Tuesday night. Once an icon of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa as he fought to oust the white government of what was then called Rhodesia, he had become over the decades a geriatric symbol of caprice and tyranny.
In a short letter to parliament speaker Jacob Mudenda, Mugabe wrote that his resignation was a voluntary decision, and that he made it to allow a smooth transition of power. The President’s resignation came a week after a military coup and two days after ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe’s ruling party—Mugabe’s party—voted to expel its leader, giving him until 10:00 a.m. Monday morning local time to tender his resignation or face impeachment through a parliamentary process.
Then, on Monday, Mugabe gave a much-anticipated address to the nation on state-run ZBC television—and shocked Zimbabweans by refusing to give up the presidency, an act of defiance which did indeed trigger the parliamentary impeachment process. Thus his letter Tuesday evening brought an end to a week of uncertainty—and brought ecstatic crowds into the streets.
According to the Zimbabwean constitution, the current vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko should now take office. But the more likely successor is Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president Mugabe dismissed three weeks ago. His record or ruthless violence, along with the military role ushering in a new ruling regime, suggest that the end of one dictatorial regime in Zimbabwe may mark little more than the beginning of a new one.
That is not what those people pouring into the streets are thinking about in a night of unbridled celebration. A page has turned, there is no doubt about that, but the new chapter in Zimbabwe’s life is likely to be dictated, at least for the moment by Mugabe’s former military allies determination to remain beneficiaries of the government coffers. “The military did not intervene out of the kindness of their hearts or because they love Mnangagwa, they intervened because their own financial interests were threatened,” says Derek Matyszak, senior research consultant with the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
If Grace Mugabe, the president’s 52-year-old wife, had succeeded him, the military would have been threatened. “This coup is about the military choosing the new leader for Zimbabwe,” says Matyszak. They wanted someone who, like Mnangagwa, is an ally of the Zimbabwean Defense Forces.The military’s actions underscore the nature of Mugabe’s rule, one in which the army holds the power and determines the fate of civilian leaders. This dynamic is exemplified by Mugabe’s human rights record, which is teeming with police abuse and an excessive use of force to crush dissent and any threats to the ruling party’s power.
The disregard for human rights began in the 1980s when the army killed an estimated 20,000 minority Ndebele civilians, who were supporters of the Mugabe’s then rival, Joshua Nkomo, and his opposition party the Zimbabwe African People’s Union. It continued throughout every election in the country since, culminating in a nation-wide intimidation campaign and security forces led killing spree in 2008 when opposition Movement for Democratic Change saw more support than ever before.The security sector’s hand in every abuse committed under Mugabe, and in his ousting, suggests that should Mnangagwa take the presidential seat as anticipated, he will continue to be the patron of the army as Mugabe long was, and the cycle of corruption and intimidation will continue. Whoever succeeds Mugabe is inheriting a country on the brink of economic collapse, a crisis born from Mugabe’s short-sighted economic policies.
“Mugabe’s legacy is one of ruin, really,” Matyszak says. “The succession battle has distracted attention from the fact that whoever takes over from Mugabe will need a large and urgent economic bailout to prevent Zimbabwe from becoming a failed state.”The economic disaster began in 2000, when Mugabe seized farms from white Zimbabweans and re-distributed them to black farmers in an effort to appease a rural electorate whose support had waned. In terms of Mugabe’s popularly, the plan worked: black farmers rejoiced over Mugabe’s decision and gleefully took the land he had promised them. But it came at the cost of the country’s once-thriving economy.At the time of the land reform, agriculture was the cornerstone of Zimbabwe’s economy and leaving that production in the hands of farmers with little or no commercial agricultural experience resulted in food production plummeting.
In the 1990s, Zimbabwe produced 320,000 tons of wheat per year. By 2016, it had fallen to 20,000 tons. Today, at least a quarter of the population relies on food aid every year, according to Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch. The growing economic disaster in the early 2000s meant the country was in desperate need of international economic support. But because of Mugabe’s atrocious human rights record, the U.S. imposed targeted sanctions, an asset freeze, and a travel ban against Mugabe in 2003.
It then fell to those investors willing to turn a blind eye to human rights violations to alleviate Zimbabwe’s economic woes.
China stepped in.
Beijing helped to revive the country’s tobacco and energy sectors and even built a $200 million shopping mall in the capital, Harare.
Mnangagwa’s long history with China, where he received military training in 1963, as well as the country’s economic interest in Zimbabwe, have led some to believe the Chinese had a hand in the military coup.
Moving forward, the relationship between the two countries is likely to continue, and so will the cost to human rights.“I imagine Mnangagwa will go with the Chinese model of development, which is development devoid of human rights,” says Mavhinga. “Imagine something like you find in Ethiopia and Rwanda,” both of which have notably strong economies in the continent but political space devoid of opposition to each country’s strongman rule.Although Mnangagwa’s succession is not yet confirmed, given his new position as head of the ZANU-PF party it is more than likely that he will take control. The country will now wait to see whether Mnangagwa can revive the flailing economy. But his human rights record and relationship with the military makes one thing certain: there will be little democratic change in Zimbabwe’s future.
“Though there is a veneer of civilian government, the ultimate power still belongs in the hands of the military,” Matyszak says. “This is not a very promising future for Zimbabwe.”