Business Day - May 2018
From a crusading hero feted on the streets of Harare just over six months ago, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa is now becoming known as a man of excuses.
His early promises to improve peoples’ lives have not materialised. Boastful announcements about $11bn in investment pledges have been questioned by the trade unions and others while striking nurses, who have worked in deplorable conditions for years, were fired for standing up to government.
Cash-strapped businesses are still shedding jobs as the debilitating liquidity crisis and acute foreign currency shortages from the era of former president Robert Mugabe continue. Meanwhile, election campaigning has gone into full gear for a poll expected to be held before 21 August – less than three months away.
Huge banners of Mnangagwa have appeared around Harare, punting him as Zimbabwe’s next leader. He took a short break from extensive international travel to release the ruling party’s election manifesto at the weekend, promising again to make Zimbabwe great again.
Admittedly, he has not had long to do much of substance. His focus has been on international re-engagement and securing investment, a priority which is a long way from the daily grind experienced by most voters without money, jobs and prospects.
People are sceptical about the ability of his ruling Zanu-PF party, a known refuge for scoundrels, to reform even if the president proves to be genuine about doing so.
The party itself may have lost the two main factions that defined its last few years, headed byu Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe, but other divisions are beginning to show. One is the growing tensions between the military and civilian factions within the top echelons of both party and state. Soldiers who made the move into government through Mnangagwa are reportedly trying to exercise undue influence over him and other civilians in government.
Under Mugabe, military chiefs enjoyed significant power, patronage and influence and they are now in an even stronger position after helping Mnangagwa rid Zimbabwe of its ageing leader. Many also have large commercial interests that they need to protect. Their appointment to top posts in the interim government is not, as many thought, likely to be just a thank you from the president until the real work begins; they will not go quietly.
But a quasi-military government is not what Zimbabweans envisaged when they celebrated soldiers on the streets in the immediate aftermath of Mugabe’s removal and the ascendancy of soldiers may cost the party votes.
Chiwenga has already shown his style. He was, for example, responsible for the unpopular decision to fire 16 000 striking nurses instead of addressing their grievances. He fired the top brass of the police while the president was outside the country. Both decisions were later reversed by Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa’s charm offensive has only taken Zimbabwe so far, for now. The management and outcomes of the 2018 poll, not the removal of Mugabe, are critical for unlocking investment, capital and opportunities and getting remaining sanctions lifted. Key questions are whether it will be free and fair, whether observers will have unfettered access to stations and voters, whether the opposition is allowed to campaign freely and importantly, what happens in the event of a serious electoral challenge to Zanu-PF.
Investors have waited a long time for change in Zimbabwe. Most are prepared to wait a bit longer.
It seems unlikely that Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF will lose this election. The odds are stacked in their favour. The government has been lethargic in implementing promised electoral reforms and much of the existing machinery, which has enabled Zanu-PF to rig previous elections, is in place. Voting in the diaspora, a large repository of opposition voters, is off the table.
There are persistent stories about deployment of soldiers into the rural areas, which previously has been used as a strategy to create fear and get people to vote the “right” way. There are also concerns about the reaction of Zanu-PF should it lose the election and what the fallout would be, given its political stranglehold on the country.
“Cheating” is widely expected to take place – it is a cornerstone of Zanu-PF politics – but it is hard to know in this altered political landscape whether it is needed for the ruling party to get back into power. The president is still enjoying residual goodwill from displacing Mugabe. Many accept that his efforts at reform are sincere.
He and his economic team have travelled the globe in an attempt to restore Zimbabwe’s tarnished image and attract new investment. There is no shortage of interest in the long-neglected opportunities in Zimbabwe.
Once reduced to a grey blob on the African maps used in investors’ power point presentations across the globe because it was regarded as too risky or difficult to explore under Mugabe, Zimbabwe is now back in full colour.
The opposition may still be fragmented and have lost ground to events of the past months, but broadly speaking, the opposition has a strong case. Mugabe might be gone but the old guard remains and Zanu-PF is unreformed and mostly unrepentant about the damage it has wrought to the country. Voters have had a while to assess their new president and have the space to think about what kind of country they want.
Promises about the future are flying thick and fast as campaigning begins in earnest. The opposition MDC Alliance has focused its efforts on rebuilding the rural economy and improving livelihoods while Zanu-PF is, ironically, focusing on rebuilding the economy it helped to destroy.
Zanu-PF’s election manifesto, “Unite, Fight Corruption, Develop, Re-engage and Create Jobs”, pledges to transform Zimbabwe into a middle-income economy by 2030 by courting investment in all sectors but particularly in mining, agriculture and manufacturing. “It will be “no longer politics, politics, politics; but politics and economics,” Mnangagwa told thousands of ruling party delegates in Harare.
Over the next five-year term, the president says that if given the mandate, the party will target annual growth rate of six percent per annum over the period as well as $5 billion in annual foreign direct investment inflows and double that in domestic investments. It will raise capacity utilisation in industry to 90 percent from about 50 percent currently. This is ambitious, but not impossible if he manages the politics right.
But voters have heard it all before. In the country’s darkest days of economic collapse, Mugabe, with Mnangagwa at his side, trotted out a regular wish list. New promises were made, old ones revived and the country continued to limp along. No plan was workable without the kind of political change the old guard, including Mnangagwa, found unpalatable.
It is only once the dust has settled on yet another volatile election that the true path for Zimbabwe will be clear and whether the current crop of leaders have been just biding their time and behaving for the cameras during the transition to ensure they regained power or whether a new path forward is really possible.
. Games is CEO of business advisory Africa @ Work