Two years ago Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa was being hailed as the troubled Southern African country’s Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who in 1979 started reforms that have propelled China to the high table of global politics and economics.
Deng, an economic reformer who crushed political dissent, is lionised for transforming China from a basket case to a world economic superpower.
In November 2017, President Mnangagwa was emerging from similar circumstances when he took over from former strongman Robert Mugabe following a military coup.
Zimbabwe was in the doldrums due to years of economic ruin under Mr Mugabe who died on September 6.
President Mnangagwa was in the founding president’s successive governments since independence in 1980. But the man known as the crocodile in reverence to his political shrewdness immediately discarded Mr Mugabe’s radical policies that were widely blamed for Zimbabwe’s spectacular economic collapse.
“President (Mnangagwa) wants to be seen as a moderate, accessible for regular meetings with private sector and international investors through the presidential advisory council, the tripartite negotiating forum, investment meetings and other forums,” said Dr Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK.
The new government’s ambitious economic and political reform agenda also charmed the world and Western countries appeared ready to give the new administration a chance.
However, a year later President Mnangagwa seemed to fail the most crucial test after the first general election after Mr Mugabe’s collapse was disputed.
A few days after the July 30, 2018 elections, soldiers shot dead six people who were protesting against delayed poll results in central Harare and the international isolation that characterised the previous regime’s later years has returned and the economy is on a tailspin yet again.
On Thursday a strike by doctors at public hospitals entered its second month and inflation was hovering at over 300 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
A third of the population is in dire need of food aid, major cities have no water and electricity is available for less than six hours in a day.
“The future looks bleak and dry, little to eat and only heat and thirst. Our currency has again crashed, we are making new records for inflation and living standards for the greater majority of our people are at a new low.
“Many subsist on 10 per cent of what they earned in real terms a year ago. Austerity and survival that is biting,” said Eddie Cross, a member of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s monetary policy committee and a former opposition legislator.
President Mnangagwa’s government also appears to be falling back to authoritarianism to quell dissent that is brewing because of the imploding economy, soaring prices of basic goods, medicines as well as shortages of fuel and foreign currency.
“Zimbabwe has a reputation problem. We have been alarmed at how the government has treated its citizens, over the space for democracy and governance. Those are the issues and we have had frank discussions with the highest levels of government,” US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African affairs Tibor Nagy Jr said in a telephonic briefing on Wednesday October 2.
His comments came as the US Customs department blocked rough cut diamonds from the Mirange mines from entering the US together with those from the Democratic Republic of Congo and China over the use of forced labour.
Zimbabwe has protested and said it would engage US authorities to resolve the matter. Mr Nagy said the US had not pronounced sanctions against the government of Zimbabwe but only against individuals who are culpable for economic and human rights abuses in the country.
The majority of Zimbabweans view the government’s austerity measures with suspicion as the president and his ministers continue with their profligate spending especially on foreign trips.
“The administration’s attempts to stabilise the economy have also included deep cuts in government spending, and the resulting austerity has brought severe hardship for ordinary Zimbabweans reminiscent of the Mugabe era,” Dr Chitiyo added.
The IMF head of delegation Gene Leon said Zimbabwe was undergoing severe economic difficulties.
“Since the February currency reform, the exchange rate has depreciated,” Mr Leon said at the end of an IMF Staff Monitoring Programme assessment in Harare last week.
Zimbabwe ended a decade of dollarisation in June in the hope that a local currency will help revive a comatose economy. The local currency, however, has gone from one-to-one with the US dollar to 1:16 on the formal market.
Last week, the country banned cash mobile money transactions through agents who were milking a commission upwards of 40 per cent only to reverse it two days later. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe also said it would introduce new bank notes next month.
Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, who concluded a 10-day fact finding mission to Harare on September 27, had a more damning assessment of Zimbabwe after Mr Mugabe.
“The long awaited hopes that a transformation will come are fading. The population is now questioning the government’s capacity to bring about such changes.
“From my different meetings around the country, I have perceived that there is a serious deterioration of the political, economic and social environment since August 2018 resulting in fear, frustration and anxiety among a large number of Zimbabweans,” Mr Voule said in his preliminary report.
More than 50 critics of the government have in the past two months been kidnapped, incarcerated and presented later in court to face what are perceived to be trumped up charges.
During protests between August 2018 and January this year against steep rises in fuel prices the Zimbabwe military fired live ammunition killing 17 people and raped several women, according to Human Rights Watch.
A commission of inquiry led by former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe that investigated the August 2018 violence recommended perpetrators be prosecuted but no action has been taken a year down the line.
Opposition, churches making push for dialogue
Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who refused to accept President Mnangagwa’s election victory citing alleged vote rigging, insists closure on the disputed polls would provide a resolution to the country’s problems.
Mr Chamisa wants a negotiated settlement that would see Zimbabwe implementing electoral, political and economic reforms before the 2023 elections.
“We will not have the 2023 elections without resolving 2018's,” he said. “If we do, we will repeat the same cycle of disputed elections.”
The 41-year-old said he was lobbying African and SADC leaders to intervene in Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency.
“We have been having dialogue with (South African President) Cyril Ramaphosa and (former Nigerian President Olusegun) Obasanjo because we believe African solidarity is more important.”
Alex Magaisa a Zimbabwean academic based at the University of Kent in the UK, however, believes President Mnangagwa is held hostage by authoritarian control that brought him to power through the military coup.
“The military remains influential and President Mnangawa is desperate to assert his power. He has had to decide how to deal with deteriorating economic and social conditions which have produced perfect conditions for mass uprisings. He has done so by use of apparatuses of force and violence,” Mr Magaisa said.
In August, authorities banned protests against the government saying they could turn unruly but Mr Chamisa says the opposition could organise fresh protests to force President Mnangagwa to the negotiating table. The president has ruled out negotiations over the 2018 elections, instead opening dialogue with fringe political parties.
“We want to do sustained demonstrations—Free Zimbabwe campaign—until we achieve what we want,” Mr Chamisa said.
Churches, which have been pushing for dialogue between the two leaders, declared last week that they had lost confidence in the way the government was tackling the economic malaise.