Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Zimbabwe: Old man facing change

At 92, Robert Mugabe continues to put his stamp on Zimbabwe, looking ahead to a further presidential term. But pressure is mounting while the country’s woes deepen, writes Haitham Nouri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Protests continue in Zimbabwe while its aging President Robert Mugabe, 92, travelled to Venezuela to attend the 17th Non-Alignment Movement summit, and then to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly.

Unrest began in July after a two-week delay in paying the salaries of civil servants, police and army. Meanwhile, teachers and nurses had also not received their salaries for more than two weeks. These salaries are paid in hard currency since Zimbabwe abandoned its national currency in 2009 when inflation reached a staggering 1,000 per cent.

Many reports indicate that a great number of Zimbabweans are unable to feed themselves and their families, especially amid what the BBC described as years of “economic free fall”. Unemployment rates reached 90 per cent among youth who constitute the majority of protestors across the country.

Media reports add that this free fall slowed down partially when a coalition government was formed between 2009 and 2013, but once President Mugabe’s party unilaterally came to power in the 2013 elections, economic deterioration began again.

Although demonstrations are primarily for economic reasons, the opposition is trying to politicise them and reform the election law, especially after Mugabe announced his candidacy for the next presidential race in 2018. The opposition, under the coalition banner the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), accused police of using live ammunition in dispersing demonstrations in the capital Harare and other cities. The police denied the accusation, as stated by police spokesman Paul Nyathi: “No firearms or live bullets were used against protestors. Anyone who claims otherwise must present proof of this.”

Authorities said only two people were injured as a result of tear gas and water canons used to disperse demonstrators, while the rest were injured as a result of stampedes or clashes with police. Several streets became war zones, according to NERA. The opposition coalition said that around 100 activists and protestors were arrested over the past few days, and dozens were injured when police assaulted them.

With the victory of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in the 2013 elections, after being in power since 1980, the president limited presidential tenure to two five-year terms, which effectively keeps him in power until 2023 when he will be 99 years old.

In the past, Mugabe had repeatedly refused to limit the presidential term and told a British journalist: “Would you ask Queen Elizabeth II this question? God has put me in the presidency and he will remove me from it.” Until 2013, Zimbabwe was like many other African countries that do not have term limitations for the presidency, including Sudan, Congo and others.

Although ongoing protests are spreading, Mugabe has survived many demonstrations during his reign, starting with a civil war in southeast Zimbabwe in the early 1980s in which he succeeded with his soldiers who were trained in North Korea. This rebellion was led by Joshua Nkomo, his comrade in arms against “white rule” in the 1970s, and ended in 1987 with the formation of the ruling Patriotic Front.

When the economic crunch came in the second half of the 1990s, the Harare regime faced a wave of turmoil and protests. Despite or because of the economic crisis, the Zimbabwean army intervened in the civil war in Democratic Congo in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was an unpopular war.

In reaction, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed in 1999 and participated in all elections since then. The next year, Mugabe lost a referendum to amend the constitution to increase his powers, and in June the ruling party won by a small margin after a fierce campaign by the MDC.

In 2000, Mugabe declared that land stolen by white colonisers must be given back to black natives. War veterans against racism seized farms owned by whites, which at the time were estimated at 4,000.

“What happened in Zimbabwe was unjust,” according to Ibrahim Nasreddin, political science professor at Cairo University’s Africa Studies Academy. “There was an agreement in 1980 after the end of apartheid with Britain and the US that there will be funding for buying farms from whites and giving them to blacks, at an estimated $500 million. Naturally, neither London nor Washington kept their promise, which denied blacks their land and prevented the government from compensating whites.”

The backlash of the decision on land seizures was immediate. The government announced at the time the flight of investment, suspension of foreign aid to the country, as well as World Bank and IMF loans. The country entered a severe food and economic crisis and inflation skyrocketed.

As more media reports from Zimbabwe zoomed in on economic conditions, parliament passed a law in 2002 monitoring the press, television and radio. The EU imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe and unrest began for several years until the power-sharing deal in 2009 between ZANU and MDC.

A government was formed under Morgan Tsvangirai and stayed in power until 2013, which gave the regime some acceptance on the regional and international stages and alleviated pressure on it. Today, pressure is once again building against Mugabe, especially after the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association – which is typically loyal to Mugabe – issued a statement accusing him of misuse of power. It is not yet clear if the statement has the support of the majority of war veterans.

For decades, Mugabe relied on war veterans in his standoffs with political rivals, since the struggle against apartheid until today. The statement accused Mugabe of abandoning his original social base of war veterans in favour of ZANU youth, which also angers army leaders who are another key player the regime has relied on for survival.

But war veterans may not be comfortable with the MDC or NERA if they gain power after Mugabe, and could become further marginalised. If the opposition reaches power, it could repossess the farms veterans seized to guarantee international and regional popularity, as well as economic aid to a country that is decimated by deterioration.

For now, it appears Mugabe has found much-needed assistance in China, which has entered Zimbabwe en force. But will the old president have time to create a new economic reality?

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