Zimbabwe’s long-time leader Robert Mugabe has been under significant pressure in recent months. An ailing economy, regalvanised political opposition, widespread protests, and international admonition are all pressing in on the 92-year-old’s almost four-decade regime. Yet there is no clear contingency plan for post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, whether the president suddenly dies, resigns, or is overthrown. As these eventualities become increasingly likely, the threats to Zimbabwe’s internal security and to southern Africa’s stability continue to mount.
MUGABE’S RISE TO POWER: A “MARGIN OF TERROR”
A former teacher, Mugabe rose to prominence as a political prisoner in the white-ruled state of Rhodesia. For his role in co-founding the swiftly banned Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which called for independence, he was imprisoned from 1964 to 1974. After his release, Mugabe went into exile in Mozambique, where he took control of ZANU’s political and military wings. When the Rhodesian regime relinquished power in the late 1970s, Mugabe returned home to contest the 1980 elections, which ZANU won in a landslide.
Early Zimbabwean politics involved an unstable coalition between ZANU and another former resistance party, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The alliance broke down in 1982 after clashes between ex-guerrillas who had fought together against the Rhodesian government but divided their loyalty between the two parties. The conflict led Mugabe to accuse ZAPU of attempting to overthrow the government and he deployed the ‘Fifth Brigade’ – a North Korean-trained unit answerable only to him – to ZAPU strongholds.
Operating until 1987, the brigade killed up to 20,000 civilians and cowed ZAPU supporters. Mugabe then invited ZAPU’s remnants to join ZANU, creating the ZANU-PF and establishing a one-party state. With his power consolidated, Mugabe was declared president by parliament, appointed head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief, and given the abilities to dissolve parliament and impose martial law. Since then, Mugabe has maintained a tight grip on power.
Opposition re-emerged in 2000 when Mugabe called a referendum that would have legalised land redistribution from white owners to black labourers and enhanced his presidential powers. Mugabe lost the referendum and the victorious ‘no’ campaign formed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In 2008, the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, defeated Mugabe in the first round of presidential elections. However, widespread violence by Mugabe supporters forced the rivals to form a unity government, with Mugabe remaining president and Tsvangirai becoming prime minister. After the unity government collapsed in 2012, Mugabe was comfortably reinstated as president and the office of prime minister abolished.
Mugabe’s propensity to use violence to achieve his goals has set a precedent that will haunt Zimbabwe after he is gone.
THE PERFECT POLITICAL STORM
The economy has been a major headache for Mugabe. Despite losing the 2000 referendum, so-called ‘war veterans’ loyal to the regime used violence to intimidate white landowners and many fled the country. This enforced land distribution policy saw the essential agricultural sector collapse, leading to 80% unemployment and hyperinflation.
The subsequent ‘brain-drain’ to the west – particularly among teachers and medical professionals – has further undermined attempts to address a poverty rate of 70% and spawned regular health crises. The situation stabilised under the unity government, largely because it suspended the national currency and adopted the US dollar to counter runaway inflation. Yet after the unity government’s collapse, growth has fallen and reverse urbanisation has begun.
Zimbabwe is now experiencing unprecedented protest. The regime has a shortage of hard currency and it cannot pay staff, including the remaining doctors and teachers, who have gone on strike. The government wants to issue its own bonds as payment, leading to fears of a return to inflation and driving more citizens into the streets. They are being led by two new political forces, including self-exiled Pastor Evan Mawarire, whose social media posts stimulated protests in June, and the youth-led Tajamuka campaign that has links to Mawarire, unions, and urban organisations.
Opposition parties such as the MDC have attempted to capitalise on the situation by calling for electoral reform but many of their members, including sitting members of parliament, have been arrested. These developments occur in the shadow of the 2018 elections.
Meanwhile, ZANU-PF is dividing into factions. In 2014, the party’s vice president Joice Mujuru was accused of conspiring to overthrow Mugabe and she was ejected from the party. Mujuru was backed by the war veterans and her ouster damaged their loyalty to the regime. Attempts to purge her remaining supporters within ZANU-PF have created a power struggle and the two factions are vying for control of the party.
A POST-MUGABE ZIMBABWE
Mugabe’s health has been under question for a long time. US diplomatic cables from 2008 suggested he had prostate cancer. In 2012, it was reported Mugabe was fighting for his life after a trip to Singapore for medical treatment. Rumours swirled in August this year that the president had died during another trip to Singapore. Regardless of the accuracy of these reports (and Mugabe is certainly not dead), the president is 92 and he will not live forever. If he were to suddenly die, the outlook is bleak.
His 51-year-old wife, Grace, is seen as a potential successor, an idea she encouraged in December 2014 by stating, “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”. She is also believed to have been instrumental in Mujuru’s downfall.
However, current vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa has also been rallying his powerbase and conflict between these two factions can be expected after Mugabe’s death. Though this outcome could be averted by Mugabe anointing a successor, that this has not already occurred suggests it is an action he is unwilling to take.
Alternatively, the opposition might seize upon the regime’s current weakness to win another election. ZANU-PF’s factionalism could prevent it from mounting a successful campaign in 2018, particularly as Mujuru has formed a party of her own, which may draw away votes. But the MDC lost credibility when it entered a unity government with ZANU-PF. The disorganised street protests will be hard to sustain and harder to convert into votes. Even if the opposition wins, it will likely be countered by widespread violence instigated by ZANU-PF.
The regime would seek to intimidate its rivals into conceding power, which proved a viable strategy in 2008. Whether such violence would include the war veterans, who were an essential coercive element eight years ago, would depend on Mujuru’s political strategy. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe’s police officers were exposed using brutality against protesters in July and they will continue to defend the regime. Consequently, the opposition is unlikely to gain power.
Other scenarios, such as Mugabe resigning or being overthrown, seem much less plausible. In 2014, Mugabe said he would never retire and he would remain president until his death. There is no force inside ZANU-PF currently capable of ousting him.
Even if either Grace or Mnangagwa becomes his clear successor, they will maintain Mugabe’s policies; Grace indicated as much in May when she said her husband will rule from the grave. Moreover, the purge of Mujuru provides a stark lesson for any faction leader considering a coup. There is no force outside of ZANU-PF that could be expected to topple the regime without causing nationwide bloodshed.
AFRICA’S OWN MIGRANT CRISIS
However Mugabe leaves office, his departure will rock the country. It could also impact the wider region. Since 2000, there has been a steady exodus of Zimbabwean economic migrants to neighbouring Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zambia. This outflow has spiked as the government cracks down on protesters and imposes economic controls, crippling income streams for many.
The mass movement is already causing regional concern. In recent days, the former governor of South Africa’s Reserve Bank has spoken about the poor conditions of up to three million Zimbabweans in the country, while the president of Botswana – host to 100,000 Zimbabweans – has openly called for fresh leadership in Harare.
The comments provoked a scathing response from Mugabe but they suggest anti-migrant sentiments are adding volatility to domestic and regional politics. Such volatility can flare into conflict, as in 1996, when two million Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) became a major factor in the First Congo War.
Zimbabwe’s future in a post-Mugabe era looks grim. Unless Grace, Mnangagwa, or Mujuru outmanoeuvre the others before his demise, factional struggles upon his departure will lead to physical confrontations. The victor will maintain Mugabe’s failed policies to the detriment of ordinary Zimbabweans.
A successful opposition campaign would also generate conflict and send Zimbabweans fleeing over borders for safety with adverse results for regional stability. Exactly when and how this will transpire all depends on Mugabe’s health and political cunning. Accordingly, the rumour mill remains the space to watch.
Will is the former managing editor of Foreign Brief’s Risk Analysis branch. He has published widely on international political and security issues.