Thanks to drought, cyclones, gross mismanagement, inflation, currency manipulation and continued corruption, as many as half of more than 13 million Zimbabweans will experience hunger this year. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s postcoup administration promised better, but has delivered only economic hardship, fiscal chaos, massive electricity shortages and political desperation to his once rich country.
By Robert Rotberg
Zimbabweans eat white maize as a staple, many times a day. But in the harvest that has just concluded, Zimbabwe’s farmers managed to produce only 20 per cent of annual needs. The government-run Grain Marketing Board holds another 30 per cent in its silos. That means a shortfall of 50 per cent and coming hunger.
In past seasons, Zimbabwe could purchase maize from neighbouring countries. But Zimbabwe has limited foreign currency. It is effectively broke and will need to rely on handouts from the UN World Food Programme, itself dependent on U.S.-grown yellow maize. For most of two decades, U.S. surplus maize has fed 25 or 30 per cent of poor Zimbabweans. This year and next Zimbabweans will rely on global generosity.
For much of the 2018-2019 farming season in southern Africa there was far less rain than normal. Maize shrivelled in much of Zimbabwe. Yet, in the country’s east, on the Mozambique border, farms were drenched with catastrophic inches of rain as a result of a cyclone that swept inland from the Indian Ocean. Climate change was the culprit.
Additionally, Zimbabwe’s Grain Marketing Board’s stocks have been subjected to insect infestations and spoilage because of moisture. Not all, or even much, of what has been in safekeeping is fit for consumption. The country’s government-run railway is also in such poor shape that moving maize from the country’s borders inland is a daunting task. Road transport relies on fuel that is not readily available. Capping all miseries is the fact that power cuts are legion. Residents are lucky to receive six hours of electricity daily. There was no power for cellphone service for a full day last week.
Deep down, too, the rot in the storage of maize also reflects a country in chaos economically and fiscally. Last month, after running three parallel currencies in tandem for two years – the U.S. dollar (and the equivalent in South African rand and Botswana pula), a completely local digital currency (EcoCash) available only on smartphones, and a printed indigenous bond note – Mr. Mnangagwa’s government suddenly banned external currencies. That left Zimbabweans stuck with the two local forms of cash, both theoretically of interchangeable value, but both subject to much lower worth on the thriving black market and in commerce.
Zimbabwe’s digital currency now trades about 13 to 1 against its nominal value, the bond notes about the same. As a result, supermarket shelves are bare, and there are petrol queues everywhere – unless drivers have access to real dollars. Local importers and manufacturers have to bargain with the government for access to scarce real dollars since the two local currencies are unacceptable elsewhere. Commerce has ground to a halt. So has any hope of economic growth.
Zimbabwe has had soaring inflation before, in the million and billion percentages in 2007 and 2008. But that malaise was quickly fixed when a newly elected government threw open its doors to the U.S. dollar. Shutting those doors again now immiserates Zimbabweans, some of whom believe that inflation has already reached 100 per cent per year.
The politicians who rule Zimbabwe take advantage of favourable access to real dollars to arbitrage their way to wealth. The civil service is still bloated, the security forces upon whom Mr. Mnangagwa bases his power absorb large budgetary revenues, and hardly any leading figure has been prosecuted for theft from the public purse. As a result, business confidence is almost nil, and fewer farmers than ever may invest in plantings for the next season.
Mr. Mnangagwa promised a business friendly regime when he campaigned for election in 2018. But foreign and domestic investors have stayed away because of corruption, currency shenanigans and sheer administrative incompetence. The remedy for Zimbabwe’s ills consists of an end to printing local money, a reversion to foreign currencies, an end to reserve bank confiscation of foreign cash from producers and the honest prosecution of corrupt politicians.
African governments and the African Union could and should press Mr. Mnangagwa on all of these fixes. Ultimately, however, only real democratic popular participation will cure Zimbabwe of its festering ills.
Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. This article was first published here by the Globe and Mail