On 1 January, President Mnangagwa went on holiday. For a month. In the midst of a global health crisis. A week later, Zimbabwe’s (reported) COVID cases were at a 7-day average of nearly 800, more than four times the reported cases at the height of the first peak in August 2020. Almost a year ago, in April 2020 there were rumours of ructions between President Mnangagwa and his deputy, Retired General Constantine Chiwenga. Since the 2017 coup and 2018 polls, the Harare rumour mill has been running at full steam on the suggestions that the relationship between the two men was acrimonious at best, and murderous at worst.
By Nicole Beardsworth
By August 2020, the hostilities appeared to have deteriorated into coup plots by senior leaders of the military to remove President Mnangagwa and install either Vice President Chiwenga or Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo, who had been instrumental in the coup that ended Mugabe’s 37 years in power. For those who follow the politics of the country closely, it was a tense time filled with incessant rumours that the end was near for the country’s unpopular president.
But less than 6 months later, President Mnangagwa appears to feel secure in his position. Confident enough to go on holiday for a month and leave his ostensible coup-plotting deputy in charge. This may be as a result of a series of factors – perhaps the most important of which is an escalating crackdown on the opposition and civil society.
The opposition have been chronically divided since the death of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018, just six months before a crucial election. But the administration in Harare used lawfare to entrench those divisions and undermine the most popular opposition party. In a Supreme Court case in March 2020, the judge ruled that an unpopular leader of a rump political party was in fact the head of the country’s largest opposition – which garnered over 2 million votes in 2018.
This judgement has been used to take the party headquarters, funding, parliamentarians and control over major urban councils away from the popular MDC-Alliance, in a move that has crippled the party. The rump faction has used this power to expel over 100 local councillors and 31 MP’s – seriously undermining the capacity of the opposition to hold the ruling party to account through state institutions. The leader of this ‘judicially-reconstructed’ party has expressed his willingness to work with the Mnangagwa administration – leading many observers to believe that a deal has been struck to neutralise the opposition threat to President Mnangagwa.
Key leaders who have historically played an important role in parliament – such as former Finance Minister Tendai Biti – have found themselves repeatedly imprisoned or called in for questioning. In January, opposition spokesperson Fadzai Mahere was arrested and placed on remand, charged (unlawfully) with “publishing a false statement prejudicial to the State.” Alongside her was prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition MP Job Sikhala. Hopewell was arrested for the third time in six months, after breaking a COVID corruption story which involved the President and his family. The MDC’s Mayor of Harare was also arrested on spurious charges in December and had been held on remand in terrible conditions in maximum security Chikurubi prison.
These are just the latest in a long line of abductions, arrests and spurious charges as the administration tries to wear down the opposition and prevent protest from citizens. It may well be working. The government has faced little public protest since the killings of January 2019. A planned protest in July 2020 was put down by pre-emptive arrests of opposition members and the deployment of soldiers to the streets. Even then, few people turned out – and those that did were arrested.
Dissent has been criminalised in Zimbabwe, and as hunger stalks the nation due to widespread poverty, unemployment and the COVID pandemic, people have little stomach for public protest. About 60% of the country’s 15 million people face food insecurity this year, making survival a priority for many.
Worries on the Horizon
Although the president appears secure in his current position, the global pandemic threatens to upset his carefully-balanced applecart. In the last week, two ministers – including the president’s ostensible rival, S. B. Moyo – have died of complications linked to SARS-COV2. This brings to four, the number of ministers killed so far during the pandemic. Given the country’s collapsed healthcare system – and the advanced age of its political elite – the current wave of the pandemic threatens the stability and functioning of the government and will require a reshuffling of the deck chairs.
According to reports, many government ministers are believed to have contracted the disease at an event held by Mr Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a close associate of the President’s who was recently included in the US government’s sanctions list for his business dealings with the state. Mr Tagwirei is said to be fighting for his life in a private medical ward established in a wing of his home. Vice President Chiwenga is also said to be gravely ill, and the President is rumoured to be in self-isolation after being exposed.
Should the government survive this pandemic intact, it is still difficult to see a good outcome ahead. The country is suffering a severe lack of investment, a major debt crisis and over 95% formal unemployment. Services and infrastructure have deteriorated and what money there is from mining and minerals seems to be ferreted away into the personal bank accounts of the politically-connected. Re-engagement with the international community is unlikely, until the arrests and beatings end and the country repays its foreign debts – re-opening key channels of economic assistance.
The road to recovery is likely to still be a long one for Zimbabwe.
This article was first published here by the Presidential Power