An outspoken critic of former President Robert Mugabe was acquitted on Wednesday, 29 November, of trying to subvert the government through mass protests last year, potentially an indicator of the “new unfolding democracy” pledged by the country’s interim President Emmerson Mnangagwa during his inauguration speech last Friday. While hailing the decision, Pastor Evan Mawarire asserted that it was too early to comment on the judiciary’s independence under the new administration, and called on Mnangagwa to uphold human rights.
Separately on Wednesday, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated that the United Kingdom could provide financial help to Zimbabwe to stabilise its currency system and clear some of its arrears with the World Bank and African Development Bank. However, Johnson stressed that any support would be contingent on “democratic progress”.
Cautious optimism after jubilation at Mugabe’s ouster
The two statements underline the cautious optimism surrounding Mnangagwa’s appointment following the quick succession of events between 15 and 21 November that resulted in Mugabe’s ouster. Thousands of jubilant Zimbabweans subsequently took to the streets to celebrate the veteran leader’s iron grip on the country finally loosening after nearly four decades, tearing down signs and posters bearing his name and/or face in Harare, something unthinkable a fortnight ago when a perceived slight towards Mugabe could result in a prison sentence. Amidst the jubilation, though, there have been questions over whether Mnangagwa can be an agent for change given his long association with Mugabe and alleged involvement in the brutal crackdowns on Zanu-PF opponents, systematic corruption and other abuses that tarnished the legacy of the former president.
However, Mnangagwa has reportedly been described as more pragmatic and flexible by close associates and diplomats, and is said to have unsuccessfully pushed for more investment- and business-friendly policies in recent years. Indeed, the new president listed economic recovery as one of his priorities during his inauguration speech, pledging to encourage private enterprise and create an environment to entice foreign investment back to Zimbabwe, once a regional powerhouse but since run into the ground by chronic mismanagement during the Mugabe era. The past decade in particular has seen a rapid depletion of foreign reserves, surging debts, hyperinflation, crumbling infrastructure and worsening employment prospects that have driven the quasi-totality of graduates from what was once one of Africa’s best education systems abroad or into casual labour. Mnangagwa also indicated that mostly-white farmers whose land has been confiscated over the past 17 years would be compensated, although his government would not reverse the land reform policy.
Mnangagwa keeping factionalism within Zanu-PF in check
In addition to addressing Zimbabwe’s myriad economic challenges, Mnangagwa will also have to deal with the aftermath of his falling out with Mugabe and his wife, Grace, against the backdrop of factionalism within Zanu-PF. It was Mugabe’s decision to dismiss Mnangagwa as his vice-president three weeks ago that set in motion the political showdown that eventually led to his ouster.
Mnangagwa has been careful not to alienate supporters of his predecessor, highlighting Mugabe’s contributions to Zimbabwe during his swearing-in ceremony. There are also reports that the former leader and family members will receive parachute payments worth millions of dollars, immunity from prosecution and protection of their vast business interests. This has sparked outrage from rights activists, not only because of calls for the couple to face justice for abuses, but also as Mnangagwa announced on Tuesday a three-month moratorium period for the return of illegally-acquired funds stashed abroad, with individuals who fail to comply facing prosecution thereafter. However, Mnangagwa may feel that giving the Mugabes special treatment is a necessary evil to prevent radical loyalists from potentially hijacking the transition period. At the same time, though, Mnangagwa has removed lawmakers linked to the G40 group that supported Grace Mugabe as her husband’s successor, with two ministers set to face corruption charges in court as he looks to consolidate his leadership of Zanu-PF.
Scheduled elections still to take place
Within the wider political space, the coming months will reveal if Mnangagwa is indeed committed to enacting democratic reforms or just cosmetic actions to appease international donors, get sanctions lifted and/or secure debt relief. The new president has indicated that elections scheduled before August 2018 would go ahead as scheduled, although Zanu-PF has the parliamentary majority to potentially extend his transition term to maintain their hold on power. However, unless accompanied by substantial electoral reforms, such a move would likely trigger a backlash from the international community.
The country’s largest opposition movement, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has been weakened in recent years as a result of in-fighting and no apparent successor to its historic leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who is battling cancer, and the party may thus struggle to win elections. Moreover, for the majority of Zimbabweans, political reforms are likely to take a backseat to the economy, and it is on the latter that Mnangagwa will be judged. However, comprehensively addressing the country’s economic woes will take several years, especially with a certain period of inertia expected after years of stagnation under Mugabe. Mnangagwa will likely be afforded a ‘grace’ period of several months, but unrealistic expectations of a quick turnaround in the country’s fortunes could see an uptick in unrest in the medium term.