President Emmerson Mnangagwa, upon wresting power in a 2017 coup, inherited a nation on its knees. His predecessor and longtime ally, Robert Mugabe, dragged once-prosperous Zimbabwe into economic ruin through violent land reform schemes, wild overspending, and entangling the military in Congo's third civil war. Mugabe came to power in 1987—by 2009, the country's reserve bank was issuing one-trillion Zimbabwean dollar notes (worth $0.40 USD). By 2015, Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency altogether, adopting a multiple currency system that honored everything from cash in USD to Indian rupee to the pound sterling. Though the federal bank reversed tracks again under Mnangagwa in 2019 to reinstate the Zimbabwean dollar, this effort has fared no better than previous attempts to curb inflation. Just in the last year, three "new" currencies have unseated the last to devastating effect. Today, inflation approaches 1000 percent on the new "zollar", while Zimbabwe’s poverty rate sits at 72 percent.
At the helm of a country rocked by mistrust and instability, Mnangagwa is fanning the flames of unrest. Since seizing power in 2017, Mnagagwa has dashed any hopes for a gentler rule in the "new Zimbabwe" he promised. Following a contentious presidential election in 2018, a swift and ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019 signaled to both Zimbabweans and world leaders that Mnangagwa would carry the torch of military autocracy into his presidency.
These fears reached a boiling point in July, as peaceful pro-democracy protestors flooded the streets of the capitol, Harare. The pandemic mishandled; tourism, trade, and industry crippled; hyperinflation rampant; and amidst a wave of activist arrests and abductions since May, the protestors’ demands were numerous and varied. Among the demonstrators were citizens seeking answers and reforms, teachers calling for salary increases, nurses demanding PPE, and businesses clamoring for redollarization, or aligning the Zimbabwean “zollar” with the US dollar. However, these critical voices were again silenced as authorities detained opposition leaders and journalists and drove their allies into hiding in anticipation of July 31 demonstrations. Despite calls from Amnesty International to end the "witch hunt and repression," August saw a series of arrests of prominent political figures including Movement for Democratic Change Alliance Vice-Chairman Job Sikhala, while decorated journalist Hopewell Chin'ono was denied multiple bail applications.
But who is the man steering this sinking ship?
Cunning, ruthless, scrappy: Mnangagwa is widely known as the "Crocodile" of Zimbabwean politics. He earned the title through mobilizing a group of insurgents dubbed the "crocodile gang" against the white minority rule in the early 1960s, and it has stuck: his political faction is known as Lacoste; supporters clutch stuffed crocodiles at rallies. After serving ten years in prison with the “crocodile gang” for a train bombing in 1965, Mnangagwa studied law in Zambia before returning to Zimbabwe in 1979 to serve as Mugabe's bodyguard. Mnangagwa worked his way up through Mugabe's cabinet, as minister of state security; minister of justice, legal and parliamentary affairs; speaker of parliament; minister of defense; and eventually as Zimbabwe's first vice president. Throughout his quiet ascent, Mnangagwa's relationship to his boss, Mugabe, was wary and mistrustful. Mugabe demoted Mnagagwa in 2005 for openly vying for the presidency, and Mugabe's wife, Grace Mugabe, openly opposed his rise to power.
Today, allies celebrate Mnangagwa's reptilian ability to lie in wait and strike at the critical moment, a quality that shone in his 2017 military coup against Mugabe. Indeed, for many across the political spectrum, Mnangagwa's takeover was a brief beacon of hope. His shrewdness and inscrutability seemed to promise an antidote to Mugabe's chronic economic blunders and emotive style. His reign was widely predicted to usher in an era of reform, foreign investment, and stability.
But, with no end in sight to the heated protests, political persecution, and media suppression that rocked Zimbabwe this summer, it appears as though the "Crocodile" is merely new skin for an old ceremony. Public anger continues to mount, and, while no data yet exists to pinpoint the size of pro- and anti-government groups, Mnangagwa’s claim that dissidents are merely outlier “bad apples” holds less and less water as calls for change persist on social media with celebrities and journalists at the helm.
On the World Stage
Protestors pushing for long-awaited reforms are using the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, a movement that captures a host of visions for Zimbabwe’s future, including democratic reforms, calls for government transparency, journalistic freedom, and economic stability. #ZimbabweanLivesMatter speaks not only to the far-reaching momentum that the US-based #BlackLivesMatter movement has garnered, but also to the increasingly precarious position Mnangagwa occupies among leaders on the global stage. On Friday, Mnanagagwa shouldered sharp criticism from UN diplomats stationed locally that condemned his handling of the protests and affirmed "the people of Zimbabwe in their desire for a peaceful and prosperous democracy," while the government of South Africa issued a series of tweets in early August expressing deep concern for the human rights violations.
Whether global leaders will hold Mnangagwa to further account for Zimbabwean lives, however, remains hazy. Zimbabwe is a close trading partner of South Africa, and while the latter has favored a "quiet diplomacy" approach for nearly two decades, the past three years has approached "silent diplomacy" territory. South Africa has interacted remarkably little with Mnangagwa's government since supporting his 2017 coup, and Mnangagwa's own efforts since coming to power may also give once critical nations pause. In July, Mnangagwa announced a USD $3.5 billion settlement for white farmers with ties to British colonial rule, a move widely interpreted as catering to Western nations to drum up international funds for redistribution.
What can we expect to see from Zimbabwe in the coming months, as pro-democracy protests pushed off the streets find footing on social media; as activists remain in detention and in hiding; and as its healthcare system buckles under the unique challenges faced by low-water countries during a pandemic?
Whether Zimbabwe will receive foreign assistance—in the form of budget support, PPE, COVID testing supplies, to name a few—is, as of now, conditional. UK Ambassador to Zimbabwe Melanie Robinson tweeted this week that the United Kingdom is poised to provide aid but simultaneously urged reform. Likewise, the European Union cited recent human rights abuses and mismanagement as reasons why resuming aid to Zimbabwe is “out of the question”, at least for now. Such international pressure gives Mnangagwa ample economic incentive to deliver on aging campaign promises, to say nothing of the mounting political pressure his party faces within Zimbabwe. “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” Mnangagwa said as he assumed office in 2017. The time has come—and the clock is ticking—for the Crocodile to listen.
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