This was supposed to be Zimbabwe’s chance at a fresh start. Strongman Robert Mugabe was forced from office in late 2017 after a 37-year rule that left the economy in ruins. His ouster sparked celebrations in the streets and hopes of a recovery for the resource-rich nation. But new leader Emmerson Mnangagwa has failed to deliver on his promises of a revival. The country suffers from spiraling inflation, violent protests, and chronic shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and medicine. The government has responded to the dissent with an even heavier hand than it did during the rule of Mnangagwa’s brutal predecessor.
1. What sparked the protests?
Frustration over rampant unemployment and declining living conditions has been building up for months. It boiled over on Jan. 14 after the government announced a massive increase in fuel prices. After being installed by the military, Mnangagwa had brought an end to political reprisals and eased restrictions on the media. He won elections in 2018 that most observers considered reasonably credible, but were rejected as rigged by the main opposition party. Although Mnangagwa declared Zimbabwe open for business, the economy has stayed in the doldrums.
2. What’s the risk going forward?
Teachers and other state workers are planning strikes to demand higher wages. Workers at the few remaining private businesses could follow suit, bringing the entire country to a standstill. The government can ill afford to increase salaries for its own employees, who already gobble up more than 90 percent of the national budget. Eighteen people have been killed during protests since Mnangagwa first came to power, according to the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. There’s a risk the toll could rise in reaction to the tough tactics used by authorities to suppress dissent, which have included beatings and shooting.
3. What was behind the fuel price rise?
The government says it raised fuel prices to tackle acute shortages and “rampant” illegal trading. Mnangagwa has been trying to persuade private investors and multilateral lenders to help come up with the funding needed to kickstart the economy. He was planning to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 20 to drum up business deals but canceled his trip to handle the protests at home. Zimbabwe suffers from a chronic shortage of cash and has no currency of its own, using mainly the U.S. dollar as legal tender.
4. Is Mnangagwa’s grip on power under threat?
Rumors have circulated that the army is considering toppling Mnangagwa, but they haven’t been substantiated. His political survival could ultimately rest on whether he can dig the country out of the hole it’s in. He faces pressure from traditionalists within his own ruling party to maintain state dominance of the economy. Mnangagwa is trying to persuade the party to rally behind his efforts to secure new loans and the investment.
5. Why is the world watching?
Zimbabwe has enormous economic potential, which could lift the entire region. It was a leading producer of grain before Mugabe’s rule, which began after it won independence from the U.K. in 1980. Mugabe devastated commercial farming by authorizing the seizure of white-owned farmland, but the country remains a large tobacco producer. It also has reserves of gold, platinum, diamonds and other metals and minerals. And its 14 million people are among Africa’s best-educated, although many of those with skills have emigrated to neighboring South Africa and the U.K. As many as 3 million Zimbabweans have gone into exile.
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