Reversing Zimbabwe’s Nightmare
During virtually all of Robert Mugabe’s 37-years as Zimbabwe’s despot, the nation was, with North Korea and post-1979 Iran, one of the world’s most corrupt and misruled nations. In sharp contrast, neighboring Botswana provided during the same period almost model democratic governance.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2016: “(Mugabe) intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protested human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation…civil society activists, journalists, and government opponents, were harassed, threatened or faced arbitrary arrest by police. Widespread impunity continued for abuses by police and state security agents.”
Successive governments in nearby South Africa, except that of Nelson Mandela from 1994 to 1999, abetted and extended the life of Mugabe’s regime over many years. Former president Thabo Mbeki, for example, was widely condemned for providing cover to Mugabe from 1991 to 2008 as he and his cronies stole elections, ruined the economy, abolished media freedom, and turned Zimbabwe into a failed state. If South Africa had taken a firmer approach, there seems little doubt that Mugabe would have been ousted years earlier.
The role of China’s party-state in the long suffering of an industrious and peaceful people dates from the 1960s and ‘70s, when it assisted anti-colonial guerrilla leaders, including Mugabe, to acquire weapons and funding. In the 1990s, it invested in mining, agriculture, energy, and construction, becoming a major trading partner, while ignoring human rights violations and myriad governance issues.
The 93-year-old Mugabe’s recent coerced resignation signaled a new phase in Zimbabwe’s relationship with other capitals. Two factions within his Zanu-PF political party claimed the right to succeed him. “Generation 40” (G40) was led by his wife and two younger political leaders. The Lacoste Group supported Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “The Crocodile” for his ruthlessness during the Rhodesian Bush War and a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians in 1983-1984.
Beijing has close ties with the Lacoste Group and the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, selling the country weapons and financing Zimbabwe’s new National Defense College. The head of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, headed by General Constantine Chiwenga, was key to the recent military takeover, ultimately wresting power from Mugabe, arresting members of the G40, and ensuring the speedy return of Mnangagwa from South Africa after Mugabe fired him as vice-president on Nov. 6.
Mnangagwa, becoming interim president on Nov. 24, must speedily undo Mugabe’s legacy of poverty, massive unemployment, hyperinflation, pseudo currencies and lost access to international lending institutions. Zimbabweans paid a huge price for extreme nationalism and need stability and accountability. More than 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people live on less than $1.90 a day; as many as 90 per cent are unemployed or underemployed.
Among the first initiatives by the new president was a golden handshake for Mugabe of US$5 million and offering him a US$150,000 annual salary for life. This was unlikely to build confidence among desperately poor nationals of the country or international investors beyond Beijing. Nor was failing to include any opposition politicians in the cabinet.
China is already Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest trading partner and its largest investor. Cumulative Chinese foreign direct investment since 2003 has reached nearly $7 billion. Since 2000, it has offered Zimbabwe $1.7 billion in loans for infrastructure projects. From 2000–2012, it invested in at least 128 projects.
Mugabe’s indigenization policy required 51 per cent local ownership of foreign businesses. Although Chinese mining companies began operations in 2012 with 51 per cent of the shares owned by Zimbabweans, Mugabe in 2015 integrated them into the state-owned Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company, angering Beijing. The party-state appears now to sense that Mnangagwa’s presidency, along with Chiwenga’s backing from its armed forces, will protect its investments.
Other foreign investors have been waiting for decades to put money in Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa could attract investment by stabilizing the currency and ending the nationalization program. He could clean up the electoral rolls and register the diaspora to vote. Some of the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled abroad might decide to return if their homeland achieves a measure of good governance.
Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, says that democratic governments can play a useful role. “Serious debt cancellation will be required as well as genuine aid and investment tied not to free-market reforms, but rather a massive democratic development plan, fully transparent and accountable.”
A major concern, given the record of Mnangagwa, is that he will not embark on any of a host of needed democratic and economic reforms. If so, the removal of his long-time patron will have achieved nothing useful and the Zimbabweans will continue to rank 154th out of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”