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A supporter of the Zimbabwean opposition party Zimbabwe People First waves a flag ahead of an address by the party's leader in Mamelodi on Sept. 17, 2016. (JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of the Zimbabwean opposition party Zimbabwe People First waves a flag ahead of an address by the party's leader in Mamelodi on Sept. 17, 2016. (JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images)

Challenges mount against Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler Robert Mugabe Add to ...

This is Robert Mugabe’s favourite time of year. Every September, despite the sanctions against him, his arch-enemies in the U.S. government are obliged to hold their noses and allow him entry to New York, where the 92-year-old Zimbabwean autocrat struts onto the world stage with another defiant speech to the TV cameras at the United Nations General Assembly.

After 36 years of erratic and often brutal rule, Mr. Mugabe has outlasted most of his foes. With a combination of violence and guile, he lurches from crisis to crisis, surviving every threat, while his challengers have ended up in prison, in exile or dead.

But today Zimbabwe is facing its worst political and economic crisis since 2008. The economy is in ruins. The ruling party is split into feuding factions. The biggest protests in years have erupted in the streets. The government is so bankrupt that it has to delay its salary payments to its bloated civil service, which consumes a staggering 97 per cent of state revenue. And Mr. Mugabe himself is ailing, often mysteriously jetting off to Asia for medical treatment, while the political elite squabble over the right to succeed him.

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In desperation, Zimbabwe’s central bank announced last week that it will begin printing its own “bond notes” in U.S. dollar denominations. Many Zimbabweans have furiously protested against the idea, convinced it will lead to a repeat of the hyperinflation that devastated the country in 2008, when the central bank printed banknotes in denominations of 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars – an amount so worthless that it couldn’t even buy a bus ticket.

Mr. Mugabe has threatened to run again in the next election in 2018, potentially keeping him in power until the age of 99. But there are growing signs that this crisis is different. Few people can see how he can survive much longer. Here are the mounting pressures that confront him.

HIS HEALTH

Late last month, Mr. Mugabe departed early from a regional summit, climbed into his airplane and disappeared for several days. Journalists pieced together his flight path and discovered he was in Dubai for unknown reasons. A health crisis was rumoured. “Yes, I was dead,” the Zimbabwean President joked to reporters when he finally returned home.

“It’s true that I was dead,” he said. “And I resurrected. As I always do.”

A reporter asked whether he was a ghost. “Once I get back to my country, I am real,” Mr. Mugabe said.

But his declining health is visible to everyone. A veteran Zimbabwean journalist, Peta Thornycroft, described how Mr. Mugabe spoke “painfully slowly” at a recent rally of his party’s youth league in Harare. He delivered much of his speech “with his eyes closed,” she reported.

It is difficult to imagine how Mr. Mugabe could campaign again in 2018, the journalist said. He “cannot move about freely,” she noted. “He is uncertain on his feet, and he speaks ever more slowly.”

THE COLLAPSING ECONOMY

Millions of Zimbabweans have already fled into exile, seeking jobs in South Africa or Western countries. The unemployment rate remains close to 90 per cent, most industries have shut down, the once-lucrative diamond-mining sector has nearly run out of diamonds and cash shortages have led to lengthy queues at banks. The latest drought has left about four million people (30 per cent of the population) dependent on food aid.

Mr. Mugabe’s government is so urgently in need of loans that it is seeking an injection from the International Monetary Fund. This has required Mr. Mugabe to dial back his anti-Western rhetoric and promise economic reforms. But before he can get his hands on the IMF money, his government has to repay $1.8-billion (U.S.) in arrears to the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank. And so far, despite many promises, it has failed to do so.

That means the IMF cannot even discuss the normalization of relations with Zimbabwe. “There is no financing program under discussion with Zimbabwe at this point,” IMF spokesman Gerry Rice confirmed last week.

THE BANKRUPT GOVERNMENT

In a budget speech this month, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa stunned the nation by admitting that 97 per cent of government revenue was consumed by government wages. He called it “untenable” and warned that the government might be unable to meet its payroll obligations in the future.

To reduce costs, Mr. Chinamasa announced a plan to defer wage bonuses, reduce salaries, close some embassies and eliminate 25,000 government jobs. But he was swiftly overruled, and Zimbabwe’s cabinet announced that it had rejected the job cuts.

This leaves the Finance Minister struggling to save money with a range of smaller schemes. He has told the civil service to spend less on newspapers, reduce their mobile-phone allowances and park all government vehicles after hours.

This seems unlikely to solve the financial crisis. The biggest fear is that the government won’t be able to pay its military and police forces, leading to a revolt by those who have weapons.

THE FACTIONAL FEUDING

As it becomes increasingly obvious that Mr. Mugabe’s health is failing and he might be unable to rule the country much longer, his ruling ZANU-PF party has been riddled with infighting. “The state of the party has never been so fractured,” said Piers Pigou, a political analyst who wrote a report on Zimbabwe for the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

“Convulsions within the ruling party have intensified to unprecedented levels,” said another analyst, Zimbabwean scholar Brian Raftopoulos.

Mr. Mugabe’s unpopular wife, Grace, is among those who are believed to be jostling for the right to succeed him. Another faction is led by his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “the crocodile” because of his political cunning. A third faction, made up of once-loyal veterans of the anti-colonial liberation war, has become increasingly critical of Mr. Mugabe. The kingmakers could be the powerful Zimbabwean military and the equally powerful intelligence agency. Their loyalties in the factional conflicts are unclear.

In the past, Mr. Mugabe was able to balance the political rivals, turning them against each other to keep them weak. That might now be impossible. “It is clear that Mugabe’s capacities have diminished significantly,” Mr. Pigou told a briefing this month. “His ability to hold things together is doubtful. He’s not providing much glue to keep things together.”

THE GROWING PROTESTS

With the economy in deep trouble and the government unable to pay its bills, Zimbabweans have been increasingly willing to take to the streets in bold protests – the biggest that the country has seen in many years. The police have violently cracked down, but the demonstrations have continued. Eighteen opposition parties and civic organizations have united into a new alliance and joined the protests.

Mr. Mugabe’s security forces are finding it difficult to crush the protests, since they are coming from a wider range of groups than ever before, Mr. Pigou said. “A certain amount of fear has diminished. What we’ve seen in the past few weeks, we haven’t seen for a long time.”

In the face of this intensifying pressure, Mr. Mugabe has abandoned the moderate pro-reform message that he had adopted in his bid to attract IMF funding. His security forces are reported to be hunting down the protest leaders in the impoverished suburbs around Harare. The stage is set for growing violence, political tensions and government paralysis.

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