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Robert Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

Zimbabwe is “open for business,” according to president-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa. Whether the new president can deliver a much-touted economic revival of long-impoverished, long underperforming Zimbabwe remains to be seen. If his electoral win is declared tainted by outside observers, and if opposition street protests continue, investors will not come and the country’s weak economic management and performance will persist.

After forcibly ousting long-time president Robert Mugabe, the country’s 94-year old dictatorial ruler, late last year and becoming interim president, Mr. Mnangagwa assured Zimbabweans, foreign investors and diplomats and his Chinese backers that he would legitimate his hold on high office by running a fair and free election, and by dropping Mr. Mugabe’s autarkic and corrupt practices in favour of pragmatic and transparent ones.

Because Mr. Mnangagwa won the presidency by 50.8 per cent to 44.3 per cent against Nelson Chamisa, head of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC), and because Mr. Mnangagwa’s historically dominant Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party won 144 to the MDC’s 64 parliamentary seats (of 210 places available), casual critics might assume that last week’s electoral exercise had been free and fair. Some of the external observer missions reported few problems at polling places, and none have indicated that the vote was rigged.

Yet it is suspicious that when the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) divulged the results four days after the contest itself, Mr. Mnangagwa was said to have cleared the 50-per-cent threshold, obviating a run-off poll in September. Mr. Chamisa and the MDC claim the ZEC obviously fiddled with that number. But they have adduced little proof, and their protests have been met (as in Mr. Mugabe’s day) with live-fire military responses.

The ZEC may or may not have shaded the results in the ruling government’s favour. (All of its members were appointed by Mr. Mnangagwa or Mr. Mugabe.) But what is undeniable is that the final constituency results reflect decisions made by Mr. Mugabe’s regime that seriously overweight the country’s rural vote (where ZANU-PF has just demonstrated its strength) as opposed to under-represented urban areas (where the MDC draws it backing).

Furthermore, Mr. Mnangagwa, who was, in the old days, Mr. Mugabe’s ruthless chief enforcer, chief agent of mischief, chief rigger of prior elections and chief collector of corrupt bribes, once helped to orchestrate a rural vote to favour ZANU-PF. He and his fellow party officials rely on these chiefs, who are paid by the state, and on police and military intimidation tactics to deliver needed votes.

By contrast, Mr. Chamisa and former Finance minister Tendai Biti, campaigning for MDC, are young, well-educated, urban professional firebrands. Their message may have appealed little to less-schooled clientele in the rural areas who were grateful for Mr. Mugabe’s overthrow, and who may well have believed Mr. Mnangagwa’s high-flown promises – despite his record.

As interim president, Mr. Mnangagwa has continued to print questionable amounts of money (“bond notes”) in order to pay Zimbabwe’s way globally, and to deliver – or poorly attempt to deliver – essential services. The country has an acute liquidity crisis. There are too few American dollar bills (the official currency), the regime having scooped up as much hard currency as possible in order to keep itself and its state-owned businesses functioning. But US$1 notes are worth only about 75 US cents on the thriving black market, and much of rural Zimbabwe has been reduced to bartering for essential services.

Civil service numbers are purposely bloated, with ghost employees as well. Mr. Mnangagwa’s administration is running a massive fiscal deficit. Formal unemployment is at about 90 per cent. Moreover, Zimbabwe cannot feed itself.

Mr. Mnangagwa can restore Zimbabwe, 13 million strong despite an exodus in recent years to South Africa and elsewhere, to its former prosperity on the African continent, but only if he begins to remove the economic shackles that have limited its growth prospects ever since 2000, when Mr. Mugabe’s thugs invaded white-owned farms and chased their owners overseas. Mr. Mugabe also shifted much of the country’s wealth into the hands of people such as Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, then head of the military and now Minister of Defense.

Mr. Mnangagwa could keep himself in power and enrich his clients and followers while talking pragmatism. But if there is no real reform, no genuine curtailing of corruption, no embracing of Mr. Biti’s recipe for economic growth (successfully implemented by the MDC from 2009 to 2013), Zimbabwe will continue to flounder, and businesses to stay away.

The turmoil surrounding Zimbabwe's disputed election took another turn when riot police temporarily broke up a news conference called by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. But president-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa has condemned the action and it's not clear why it occurred. Julian Satterthwaite reports.

Reuters