Robert Mugabe's ouster in a coup this month, and his forced resignation last week, have momentarily refocused the world's attention on Zimbabwe, and indirectly on the African continent as a whole. The hope in Zimbabwe and elsewhere is that the sudden departure of one of the continent's most despised despots – "the man who wrecked a country," as The Economist called him last week – marks the beginning of his country's economic and democratic resurgence.
No one should set their hopes very high. Mr. Mugabe, 93, has been replaced by his long-time lieutenant and former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The henchman has usurped the crime boss, thanks to the backing of a military that thinks nothing of attacking its own people. If Zimbabweans were murdered and beaten in the past for daring to oppose Mr. Mugabe's goal of being president-for-life, the people now in charge were the ones who did the dirty work.
As well, Zimbabwe's economy is a basket case. The rampant corruption of Mr. Mugabe, his wife, his friends and his Zanu-PF party cronies, combined with disastrous economic policies and hyperinflation that reached the incomprehensible rate of 500 billion per cent in the early 2000s, have reduced the economy to an informal barter exchange.
The country has no money and no jobs for 90 per cent of its working population. This year the United Nations World Food Program pledged to spend $323-million to provide aid to the more than four million Zimbabweans who don't have enough to eat. The Economist, meanwhile, estimates that between three million and five million people have fled the country in desperation.
Mr. Mnangagwa was sworn in as the interim president on Friday and will run the country until the elections scheduled for next year. Given how elections worked in Zimbabwe when he was Mr. Mugabe's top lieutenant, there is reason to worry that his election has been preordained.
He could win it fairly, though. The people of his country have been receptive to his rise and are happy to see the door shut behind the incompetent Mr. Mugabe. There is a good chance they will vote for him simply because of the optimism his takeover has spawned in a population that hasn't had much to be positive about for an entire generation.
And Mr. Mnangagwa does indeed represent the possibility of a better future. He is as ruthless as the man he is replacing, but he is by all accounts much more pragmatic. He has already sent signals that he is willing to work with the opposition and that Zimbabwe will be more open for business under his leadership.
For instance, he has said he wants to compensate white farmers whose land was seized under Mr. Mugabe, a policy that did terrible damage to the country's once-vibrant agricultural industry and contributed to the current food shortage.
He has also talked about ending a law that requires that most companies operating in the country be 51-per-cent owned by Zimbabwean nationals or by government development corporations. The law has scared off investors in all sectors: mining, tourism, farming, manufacturing, retail, you name it. They could be convinced to come back, bearing desperately needed investment dollars, if Mr. Mnangagwa creates the right conditions.
But Mr. Mnangagwa and those who are cheering his rise to power need to acknowledge that replacing bad economic policies with more enlightened ones will not, on its own, be enough. The interim president must make his country more democratic if he wants to improve its fortunes in the long run.
The non-profit Centre for Economic Policy Research in 2013 found a direct correlation between the health of a nation's democracy and its gross national income, based on data gathered from 145 countries. There was also a direct correlation to better education, lower birth rates and higher longevity.
In Africa, you can see this at play in countries such as Botswana, Tunisia, South Africa and Nigeria, which while not always perfect democracies are not outright authoritarian regimes like Zimbabwe, and which have among the highest GDP-per-capita rates on the continent.
Zimbabwe has huge potential, but it will never be reached as long as Mr. Mnangagwa continues a single-party regime that restricts opposition voices and answers to no one but itself.
His history is not promising. He was instrumental in keeping Mr. Mugabe in power after an upstart challenger beat him in the first round of a presidential election in 2008. Mr. Mnangagwa and his boss used deadly state-sanctioned violence to cow the challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, into bowing out of the election.
In short, Mr. Mnangagwa has the means and temperament to stay in power as long as he wants.
He spoke promisingly at his inauguration of allowing free and credible elections in 2018, and also of the need for smooth transitions of power, even when the vote doesn't go your way. If Mr. Mnangagwa sticks to that, then Zimbabwe will be on the path to real recovery, and he will have shown that there is a better path for African leaders to follow.
If he doesn't, then Mr. Mugabe might as well have been allowed to die in office for all the difference it will make.