Mugabe’s Last Stand
Whether it’s an Arab Spring-style uprising that gets him or simply old age — Zimbabwe’s firebrand autocrat is on his way out.
HARARE, Zimbabwe — Hundreds of young protesters dragged logs into the streets of Zimbabwe’s capital city, lighting fires to block motorists and dancing animatedly around a pink placard that screamed, “WE WANT ELECTORAL REFORMS.”
But before they could march on the country’s electoral commission to show their discontent with President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF Party, they were set upon by riot police armed with batons, tear gas, and water-cannon trucks. The images of police brutality that followed were some of the ugliest that Zimbabwe has seen in years.
“They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country, but we tell them that it is not going to happen here,” Mugabe said of the demonstrators on state television later that day.
The protest on Aug. 26 was the clearest sign yet that the man who has ruled Zimbabwe for 36 years may be starting to lose his grip on power. For the past two months, anti-government protests have roiled this southern African country, fueled in part by a rapidly deteriorating economy. But for the first time, a broad-based coalition of activist groups and opposition parties — 18 in total — has come together with a list of common demands: elections before 2018, when the next one is scheduled to take place, and a host of measures to make the electoral process more transparent.
The message to Mugabe is clear: It’s time for the 92-year-old president and his party to go.
“We are frustrated and fed-up, so we don’t care if Mugabe doesn’t want an Arab Spring,” said Tendai Chipomo, who participated in the Aug. 26 protest. “We have to do what we can to show the authorities that we are prepared to die for our future because we have nothing else left.”
Mugabe came to power as a hero of the liberation war that ended in Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980. But his increasingly authoritarian rule and disastrous economic policies, which resulted in hyperinflation and the abandonment of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009, have eroded his popularity. The “Old Man,” as many Zimbabweans call him, won his last two elections — in 2008 and 2013 — amid widespread intimidation, violence, and accusations of vote-rigging.
As Zimbabwe’s economic woes have deepened this summer amid dollar shortages and rising unemployment, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF Party has faced mounting criticism from grassroots activists and opposition politicians alike. Some of the party’s wounds have been self-inflicted. For instance, Second Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko stoked public outrage by living in a five-star hotel for more than 18 months while the government supposedly searched for a suitable permanent residence for him. The cost to taxpayers was as much as $600,000 for his extended stay in a luxury suite.
But ZANU-PF is also facing a more energized and broad-based opposition movement. After a little-known pastor named Evan Mawarire posted a video online in April in which he kissed the Zimbabwean flag and ticked off a list of the government’s failures — corruption, unemployment, and lack of basic social services, among other things — a nationwide social media campaign was born under the hashtag #ThisFlag. Thousands of people flooded Facebook and Twitter with demands for reform. On July 6, the campaign staged a “stay-away from work” protest that saw most urban businesses shut down. In major towns across the country, police clashed with demonstrators and at least 100 people were arrested.
Fast-forward to today and Mawarire has fled to the country, accused of attempting to subvert the constitutional order. But both the #ThisFlag campaign and another campaign called Tajamuka — “We don’t want,” in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s national languages — have been involved in recent anti-government protests. (Tajamuka is led by Promise Mkwananzi, a young activist who was arrested last week on charges of inciting public violence and remains behind bars.)
Tajamuka and #ThisFlag have expressed support for the coalition of 18 opposition parties — led by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Joice Mujuru, a former vice president who is now a vocal critic of Mugabe — that came together recently to form the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), which is lobbying for fairer polls in 2018.
Few expect the NERA to achieve its immediate reform goals, but some analysts believe it may galvanize the electorate behind opposition parties in 2018.
“ZANU-PF are not capable of reforming, but these [citizen] movements are helping to mobilize people and to promote political consciousness,” Alex Magaisa, a former advisor to Tsvangirai who is now a law lecturer at the University of Kent in Britain, said in an email. “If the young people, who constitute the majority, can register to vote in large numbers, that will create a huge reservoir of support to opposition parties and galvanize them to defend their vote should it be stolen again by ZANU-PF.”
Perhaps just as important as the establishment of NERA is what its membership says about the strength of Mugabe’s party going into the election. Mujuru’s defection to the opposition occasioned a major split within ZANU-PF, with many former party stalwarts decamping along with the former vice president. The influential liberation war veterans association also broke publicly with Mugabe this year over what it called his “dictatorial tendencies.” The rift means that Mugabe’s already weakened party has lost another crucial pillar of support before the 2018 election.
“ZANU-PF is a party founded on liberation ideals, so the power struggle between Mugabe and the liberators, the war veterans, now weakens the party ideologically,” said Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a think tank in Harare.
The rift also weakens ZANU-PF because many war veterans still serve within the security services that Mugabe often leans on during his re-election campaigns. “There is now a division between those war veterans who have withdrawn from Mugabe and those who still serve within the state’s security structures,” Ruhanya said.
So far Mugabe’s government has responded to the groundswell of opposition the same way it responded to the protests on Aug. 26 — with violence and intimidation. It has deployed additional security forces to urban areas, rounded up suspected protesters, and introduced a bill in Parliament that would allow the government to monitor and seize the laptops and cellphones of suspected dissidents.
Since early July, hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested. Others have been threatened by members of the ZANU-PF’s Youth League, which has a record of assaulting and intimidating members of the opposition.
But instead of silencing the protest movement, Mugabe seems to have given it additional steam. Another nationwide demonstration planned for Sept. 2 was canceled because of a government-imposed two-week ban on public protests in Harare, but small groups of demonstrators nonetheless clashed with security forces in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, as riot police patrolled cities across the country. Already, the NERA has rescheduled the nationwide protest for Sept. 16, the day the protest ban expires.
“We have gained a voice as people, and many of us want the same thing,” said Arnold Muropa, an unemployed opposition supporter. “So whichever way change comes, Zimbabwe has to change. We cannot go on.”
Image credit: WILFRED KAJESE/AFP/Getty Images