Mugabe Is a Goner, But His Looting Machine Is Here to Stay

Zimbabwe’s military didn’t topple the regime. It just restored the ruling party’s corrupt old guard to power.

Former President Robert Mugabe during a speech on Nov. 8 in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)
Former President Robert Mugabe during a speech on Nov. 8 in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

President Robert Mugabe kept Zimbabweans guessing right until the bitter end, but his 37-year reign is finally over. Africa’s oldest head of state was last week placed under house arrest by his own military chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga. A mass demonstration followed on Saturday, Nov. 18, with thousands of people filling the streets to demand his ouster. Then, on Sunday, the ruling Zanu-PF party formally expelled Mugabe, his wife Grace, and many of their closest allies. That night, the president made a nationally televised address in which he was expected to resign. He did not.

After defying his opponents for nearly four decades, it was perhaps inevitable that the famously stubborn leader would have one last trick up his sleeve. But Mugabe’s time is finally up. He resigned on Tuesday, soon after the Parliament began impeachment proceedings, according to Parliamentary Speaker Jacob Mudenda.

Mugabe will cast a long shadow over his country’s politics for many years to come. The only leader the southern African nation has known since the end of white minority rule in 1980, Mugabe presided over Zimbabwe’s fall from a promising regional powerhouse into a predatory state that serves only the most corrupt and venal. The country once exported food, but today half the rural population relies on international largesse to survive.

The massive anti-Mugabe protests that took place over the weekend were a clear rejection of that legacy. But with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party still firmly in charge, the prospects for real reform are bleak, though not completely barren.

Some hope that Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president whose firing on Nov. 6 precipitated the military takeover and who has since been installed as the party’s leader, will form an inclusive transitional authority to manage the country until elections can be held, perhaps as early as next August. This would allow the military to return to the barracks, and the new authorities to begin emergency negotiations with the country’s creditors. Zimbabwe’s economy is nearing free fall with a severe shortage of cash, but it won’t be righted until the government clears roughly $5 billion in unpaid arrears and secures a new line of credit.

To be credible, however, the transitional authority would need to include figures like veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, highly regarded former finance minister Tendai Biti, former vice president Joice Mujuru, and longtime politician Welshman Ncube, among others. No doubt these figures would require assurances that the transitional authority will wield actual power — especially to reform the election system — before they agree to participate.

A more disturbing — but far more likely — outcome is that Mnangagwa simply takes power. Zanu-PF has built a well-oiled machine for dominating the country and stage-managing elections. In fact, Mnangagwa is one of the creators of that system of repression and control, which has enriched a small cabal at the top through a vast empire of corruption. Mnangagwa may entice one or two opposition leaders to play a ceremonial role, but he is unlikely to cede any real influence. This is essentially what happened during the last government of national unity, from 2009 to 2013, when the opposition was given a nominal seat at the table after Mugabe unleashed a campaign of killings, torture, and rape to steal the 2008 election.

Tsvangirai and others are well aware of this trap, but they may feel pressure to go along, hoping to leverage concessions now that Mugabe is gone. This would be an especially dangerous gamble with Mnangagwa, nicknamed the “crocodile” for his ruthlessness, who was Mugabe’s state security chief for many years before he became vice president.

He played a central role in the 2008 election violence, and in a vicious campaign of pacification in the 1980s, when North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops murdered more than 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland.

This darker scenario — the junta with a fig leaf — can only survive in the long term if the international community at least tacitly goes along. Sadly, South Africa and former colonial power Britain have reportedly already indicated that they prefer short-term stability over long-term reforms. They might be willing to give Mnangagwa five years as president to show what he can do. As a result, their credibility among opposition groups as honest brokers has vanished. Indeed, one of the themes of the demonstrations over the weekend was for South Africa to keep out.

The United States views Zimbabwe differently. The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, passed with bipartisan support in 2001, sets out strict conditions for U.S. re-engagement, including the lifting of targeted sanctions and debt relief. Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, the military chief, are still listed among the roughly 200 individuals and entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. To have their assets unfrozen and their ban on doing business with Americans lifted, they will need to convince U.S. officials that they are no longer undermining democracy and the rule of law.

The United States also has significant influence over the terms of any future debt restructuring or new loans. For the last two years, Washington has resisted British attempts to arrange a financial bailout for Mugabe. Before it agrees to a debt relief package, the United States should insist on elections that are credible, free, and fair.

The long-term survival of any new Zimbabwean government will depend on resolving the country’s cash crisis and reviving the economy. But Zanu-PF has shown a remarkable ability to resist reform, even under the most trying of circumstances. Just as Mugabe inexplicably clung on to the bitter end, the looting machine he is leaving behind may keep on running, regardless of the cost.

Todd Moss, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

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