LIKE millions of other angry and desperate Tunisians, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi — who was degreed in computer science — faced the daunting combination of poor employment prospects and food inflation in a country whose government was authoritarian, inept and corrupt.
In December 2010, Bouazizi, who used to sell fruits and vegetables from a cart in his rural town of Sidi Bouzid, stood in front of municipal offices drenched in gasoline and set himself on fire.
His symbolic act of desperation — self-immolation — resonated immediately with others in the town. Protests began that day in Sidi Bouzid, captured by cellphone cameras and shared on the internet. Within days, protests engulfed the country with Tunisians demanding President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime step down. A month later, Ben Ali fled.
The momentum in Tunisia set off uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring. Among other countries, in Egypt protests rocked Cairo leading to the stepping down of strongman Hosni Mubarak, interestingly President Robert Mugabe’s associate.
Five years after Bouazizi protested against a declining economy, corruption and authoritarian rule, Zimbabwe finds itself in a similar position where the economic decline has become the ruling party Zanu PF’s greatest threat more than a once robust opposition emaciated by multiple breakaways.
Last week a series of demonstrations precipitated by the country’s worsening economic crisis rocked the country, starting with a prison riot at the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison where inmates violently protested against inhumane prison conditions including poor diet and overcrowding. About five prisoners reportedly died in a shootout while the complex was extensively damaged in the disturbances that are unprecedented since Independence in 1980.
University lecturers, students and general staff at the deteriorating University of Zimbabwe went on strike resulting in last week’s temporary closure as chaos and running battles between students and the riot police took centre-stage. The lecturers were owed unpaid February salaries and benefits as government increasing struggles to meet its civil service wage obligations chewing up more than 80% of shrinking revenue.
Harare was also rocked by demonstrations as the opposition and civil society demanded the immediate release of abducted journalist-cum-political activist Itai Dzamara. He was reportedly abducted near his home by five unidentified men believed to be state security agents and driven away in an Isuzu truck. Since then, opposition parties and human rights groups have been ratcheting up pressure on government to produce him.
Government is, however, pointing a finger at the West, suggesting the protests are linked to its efforts to make the country ungovernable.
Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF party have always insisted the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC-T is the greatest threat to the country’s stability, accusing it of being a Western-sponsored puppet bent on effecting illegal regime change.
But since its electoral victory in July 2013, tainted by allegations of systematic rigging and voter disenfranchisement, Zanu PF has failed to improve the lot of Zimbabweans; if anything poverty is on the increase as the opposition’s warning that “Zanu PF cannot rig the economy” becomes reality.
The ruling party has also dismally failed to meet its electoral promises, including the claim it would create two million jobs.
Addressing his supporters in Chitungwiza after losing the 2013 elections, MDC-T leader Tsvangirai said: “I want to tell you that you won the 31 July election. You did not lose it, but it is Robert Mugabe who stole the election and is causing a national crisis … Although Zanu PF stole the election, it cannot steal the economy.”
Contrary to its election manifesto, which promised 2,2 million jobs in the next five years, Zimbabwe has witnessed massive company closures and retrenchments within the last two years, thus swelling the ranks of the unemployed estimated at above 80%.
In its inflation report released last week, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) said about 4 000 workers were retrenched in 2014, a 40% increase in retrenchment figures compared to 2013, as the economy continues to nosedive leading to more companies closing shop.
“Owing to viability challenges, a significant number of companies resorted to downsizing and restructuring, while some were placed under judicial management and yet others even closing down completely,” the RBZ said.
Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the government’s failure to properly manage the economy is the greatest threat the country is currently facing.
“The government’s failure to properly manage the economy and its inability to attract foreign direct investment on account of bad governance, disregard of the rule of law and lack of respect for human rights, constitute the biggest threats to stability in Zimbabwe,” Mavhinga said.
“A comatose economy has pushed the otherwise mild-mannered and long-suffering Zimbabweans into a corner where they must fight for their survival, hence we are witnessing sporadic demonstrations which, if unabated, may spread making the country unmanageable.”
Another analyst Rejoice Ngwenya said the badly managed economy is the biggest threat to Zanu PF and a recipe for disaster.
“An economy that runs only on 36% productive capacity, is sustained by vendors with very little savings and dysfunctional infrastructure, can only be a hotbed for civic unrest,” Ngwenya said.
The economy is an albatross around Zanu PF’s neck; it is indeed the party’s main enemy and has shaken the entire foundation of the party, said political analyst Maxwell Saungweme.
“You simply cannot rig the economy and the depressing economic indicators don’t lie.
“All signs point to a dying economy — little to no production in the manufacturing sector; a suppressed agricultural sector; deflation; about 90% unemployment; huge sovereign debt; liquidity crunch; a central bank that can no longer play the lender-of-last-resort role to banks and lack of domestic currency,” he said.
Analysts say Zimbabwe’s renewed economic crisis is reaching a critical point where it threatens Zanu PF’s continued rule and could deliver the knockout blow for a regime that stands accused of misrule and disastrous mismanagement.