It was not to be. On April 12 Mugabe arrived back in Harare “fit as a fiddle” — and the Zimbabwe Mail apologised and began looking for a replacement news editor. Nevertheless, the episode raises again the issue of just how — as well as when — Zimbabwe will make the transition to a post-Mugabe era.
There is no shortage of scenarios.
A parliamentary committee drawing up a new constitution to replace the one negotiated at Lancaster House in London in 1979 will publish its draft soon, leading to a national referendum in September and fresh elections in mid-2013 or later.
But unless the draft is approved by all three parties in the country’s fractious, dysfunctional coalition administration comprising Mugabe’s Zanu PF, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, and its tiny breakaway rump led by Industry and Commerce minister Welshman Ncube — constitutional deadlock will continue and Mugabe will be free to dissolve parliament and call elections when he pleases.
He and his party want elections this year, presumably worried that his health will not bear the rigours of campaigning in 2013 or beyond. But the two wings of the MDC, with the backing of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, insist there can be no elections until a new constitution and electoral law are in place.
All of this suggests that unless the president’s health fails Zimbabwe will remain in a policy and political vacuum that cannot be good for investment or growth. The huge debt overhang — foreign debt exceeds GDP while arrears are 75% of GDP — is unlikely to be tackled until a new administration is in place. Earlier this week Tendai Biti, Finance minister, admitted that his “cash budget” was US$93 million (about 0,8% of GDP) in deficit in Q1 2012. Bankers and economists want to know how this is being funded given that, having dollarised in 2009, the central bank can no longer print money. Preliminary balance-of-payments numbers show over US$1 billion in fresh offshore borrowing last year while investment inflows were tiny at US$200 million.
Economic recovery depends on the election of a majority government that can take tough decisions. Opinion polls — for what they are worth — suggest that given a reasonably free poll, Tsvangirai would easily defeat Mugabe or either of his two potential successors — vice president Joice Mujuru, a political lightweight, or Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. The latter was an effective minister in challenging jobs including justice and finance, but he is unpopular as well as feared because of his links with the country’s Central Intelligence Organisation.
This parliament’s mandate runs out in May 2013 which, constitutionally, sets the deadline for presidential and parliamentary elections. For all its confidence in its public support, the MDC fears not only that securocrats in the army and police will not allow a free poll, but that elections without far-reaching reforms will unleash an orgy of violence as in 2008.
Mugabe’s departure, for whatever reason, would break the logjam: if the president goes before his term is complete the two houses of parliament — the Senate and the House of Assembly sit as an electoral college within 90 days to elect a successor for the remainder of his tenure in terms of Constitutional Amendment Number 18, or a Zanu PF nominee takes over although it’s not clearly defined how in accordance with Amendment Number 19 which only applies so long as the Global Political Agreement subsists.
But that would not ensure that the poll would be free since the military, which see themselves as the guardians of Zimbabwe’s sovereignty, would likely block the transfer of power to the MDC’s Western-backed “sellouts” and “stooges.”
It seems then that so long as the president stays fit enough for the job, Zimbabwe will continue to be mired in political and economic uncertainty. Some — from all three political parties — believe the most pragmatic solution would be to extend the life of the coalition until a new constitution is agreed or Mugabe steps down. Pragmatic though that might be, it would leave the country in a state of continuous campaigning to the detriment not just of the economy but of governance as a whole.
The belief in Western capitals is that post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will be a very different country. That is based less on thoughtful analysis of the reality on the ground than on the naive assumption that Zimbabwe can somehow go back to its past of the 1980s or 1990s. But the dynamics within Zimbabwe and the region have changed and whoever succeeds Mugabe is not going to reverse his policies on land or indigenisation. It might be softened at the edges but Zanu-PF nationalism runs so deep that even if he wanted to turn the clock back, which is doubtful, Tsvangirai would not be able to do so.
Professor Hawkins teaches Economics at the Graduate School of Management at the University of Zimbabwe.