I MAY have been wrong about the end of President Robert Mugabe.
I assumed that nothing in Zimbabwe would change until he was carried feet first out of office.
In one way that is correct. He will not retire. He will try to retain the title of President of Zimbabwe until he dies. He told a recent visitor that work keeps him young and went on to say what a wonderful woman the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was.
Sadly, he said, she died “young” because she gave up office and stopped work.
He really did try to befriend Thatcher, but he is not going to make the same mistake again. Yet he does seem to be stepping away from the day-to-day running of Zimbabwe to exploit his new position as chairperson of the African Union, the President of Presidents.
He is also chair of regional bloc, the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc). These give him a continent-wide platform to attack whoever he pleases, but will he release his grip on the politics of Zimbabwe? Unlikely.
Although largely ceremonial, the AU position gives him the ovations and cheers from fellow presidents at big televised public events. The presidents will follow the African tradition for respect for the elderly.
And of course, they still have to celebrate the anti-colonial struggle. However, they will not be endorsing or following Mugabe’s policies. If investors are wise, which they mostly are, they will ignore this theatre.
Sensing Mugabe’s withdrawal from the day-to-day management of the country — he is set to spend three weeks in the Far East where he frequently goes for medical check-ups and enjoys annual vacations — succession rivals have started to try and decimate each other.
Former vice-president Joice Mujuru and her loyalists have been major casualties as Mugabe’s wife, Grace, teamed up with Mujuru’s predecessor Emmerson Mnangagwa in a vicious campaign ahead of the party’s congress last December, that resulted in her getting fired from the vice-presidency.
She has now been denounced as plotting to overthrow Mugabe and is under investigation for several crimes.
So what are Mnangagwa’s plans? He says that he has a mandate from Mugabe — or “Number One” as he is known to his ministers — to revive the economy by any means.
The country is bankrupt and most major transactions are in US dollars or the South African rand. The Marange diamond fields — one of the richest finds in Southern Africa — has been excavated by all sorts of shady characters and the army, but little has trickled into Treasury amid reports security chiefs, political bigwigs and foreign diamond dealers have enriched themselves.
In a typical case of resource curse, diamonds have failed to contribute to the health or education sectors, among others. Now huge investment is needed to continue production at a deeper level as the alluvial deposits are running out.
Zimbabwe remains a relatively developed country with an effective national infrastructure. It has a power supply that still works despite frequent power cuts, roads that are getting repaired and a civil service that can deliver even though it has been badly compromised by ruling party politicians.
In literacy, it ranks higher than 27 other African countries in the Human Development Index including Kenya and the Ivory Coast, and has some of the highest ratings of all the least developed countries although employment is quoted at above 80% and increasing owing to the current economic problems.
Although millions of Zimbabweans have voted with their feet and left the country, Zimbabwe could easily bounce back if it was better led.
Mugabe’s AU job will only last for a year so he may well try to return more to the day-to-day running of Zimbabwe when he steps down. Mnangagwa will try to position himself as the only successor.
The Crocodile, as he is known, says he wants to revive the economy and is holding out a hand to investors. But with much of Zimbabwe’s agricultural processing and manufacturing capacity destroyed, there is no alternative to basic agriculture at the moment.
Agricultural production is running at 40% of the level it was in 2000 — before most white farmers were expelled and their land expropriated. There has been a recent admission that aspects of the land reform programme had failed as the country struggles to revive commercial farming, although tobacco farming is firmly on the rebound.
Mugabe himself has admitted that “mistakes were made” over the land grab and there are hints from those around him that some white former farmers could be invited back or those targeted spared eviction. Government is desperately trying to get Zimbabwe’s debt rescheduled, but estimates of what it actually owes vary between US$7 billion and US$11 billion. There will be tough negotiations.
Why should the world be kind to a country whose wounds are self-inflicted? The European Union (EU) is taking the lead on this but — erratic as ever — Mugabe, 91, announced at his recent birthday party that the remaining white farmers should be kicked out.
This contradicts Mnangagwa’s new message and would scupper any attempt to get the EU to help with Zimbabwe’s debt or encourage investment.
But if this indeed is the moment when Mugabe is losing his grip on the country, the turnaround might begin.
Dowden is director of the Royal African Society.