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OPINION: Is making the right noises enough of a plan?

By Stephen Chan
Posted on Monday, 14 May 2018 14:26

But it would have been his private discussions with the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Christine Lagarde at Davos that would have been critical to the future of the stricken Zimbabwean economy. In arrears to the World Bank and other international financial institutions – and with an estimated external debt of $7.2bn – no IMF rescue package will be possible until those arrears are paid.
People who thought the Chinese would ride to the rescue to enable talks with the IMF were mistaken. The Chinese have long been concerned that there was no hand upon the Zimbabwean economic helm, and will need reassurances that Mnangagwa’s policies are more than words. They will not throw good money after bad – especially as Zimbabwean indigenisation laws bit hard on many of their investments.
Whether Mnangagwa had the detailed fiscal scenarios and projections Lagarde would have wanted is a real question. Essentially, he is on a mission of high-level begging, as there are neither funds nor capacity in the Zimbabwean treasury or economic engine. In the last years of Mugabe, everything was to do with his health, his succession and his wife. He never understood economics and was not about to learn.

For the West, Mnangagwa’s dilemma is a major political concern. His reputation as a hard man and a key player in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) ideology of militant nationalism has meant caution in re-engagement – notwithstanding huge relief Mugabe has gone. The elections of 2018 are seen as a real test of whether the crocodile has indeed reformed. But, even with a speeded-up timetable for those elections, the Zimbabwean economy needs real help right away. Will hesitation bring it to the brink of no return? Western diplomatic discourse has moved from ‘let’s wait and see how the elections go’ to ‘we are prepared to give him a hearing’, but scepticism about the president’s bona fides remains very real and very hard.

But what are the alternatives to Mnangagwa? The opposition is split. The longtime leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, is seriously ill. In a real sense, early elections will give Mnangagwa the sense of being democratic while projecting the opposition’s inability to win. Indeed, if Tsvangirai dies or is forced to retire as leader, the shortened time frame can only work against the opposition.
Having said that, if the economy freefalls without any interim stabilisation measures – which can only be externally financed – and Mnangagwa does poorly at the elections, what will be Zimbabwe’s fate with a weakened president?

If the opposition wins, can it be united as a government? Can it do anything under weak and sickly leadership? And, in any case, have not Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF stolen any possible economic policy from under the opposition’s noses? It was not Tsvangirai at Davos. It was not oppositionist Joice Mujuru. And it was neither of them who met with South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, also at Davos. What words did Ramaphosa speak into the ears of rich investors who might have asked him about Zimbabwe?
If the running is all being made by Mnangagwa, and the opposition is invisible outside Zimbabwe, what about Zimbabwean civil society? #ThisFlag and the Apostolics have gone quiet. The students have restricted themselves to demands that the authenticity of Grace Mugabe’s doctorate be proven. The larger church groups have likewise joined the ‘wait and see’ battalions, and everyone is still grateful that Mugabe is no longer president. If the government has no concrete plan for the economy – because there is no concrete base from which to revitalise the economy – then no one else has a plan either.
The one certainty, and this does weigh upon the minds of Western ministers, is that the ZANU-PF high-command around Mnangagwa is now militarised in a way it never was before. With generals in senior cabinet positions and General (retired) Constantino Chiwenga as vice-president, the sense of this government departing with decorum and ease if defeated at the elections is far from palpable. The only way the Mnangagwa project can succeed is by a weak opposition losing the elections. Although that seems likely, will there be a militarised panic if the gap closes? Will recourse to rigging be brought to the fore again? If election observer groups bring information technology experts with them, will there be the risky recourse to ‘conditioning’ those parts of the voting that may be biometrically conducted? There are enough possibilities for a securitised government to give way to panic and to modes of insurance.
And, if the election is won fairly by Mnangagwa, will the West then re-engage? The West could get behind an IMF rescue package, and that in itself would be sufficient sign of confidence for investments to begin again. But the IMF will demand a further shrinking of the public sector – so that, in a country with shrunken formal employment, the possibility of such employment will shrink even further. The pain of rescue will be very great. The evidence of such pain will be greater and swifter than any uplift that comes about by foreign investment.

Will the Chinese finally drop their reluctance to be the key rescuer? If they do, it will only be after they are sure the Zimbabweans have learnt a key lesson in not biting the hand that feeds them. The indigenisation of Chinese enterprises was taken in Beijing as huge ingratitude. And insofar as indigenisation, like so much of economic activity in Zimbabwe, has been to enrich a corrupt elite, the Chinese will demand a full-blown turn to financial transparency – as they did, with partial success, in Angola. In a way, much to the surprise of the Zimbabweans, it might be the Chinese who act most closely with the IMF.
Britain has no money. The US under President Donald Trump is not interested. Europe, with the increasingly powerful voice of France’s Emmanuel Macron, will have Zimbabwe far down its list.
Zimbabwe’s future is out of its hands. Why else does a president beg in Davos? For Mnangagwa, the big problem might not be winning the 2018 election, but whether the economy will have recovered enough for him and ZANU-PF to win the 2023 elections.

From the March 2018 print edition

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