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Wells Haslem Mayhew’s Special Counsel, Kerry Sibraa AO, was Australia’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe from 1994 to 1998. Here he examines the southern African nation’s post-Mugabe future.

The 4th of March marked the first 100 days of Emmerson Mnangagwa presidency since his inauguration on 24 November 2017. This followed the military-led and civilian embraced uprising against former president Robert Mugabe.

The events leading up to Mnangagwa’s sudden ascendency were as unexpected as they were overdue.

The reasons for the military move against Mugabe are well known – the ousting of his long-time right-hand man and Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa by the Generation 40 faction of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU - PF), led by Mugabe’s ambitious wife Grace. It was a step too far for the chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces General Constantine Chiwenga who launched the coup that would ultimately deliver the Presidency to the man known as “the Crocodile”.

At his inauguration attended by 60,000 people at the National Sports Stadium in the country’s capital Harare, Mnangagwa said most of the things the country and the world wanted to hear – he would serve all citizens, revitalise the economy, stop corruption (extra loud applause) and, most important, hold free, fair and credible elections in 2018.

The first 100 days are symbolic and important for any new government - especially for a President with so little time before he faces the ballot box. The voters have high expectations and the to-do list is huge. Restoring faith in institutions, the rule of law and democracy as well as steering the economy away from its formerly ruinous path is no small ask.

According to the 2017-2018 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the most problematic factors for doing business in Zimbabwe include (in order of their importance): policy instability (19.3%); foreign currency regulations (15.9%); inefficient government bureaucracy (13.6%); access to finance (10.5%); corruption (9.2%); government instability (8.8%); inadequate supply of infrastructure (8.3%); tax rates (4.6%); restrictive labour regulations (4.4%) and tax regulations (4.1%), among others[1].

The clearest sign of the intended direction of the Government was the delivery of the 2018 budget last December by finance minister Patrick Chinamasa. It was a budget that sought to end Zimbabwe’s economic isolation with a package of measures to entice foreign investment back, including winding back 2009 laws that require companies to be 51 percent locally owned (except for diamond and platinum enterprises) and foreshadowed privatisation of state-owned entities.

The budget also sought to contain expenditure by winding back the civil service which currently makes up 90 percent of all government expenditure. Civil servants over the age of 65 will be forced to retire and some diplomatic missions closed.

A three-month amnesty was declared for individuals and companies to return public funds illegally taken abroad as an anti-corruption measure.

These and other measures outlined in the Budget were all steps in the right direction, however much depends on the elections scheduled for July this year. Uncertainties associated with the conduct and outcome of these elections will undoubtedly act as a brake on potential investors as they adopt a wait and see attitude.

At a meeting with representatives from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) this week led by its Chairman and newly inaugurated South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mnangagwa once more committed to “free, fair and credible elections”.

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The SADC is weighing in heavily to support this commitment and has offered to underwrite Zimbabwe’s general election’s technical requirements. They are currently preparing an assessment of the country’s state of readiness for the elections and are meeting with political parties, journalists and other sectors involved in the management of the elections. They will also send observers to the elections both pre-election and during, as will many other nations since Mnangagwa extended invitations to “anyone interested”, including the EU, Britain and the US. Australia will undoubtedly also send observers.

Mnangagwa has also formally informed Britain of Harare’s intention to re-join the Commonwealth this year and has sent a team to London to negotiate.

Notwithstanding these positive steps and the demise of Mugabe, there is deep suspicion and doubt still remains that the election will be free and fair. Opposition parties express concerns about ballot printing and the audit of the voter rolls.

Memories are still relatively fresh from the 2008 “stolen” presidential election when it was widely believed then Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of voting, only to have it declared after two months of delay that he fell short. The second voting round, which Tsvangirai reluctantly took part in quickly descended into violence and chaos as Mugabe henchmen set out on a course of widespread intimidation of MDC voters, leading to Tsvangirai’s withdrawal and an eventual “win” for Mugabe. According to some, the chief strategist for the election was Mnangagwa himself.

Although Mnangagwa is enjoying something of a honeymoon if only because he represents something other than Mugabe, the voters have tasted change and may invoke their right to continue that change by voting against ZANU - PF.

Sadly, just over a month ago long-time and courageous opposition leader and once Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai passed away in South Africa. His death, unlike others who opposed Mugabe and his ZANU -PF government, was from natural causes. He leaves behind a fractured MDC-T party which more recently joined forces with seven other opposition parties to form the MDC Alliance. With their array of names, they’ve been nicknamed the Alphabet Party.

Tsvangirai’s successor is a young MP and lawyer, Nelson Chamisa, who has been endorsed as their Presidential candidate. His eloquence and charisma has been drawing large crowds at political rallies around the country. But he faces opposition from within his group which could be a distraction from the main game. He will also face a very wily opponent in “the Crocodile”.

So what of Robert Mugabe and his controversial wife Grace? After being silent for months and receiving his full former presidential entitlements in cash, Mugabe has re-emerged, giving media interviews to foreign journalists from his opulent Harare home “the Blue Roof mansion”, all presided over by Grace who according to one journalist “interjects and corrects his mistakes”.

He has called his removal unconstitutional and a coup d’etat. He says, apparently with no hint of irony that he wants to engage in the process of setting up a constitutional government. His comments appear to coincide with the visit to Zimbabwe by the new South African President, and a somewhat desperate plea for attention. Mnangagwa was unmoved. He said: “he is entitled to express himself freely, as is the case for any private citizen…the nation has moved on”, or as another political commentator put it Mugabe is merely “barking at a moving train”.

The months leading up to and the July elections themselves will be critical to the future of Zimbabwe. There is no doubt the conduct of the election will be the true indicator as to whether Zimbabwe has truly turned the corner.

[1] http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-index-2017-2018/countryeconomy-profiles/#economy=ZWE