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Robert Mugabe

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Zimbabwe: Broke Again

“Zimbabwe is open for business” was President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s slogan in the July election that was supposed to show that the long and destructive reign of dictator Robert Mugabe, overthrown late last year, is really now a thing of the past. The country has been getting steadily poorer for decades now, but this election would be the turning point.

“You can rig an election – as they did on 30th July 2018 – but you can’t rig an economy, you can’t rig a supermarket or a gas station,” replied Tendai Biti, a leading member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and it turns out that he was right. Less than three months after the election, Zimbabwe is in a huge economic crisis.

People are getting desperate, because shops are running out of essential items like bread. Even beer is being rationed (two bottles per person), and the cost of everything is soaring as people once again lose confidence in the currency. KFC and other fast-food chains have closed their doors because inflation is moving too fast to calculate.

Zimbabweans are comparing it to the great inflation of 2008, when the Zimbabwean dollar became less valuable than the paper it was printed on – bags full of 100-trillion-dollar notes were not enough to buy bread – and peoples’ pitifully small savings were wiped out.

After that the Zimbabwean currency was entirely abandoned and the country began using American dollars and South African rands instead. Gradually, however, the government began reintroducing a kind of local currency as well, pegged one-for-one to the US dollar, officially called ‘bond notes’ but popularly called Zim dollars or Zollars.

It’s these Zim dollars whose value is now collapsing, while real US dollars have become as scarce as hens’ teeth. Today 361 Zim dollars buys you one US dollar. Tomorrow, who knows?

The government is quite right to say that this is a panic driven by hoarding and speculation – but people are behaving like that because they do not trust the government. Nor should they.

Robert Mugabe was not overthrown last year by a popular revolution. He was overthrown by his own corrupt and overbearing ZANU-PF Party, because he was planning to make his own wife Grace his successor. (Mugabe is 94 years old.)

It was Mugabe’s long-serving deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa who organised his cronies in the army (also controlled by ZANU-PF) to remove Mugabe from the presidency. Mnangagwa’s record of corruption and violence is impressive even by the ruling party’s standards, but he needed to create what looked like a new, cleaner government if the country was ever to escape from its dire poverty.

Zimbabwe was once a prosperous country. It still has ample resources and a relatively well-educated population, and if it could just inspire enough confidence in foreign investors and get control over its huge foreign debts it could start to climb out of the deep hole Mugabe left it in. But for that, it needs an honest, democratically credible government.

This is tricky, because a really free election would almost certainly have removed Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF cronies from power. They were never going to accept that outcome, because it’s political power that makes them rich (by Zimbabwean standards). So the election had to look clean, but come out the right way.

Compared to all ZANU-PF’s other election victories, it was relatively clean: little intimidation or bribery of voters except in rural areas and little overt violence. But it was imperative that Mnangagwa win the presidency in the first round, when he faced a half-dozen rivals who split the opposition vote. For that, he needed to get over 50 percent of the votes in the first round.

He clearly didn’t get it, because the vote-counting (largely controlled by ZANU-PF appointees) took three days longer than expected. After the numbers had been thoroughly massaged, it was finally announced that Mnangagwa got 50.8 percent of the votes. Congratulations, Mr President!

Nobody believed it, and when opposition protests began in Harare, the police shot six of the protesters dead. That was all it took. The foreign institutions and companies that might have rescheduled Zimbabwe’s debt and invested in the country’s economy decided that it’s still the same old gang in power (as indeed it is), and turned their attention and their money elsewhere.

Three months later the Zimbabwean economy, which had been momentarily buoyed up by the hope of better times, is collapsing. In theory, this should usher in the second phase of democratisation in the country, with massive demonstrations driving ‘the crocodile’ (Mnangagwa) out of power.

In practice, that may not happen. Zimbabweans may be too cowed, or just too exhausted – and ZANU-PF would not go without a fight.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“After…knows”)

Zimbabwe: Good Luck, Grace

“Someone, anyone, with close links, please make sure Uncle Bob reads the correct speech … Old man reads the 2013 inauguration speech and we’re in kak for another 5 years,” tweeted Mubaiwa Bandambira just before Zimbabwe’s beleaguered president, Robert Mugabe, went on television with what was supposed to be his resignation speech. After all, Mugabe is 93 years old, and he has read the wrong speech before.

He did it again, but it was not a mistake. With the generals who intervened last week to remove him from power ranged in chairs behind him, Mugabe stumbled and bumbled through a 20-minute speech in which he made no mention of resignation. No doubt his resignation was a key part of the speech they had agreed he would make, but he skipped those pages.

The Old Man is clearly delusional. He vowed to preside over next month’s congress of the ruling Zanu-PF party, although it has just fired him after 42 years as its leader. He ignored its threat to begin impeachment proceedings if he does not resign the presidency within 24 hours. And his wife Grace, who was being positioned to succeed him as president but has now been expelled from Zanu-PF, is just as out of touch with reality.

It was Grace who persuaded Robert Mugabe to sack two vice-presidents in a row in order to take the job herself. This is what triggered the army’s intervention, because her second victim, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is an extremely powerful politician with close connections to the military. He had expected to succeed Mugabe when the old man finally died, and he took his dismissal personally.

Mnangagwa went into exile in Mozambique for a week, but then the army intervened on his behalf and the current crisis erupted. The generals hoped that they could get Mugabe to resign voluntarily, because they could then pretend that their action was not a military coup.

That was important, because the African Union no longer tolerates military coups in its member states and might even intervene against the generals. But Mugabe has tricked them, using his live television speech to declare that he plans to stay in power – and the soldiers are bound to conclude that it was Grace who put him up to it. She probably did.

Ten days ago, not knowing what was to come, I wrote a piece about Grace Mugabe and her ambition to take the presidency when Robert Mugabe finally dies. But she is hated in the party and deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans in general because of her greed and arrogance, and I ended the article by saying: “Once he dies, she will be lucky to get out alive.”

For a moment there, when the army intervened last week, I thought she might escape that fate. Uncle Bob would be offered a dignified exit from power, she would be excluded from the succession, and they would both go off to a comfortable retirement in Singapore or some other city where they already own very comfortable homes.

Well, that’s not going to happen. She has encouraged the old man to deceive the generals and cling to power, which wrecks their plans for a semi-constitutional transfer of power that doesn’t look like a coup. He will still be ejected from power, but no longer with dignity. They won’t kill him, because he is a hero from the time of the liberation struggle, but she is in mortal danger.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is now back in Zimbabwe, and will shortly be the president. He is known as “the crocodile”, and he has no reason to protect Grace Mugabe. Her best hope is exile, but she had better take the exit soon. And what Zimbabwe will get is not an end of the dictatorship, but just a new dictator.

What is happening in Zimbabwe is not a popular revolution but a power struggle inside the ruling Zanu-PF party, and Mnangagwa is no democrat. He is a brutal political operator who directed the massacre of at least 20,000 people in the early 1980s, when the Ndebele people of southwestern Zimbabwe resisted the takeover of the whole country by Mugabe’s party.

Mnangagwa was also in charge of the military intervention in the 2008 election, in which so many civilians were assaulted, imprisoned or killed that the opposition leader withdrew his candidacy to save lives even though he had beaten Mugabe in the first round. Zimbabwe has always held elections, but there has never been any doubt about the result.

The Zimbabweans are celebrating Mugabe’s impending departure in the streets now, but there is no cause to believe that things will now get better for them. The same elite that has looted the country and run its economy into the ground will still be in power, led by a man more ruthless and violent than Mugabe.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“That..did”; and “Mnangagwa…result”)

The Rehabilitation of Robert Mugabe

24 July 2013

The Rehabilitation of Robert Mugabe

By Gwynne Dyer

Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, is now 89 years old, but he is running for another five-year term in the elections on 31 July. Perhaps his optimism is justified, given that his mother died at 100, but why is he doing it? More importantly, why is the ruling party, ZANU-PF, still backing him as its presidential candidate, given that he has spent the past decade as an international pariah?

He is doing it because, although he is an intelligent man, he has convinced himself that it is only his presidency that forestalls an imperialist reconquest of Zimbabwe. And ZANU-PF is backing him because a) it thinks he can win the election, more or less; b) it believes the international community will grudgingly accept that result; and c) it will then control the succession when he finally dies.

Mugabe was always a despot, but his history as leader of the independence movement meant that he probably did win honest majorities in the elections during his first two decades in power. He only went off the rails completely when constitutional amendments that would have let him run for two more presidential terms were rejected in a referendum in 2000.

That was when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms and handing them out to his own cronies, with the result that Zimbabwe’s agricultural production dropped by half. The country’s economy virtually collapsed, jobs melted away even in the cities, and runaway inflation completed the country’s ruin.

The country is still far poorer than it was in 2000. A quarter of the working-age population has sought work abroad, mostly as illegal immigrants in South Africa, and life expectancy has fallen from a high of 64 years to the present 37 years. Some of that fall is due to the AIDS epidemic, but as much is due to other diseases and simple malnutrition.

Mugabe’s election campaigns have always been accompanied by tight controls on the media, blatant manipulation of the voting process, and a great deal of violence and intimidation. He almost certainly wouldn’t win an election that is “free and fair” this month – but as long as there is less violence this time, the rest of the world will accept his reelection as “credible”.

When ZANU-PF’s vote-rigging and intimidation were at their most outrageous, a lot of countries felt they had no option but to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. But some of those sanctions affect ordinary Zimbabweans too, so no foreign government wants to maintain them any longer than absolutely necessary. And the emergence of a legitimate political opposition that is going to lose the forthcoming election will give them the excuse to stop.

The opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, emerged in response to Mugabe’s increasingly violent repression. Despite all the usual vote-rigging and intimidation it managed to win a one-seat parliamentary majority in the 2008 elections. Moreover, the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, got more votes for the presidency than Mugabe, although not enough to win in the first round.

ZANU-PF and its allies in the army and police went into over-drive, killing or “disappearing” hundreds of MDC members, and Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round of the election. At that point the Southern African Development Community intervened and negotiated a “power-sharing” government in which Mugabe remained president but Tsvangirai became prime minister. Ironically, that has worked to Mugabe’s advantage.

Tsvangirai and his colleagues, given responsibility for the economy and social services, have pulled the country back from the brink. Switching to the US dollar ended the runaway inflation and there is food in the shops again, although poverty is still omnipresent. But Tsvangirai and his colleagues have also enthusiastically filled their own pockets with public money.

Tsvangirai now takes holidays in London and Monaco, and lives in a $3 million home. Many people believe that he and the other MDC ministers have been coopted by Mugabe’s people, and they will not vote for him again. So ZANU-PF now thinks that (with the help of the usual manipulation and intimidation, but minimal amounts of actual violence) it can not only win the election, but get the rest of the world to accept Mugabe’s victory.

However, ZANU-PF’s strategists are clearly not completely convinced by this scenario. Their election posters carry a picture of Mugabe dating from the 1980s, not one that shows the 89-year-old man of today, which betrays a certain lack of confidence. So why didn’t the party just change horses and run somebody younger?

The question of the succession has been a live issue for a long time: US embassy reports leaked to Wikileaks in 2011 revealed that many senior people in ZANU-PF wanted to see if they would have US backing in the post-Mugabe succession struggle. But uncertainty about who would win that struggle means that the leading rivals would rather postpone it and have Mugabe lead the party to victory one last time.

Can he do it? Reliable opinion polls are scarce in Zimbabwe, but one conducted by Freedom House last year showed that ZANU-PF had overtaken the MDC in popular support. If Mugabe wins, everybody will acknowledge his victory and wait to see who is appointed vice-president – because that is the person who will be the president of Zimbabwe before long.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 12 and 13. (“The country…malnutrition”; and “However…time”)

A Choice for Chavez

4 December 2007

 A Choice for Chavez

By Gwynne Dyer

Hugo Chavez showed some class when the news came through early Monday morning that the referendum on his proposed changes to the Venezuelan constitution had gone against him. “I thank you and I congratulate you,” he said on television, addressing his opponents. “I recognise a decision a people have made. Those of you who were nervous that I wouldn’t recognise the results, you can go home quietly and celebrate.”

It was the first time Chavez had lost a vote since he was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, and there were many who doubted that he would accept defeat, especially since it was what he himself called a “photo-finish”: 51 percent for the no, 49 percent for the yes. And the question is still whether he really means it, for only a week ago he was calling his opponents “fascists”, “traitors” and “mental retards”.

Nobody believed Chavez’s threat last week to “pack my bags” and leave politics if the referendum didn’t pass. He is much more inclined (as he also said last week) “to stay as long as God wills! Until the last bone of my skeleton dries up! Until the last bit of my body dries up!” He even suggested 2050 (when he will be 95) as a possible retirement date.

The referendum would have made that theoretically possible, by changing the constitution so that presidents are no longer limited to two terms. As it stands, he must leave power when his second term ends in 2013, and that is clearly not part of his plan. So what does he do now? The risk is that he does a Mugabe.

Robert Mugabe had already been Zimbabwe’s leader for twenty years when he held a referendum in 2000 on a new constitution that would have extended his own rule until 2012 and allowed him to carry out the revolution (consisting mainly of seizing the land of white farmers without compensation) that he had always dreamed of. For the first time ever, he lost, but he seemed to accept his defeat gracefully. However, it was the last even remotely free vote in Zimbabwe.

Since then, elections have been plagued by extensive vote-rigging and a lot of government-sponsored violence. Mugabe used his parliamentary majority to push through laws that resurrected the radical provisions of the rejected constitution on the seizure of white-owned land, and the predicted economic disaster ensued: Zimbabwe is now a basket-case with 8,000 percent inflation and a quarter of its population living abroad. The rule of law is dead, and Mugabe plans to stay in power well past 2012. (After all, he’s only 83.)

It is possible that Chavez will now choose to go down a similar road. He has played by the democratic rules for nine years, and until now they have enabled him to get most of what he wants. The 69 changes proposed in the referendum were his attempt to move on legally to the next stage of his revolution, not only prolonging his own rule indefinitely but entrenching “socialism” in the constitution.

Together with crowd-pleasers like cutting the working day from eight hours to six, the package of proposed changes would have ended the autonomy of the central bank and given Chavez control of monetary policy. It would have shifted power from elected mayors and state governors to local “committees” dominated by his followers, and allowed him to expropriate private property and even censor the media in an emergency.

Venezuelans, obviously including many “soft chavistas” who always voted for him in the past, rejected Chavez’s proposals because they thought he was going too far too fast. They have not rejected him, but they have shown that what they want is the “soft Chavez”, the one who has vastly improved the living standards of the poor by spending some of the country’s massive oil revenues on them, but abides by the law.

There is another Chavez, however. He is the lieutenant-colonel who launched a military coup in 1992, and defiantly said after it failed: “For now, we couldn’t do it.” (He deliberately used the same phrase after his referendum defeat this month.) He is a man who believes there is freedom of speech in Cuba, and no repression. His democratic principles are at war with his sense of mission, and it is not yet clear how the war will end.

Like Mugabe, Chavez is an ex-Catholic Marxist, but he is a much more complex and modern person. Though he is a demagogue, he has so far adhered to the democratic rules. There is no hint of corruption about him. He has messianic tendencies, but he still listens to rival opinions at least sometimes. And now he is at a fork in the road.

If Chavez really does abide by the outcome of the referendum, he could yet turn out to be the man who transformed Venezuela from a poverty-ridden oligarchy into a modern democratic state — sufficiently modern and democratic that it will eventually have no further use for an old-fashioned populist demagogue like him. Or he could find other ways to force through the changes that were rejected in the referendum, and drag Venezuela down the road to dictatorship, repression and even deeper poverty.

Which way will he jump? Nobody knows. Least of all him.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“There is…road”)