Letter from Zimbabwe: Political change in a country where the military is so embedded in the state is no easy matter
I went home to Zimbabwe in December 2021 after over a year as a senior aid worker in Afghanistan, a period of intense turmoil and uncertainty, probably one of the most challenging assignments of my career.
Yet Zimbabwe, my country, is also stuck in a political and economic crisis, and it’s one that has lasted most of my life.
It’s not like the armed conflict and high drama of Afghanistan – or South Sudan, and northeast Nigeria, where I’ve also worked. It’s a different kind of violence: a crushing of people’s hopes, the extinguishing of their dreams, which in a way is just as brutal.
Years of poor governance, corruption, and financial sanctions imposed since 2003 by Western lenders to punish the government’s human rights violations, means living standards are dire. Like other rural Zimbabweans, my 86-year-old grandmother, who still works a small piece of land in southern Matabeleland, will be facing another year of struggle.
In 2020, half of all Zimbabweans – eight million people – were estimated to be in extreme poverty. That toll is almost certainly higher after a stringent Covid-19 lockdown that hit the informal sector – on which 90 per cent of economically active citizens depend on for their survival – especially hard.
Food, fuel and fertiliser costs were already rising, even before the impact of the war in Ukraine. And now drought is forecast for this season, which will drive yet more shortages, and even higher prices for maize, the staple crop.
Like other rural Zimbabweans, my 86-year-old grandmother, who still works a small piece of land in southern Matabeleland, will be facing another year of struggle.
Then there’s been the slow but steady collapse of the health system, with hospitals and medical equipment in disrepair, shortages of drugs, and dispirited health workers. The long-running attrition has led to so many preventable deaths, a dear friend included – the result of the late diagnosis of his kidney disease.
Without the communal strength and survival networks people have developed, life would be so much worse. Yet fortitude has its limits, and the anger, frustration – and cries for help – have become all the more urgent, voiced freely on social media.
Politically, it has been in a freefall. The enthusiasm that greeted the overthrow of nonagenarian leader Robert Mugabe by the military in 2017 (who rapidly handed power to his rival, President Emmerson Mnangagwa) evaporated quickly.
Rather than democratising, as was the hope, the state is now almost entirely militarised. Key cabinet posts, including the vice-presidency, are under the control of serving or retired officers, as are several state-run enterprises. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which organises and runs the county’s elections – is led by a retired army major, seemingly there to cement the status quo.
Disputed presidential polls in 2018 were given a clean bill of health by a judiciary, also widely accused of being “captured” by the state. The police crackdown brutally on dissent with impunity, and cases of political abductions and torture persist – all aimed, it seems, to terrify activists and citizens alike into silence.
Yet, out of a divided opposition (splits, in part, engineered by the authorities) has emerged a new political challenge to ZANU-PF, after the party’s 40 years in power. The Citizens for Change Coalition, led by Nelson Chamisa, did surprisingly well in by-elections in March.
That success has created some buzz ahead of next year’s presidential election. But a note of caution: Soldier-led Sudan, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso should remind us that, whenever the military tastes power, they are loath to hand it back to civilians.
And Zimbabwe has a long history of state-led political violence, in which Mnangagwa, as Mugabe’s former security chief, has been directly implicated. We watch with trepidation how the security apparatus responds to Chamisa and the opposition in the run-up to 2023 – especially as Mnangagwa has explicitly warned he will “not allow” Chamisa to succeed him.
The economic downturn dates as far back to 1992, when the International Monetary Fund provided financial support on condition Zimbabwe implemented an austerity programme.
Land reform in the early 2000s, when white-owned commercial farms were seized and redistributed to largely landless black Zimbabweans, was another step in the economy’s demise. Hugely popular, it was haphazardly and violently implemented, and then punished by Western governments led by Britain, the former colonial power, who withheld funding.
The similarities with present-day Afghanistan are striking. Western governments, led by the United States, have once again decided to punish an entire country because of the Taliban’s seizure of power, by again denying aid. It’s a carrot and stick approach to international relations.
In the last two decades, Zimbabweans have suffered world-beating inflation levels; chronic unemployment; back-to-back droughts; periodic cholera outbreaks; the unravelling of a once-admired education system; and, depressingly, rigged elections after rigged elections.
Today, given the bankruptcy of the state, NGOs and bilateral donors play an important role in social service delivery. USAID funds the bulk of the country’s health needs; UNICEF provides much-needed support in education, and water and sanitation; and the World Food Programme feeds almost 700,000 people.
Inevitably, there has been an exodus of Zimbabweans leaving the country looking for work and opportunities abroad. There are an estimated three million migrants in neighbouring South Africa, hundreds of thousands more in Botswana, the UK and the United States.
They contribute to a remittance flow worth $1.4 billion last year that keeps families at home afloat. But the cost is the splintering of households. If lucky, relatives and loved ones meet once a year, the distance an emotional and psychological strain.
Those abroad can also live precarious lives. A growing tide of Afrophobia in South Africa is reflected in violence against fellow Africans – especially Zimbabweans – with a new populist movement, growing in influence, demanding the expulsion of all foreigners.
Playing to the political gallery, the South African government has cancelled the renewal of special visa permits issued to Zimbabweans in 2009, which recognised their political and economic plight. Far from dissuading migration, the policy shift will likely only ensure that people will be forced onto the margins of society, without legal and social protection.
As I prepare to leave Zimbabwe for a posting in another troubled country, I ask myself, what does it mean to serve in another place when needs at home are so great? It’s clear that the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is driven by a political leadership that is neither interested, nor capable, of improving the lives of the people they purport to serve.
What I also know, what I’ve seen firsthand, is that bad governance sows the seeds of conflict. Yet, as we head to another election cycle, I’m also forced to recognise that political change, especially in a country where the military is so embedded in the state, is no easy matter.
What I also know, what I’ve seen first-hand, is that bad governance sows the seeds of conflict, which causes so much tragedy and devastation around the world. It’s my fervent wish that Zimbabwe can find a way to avoid that outcome.
- The New Humanitarian report / Karsten Noko