The resignation of Robert Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe on Tuesday has unleashed a tsunami of euphoria across the country’s main cities (we know less about how the rural population has responded). Is it well-founded? How likely is it that ZANU-PF under its new boss, Emmerson Mnangagwa, will tilt Zimbabwe towards a more inclusive and democratic dispensation? Can it find ways to revive the country’s prostrate economy?

Hope or mirage?

While acknowledging this is a moment of real hope, there are many expert voices urging caution. Amongst the most acute Zimbabwean observers of the country’s trials and tribulations over the last decade or so has been the Solidarity Peace Trust, which has an office in South Africa. The morning after Mugabe’s resignation, Shari Eppel from the Trust wrote:

“It is argued that the joy that has been unleashed and the taste of freedoms and the weird solidarity between military and ourselves that we have had this week, will make ZANU PF and the armed forces think twice before once more becoming our aggressors.

I stare into my tea-leaves, looking for guidance. I give the cup a swirl – yes that is definitely a little crocodile with open jaws, and I see three other blurry heads, two on one side and one on the other – could these be Joyce Mujuru and Dumiso Dabengwa as two Vice Presidents, and Morgan Tsvangirai as a Prime Minister? Yes! I think so. In my excitement I give the cup another swirl and see that crocodile has grown in size, and notice the other three are no longer there. Well, the next week or two will tell me which prediction via tea leaves was correct…”

Joyce Mujuru, Dumiso Dabengwa and Morgan Tsvangirai are three veteran opposition figures who have been struggling to form an alliance against ZANU-PF ahead of the scheduled 2018 elections.  The first two are former ZANU-PF luminaries (although Dabengwa arguably was never a ‘true believer’). Tsvangirai is the man who many believe was cheated of victory in the 2008 presidential election and leads the largest faction of the Movement for Democratic Change. There has been talk that Emmerson Mnangawa might ask them to join an interim ‘government of national unity’ to bring the country together and prepare the ground for the elections.

Shari Eppel’s take might be characterised as an act of ‘hoping against hope’. The day before Mugabe’s resignation, Shari Eppel’s colleague, Brian Raftopoulos, offered a more pessimistic view about Zimbabwe’s democratic future under a Mnangagwa-led government, at the same time spelling out the scale of the economic challenge facing it. The fact and manner of Mugabe’s departure is unlikely yet to have changed his view much:

“It is possible that a Mnangagwa led regime could include individuals from opposition parties to present an appearance of inclusivity and as a way to get new support for an economy in deep crisis. At present the economy is characterised by low levels of production, de-industrialisation and massive informalisation of livelihoods. Public expenditures have also been on the rise in the face of shrinking revenues and high levels of debt. A monetary shortage and dominant levels of electronic money use have fuelled high levels of speculative activity in the money market. The unsustainability of this set of production relations is clear to all the major players.

The dominant mood of seeking economic and political stability at almost any cost in Zimbabwe has provided the space for the military to legitimise their intervention in favour of Mnangagwa. The opposition political forces, deeply divided as they are, will be further weakened by these events. They may be drawn into some form of Government of National Unity in which they will have a marginal and negligible role. The new face of Zanu PF, drawing on the massive popular goodwill displayed on the 18 November march, will use this time and space to rejuvenate Zanu PF’s fortunes. As a carefully choreographed scheme, this military intervention could prove a masterly stroke by Mnangagwa and his supporters. However this will be at a high cost for future democratic alternatives in Zimbabwe.”

In the immediate aftermath of Mugabe’s resignation, the BBC’s Matthew Davis has discussed possible policy responses to Zimbabwe’s economic challenges.

Mnangagwa’s priorities and the stance of foreign governments

Mnangagwa’s likely priority (as indicated by the remarks he made on his return) will be to end the crippling factionalism within ZANU-PF so that the government is able to focus on improving the economy. Given his central role within the ‘old order’ since independence in 1980, it is open to doubt how deep his commitment is to a genuinely ‘developmental’ strategy that might over time spread economic benefits more widely. But even if his commitment on this count is deep, it is possible that his ‘models’ from elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa will be countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda, where growth rates have undoubtedly been impressive but whose democratic credentials, most independent observers agree, are questionable.

For now, Western governments – including the UK – are placing a heavy emphasis on the importance of a ‘democratic transition’ in Zimbabwe. If Mnangagwa’s moves in this direction turn out to be tokenistic, how will they respond? If Mnangagwa stabilises the situation and pursues what they consider to be a sensible economic course, the odds are that most Western governments will go further down the road towards normal relations with Zimbabwe over the next year or so. In this, African regional powers are likely to support them.

If things go awry

Of course, in politics, as in life more generally, things often do not go ‘to plan’. Perhaps Zimbabwean civil society and the political opposition will prove to be stronger than they appear currently; perhaps Mnangagwa will not be able to establish control over ZANU-PF and factionalism will recur; perhaps it will quickly become clear that he is unable to turn the economy around. If this is the case as the 2018 elections draw nearer, all bets are off – potentially for the better in terms of deeper democratisation, but potentially also for the worse in terms of violence and bloodshed. There are no easy ways out of Zimbabwe’s crisis.

Photo credit: Mugabe by Al Jazeera EnglishCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)