Was Mugabe better?

In Zimbabwe, a deteriorating economic situation, coupled with renewed repression, is tempting ordinary citizens to think they were better off under Robert Mugabe. Cyril Zenda reports.

After the harrowing experience that Zimbabweans went through under Robert Mugabe’s extended misrule, it is unimaginable that anyone can think, let alone suggest, that Mugabe was better than his successor.

But hardly six months after disputed elections that gave Emmerson Mnangagwa a five-year term, disappointed Zimbabweans are beginning to make invidious comparisons: When Mugabe was around, a loaf of bread – which was always available – was only 80 cents. Now under Mnangagwa – if and when bread is available – it is at least $2.50. When Mugabe was there, the Bond Note, (a surrogate currency that even the government itself cannot accept for some transactions) was generally accepted to be at par with the US dollar, but it has now lost 75 per cent of its value and still free-falling. Under Mugabe the petrol price averaged $1.30 per litre, but it is currently skyrocketing at $3.31, by far the highest price globally. During Mugabe’s last days, inflation was always in the negative, but in the month of December alone, it jumped by more than 40 per cent. The comparisons could go on.

The euphoria with which Zimbabweans welcomed Mnangagwa with his sweeping promise of ‘a new Zimbabwe, with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youths, opportunities for investors and democracy and equal rights for all’ has since been replaced with widespread despondency. The cheers have turned into boos and brickbats.

Violent fuel price protests have rocked the country, leaving a dozen dead, more than 70 injured and another 1100 arrested. The protests forced Mnangagwa to skip the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Zimbabwean lawyers carry placards as they march to demand justice for people detained in jail and others facing fast-track trials following recent protests in Harare, Zimbabwe, 29 January 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The promise of a better Zimbabwe, broken

Dr Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean teaching at the University of Kent said Zimbabweans are disheartened by the apparent failure of the Mnangagwa regime to arrest the deteriorating economic situation. He said comparisons with the Mugabe regime, whose ignominious departure most people welcomed with wild celebrations in November 2017, have been a serious indictment on the Mnangagwa regime.

‘After Mugabe, the only way was up, or so it seemed,’ Magaisa said. ‘But the decay is palpable while the regime looks and sounds clueless with each passing day.’

‘I know that Robert Mugabe was no good,’ said Innocent Gonese, the chief whip of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). ‘He was cruel and heartless and in spite of his array of degrees his appreciation of the laws of economics was zilch. I never thought that we could get someone worse than him.’

In November 2017, the opposition threw its full weight behind Mnangagwa when parliament moved in to sanitize a military coup by kicking into motion a process to impeach Mugabe, prompting him to ‘resign’. That opposition, together with the generality of Zimbabweans, are now regretting.

‘Who would have thought it possible that any government in Zimbabwe could be worse than that of Robert Gabriel Mugabe?’ said Welshman Ncube, a University of Zimbabwe law lecturer and politician.

Zimbabwe is in an economic crisis, which is a result of mismanagement, corruption and lack of productivity. For the past three months Zimbabweans have been spending hours queuing for fuel, gas, food and other basics as a severe shortage of foreign currency has affected industrial production and limited the country’s capacity to pay for imports.

Economists have for some time warned that the government has been paying its bills using fictitious money that is not backed by anything, which ‘electronic’ money has been passed off as US dollars.

A street vendor packs out produce at a market in Mbare township, Harare, Zimbabwe, 24 January 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

What caused the current crisis?

In 2016, faced with a growing shortage of United States dollar notes, the government introduced what is called a Bond Note, a local currency which the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) maintained was just an incentive for exporters, not a backdoor way of bringing back the defunct Zimbabwean dollar. The bank, which has insisted on an exchange of 1:1 for the bond note to the US dollar, assured depositors that their deposits would remain valued in US dollars. It started promoting the use of electronic transactions as a solution to the teething cash shortages. With time the bond note ended being the only money available.

In October last year, the RBZ ordered a separation between local RTGS bank balances and nostro foreign currency accounts, ‘in order to eliminate the commingling or dilution effect of RTGS balances on Nostro foreign currency accounts.’

This triggered the instability that Mnangagwa’s administration is now struggling to manage.

The economic instability was the cause of the recent violent protests to which the regime responded by unleashing the army and the police, as well as shutting down the country’s internet for nearly a week until the High Court ruled the shutdown illegal.

Zimbabwe’s current economic woes can be traced to more than two decades ago when the government decided to make huge pension payments to each of the more than 70,000 blacks that fought in the country’s 1970s bush war.

This coincided with the country’s involvement in costly five-year (1998-2003) civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it was reportedly spending $200 million per month.

The final nail to the coffin came from the seizure of white-owned farms in a disastrous land reform programme that destroyed the very foundation of the country’s agro-based economy.

Since then the country has been lurching from crisis to crisis, crises that Mnangagwa promised to solve once and for all.

Zimbabweans now doubt that he is right for the job.