DRIVING after sunset through the once pristine streets of suburban Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, is hazardous. Street signs have been stolen for their metal, so your map doesn’t help. Streetlights are mostly bust. Traffic lights are often on the blink, even at the busiest crossroads. Potholes, some a foot deep, pockmark the roads, so cars swerve wildly to miss them. Predatory police are ever ready to bid for a bribe (the going rate is $10-20) for traffic transgressions, however imaginary.
An aura of decrepitude shrouds the entire country. Electricity and water even in the poshest parts of Harare are often off. Only 700,000 people have formal jobs, a lot fewer than at independence in 1980; since then the population has soared from 7m to nearly 14m, excluding several million who have fled abroad for a better, safer life. Agriculture has collapsed since the confiscation of more than 90% of the farms owned by whites in the past 15 years, and with it the manufacturing that largely depended on it. In the words of a Western diplomat, “The country is on its knees.”
Yet a light may at last be flickering at the end of the tunnel. At 91 President Robert Mugabe’s physical and mental decline is quickening. His stumbles, his sleepiness at public events, his impervious reading of the wrong speech, testify to his dimming powers. “Nobody is running the country any more” is a mantra uttered even by people once loyal to him. Few now think he will last through 2016.
A vicious battle to succeed him is raging mainly inside the ruling Zanu-PF party, along with a faction ejected from it a year ago. The current first vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a 69-year-old former longtime head of the security service known as the crocodile, is the favourite; but he is far from home and dry. Mr Mugabe’s wife Grace, aged 50, whose recent denial that she wants to succeed her husband rings hollow, is backed by a particularly nasty group supposedly standing for a younger generation of 40-year-olds, hence its nickname, G40.
Then there is Mr Mnangagwa’s predecessor as vice-president, Joice Mujuru, whose husband, a former head of the army, was burnt to death in a mysterious fire in 2011, just when the couple were said to be talking both to the then prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and to the West. Mrs Mujuru was brutally evicted from her post at a congress a year ago. Mrs Mugabe accused her of witchcraft, corruption and seeking to kill the president. If left for dead on the road, even “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass”, she said.
Since that humiliation, Mrs Mujuru has dangled the prospect of forming a new party, to be called People First. But she has bided her time. She still has a following in Zanu-PF. In the country at large she is respected, whereas Mrs Mugabe is widely derided. Moreover, Mrs Mujuru may still have some powerful backers in the army, though its commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, is thought to have weighed in behind Mr Mnangagwa.
Mr Tsvangirai is a busted flush. In 2008 he managed despite Zanu-PF’s rigging and brutality to win a general election for his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as well as the first round of the presidential poll. He was forced to bow out before the second round after 200 of his people were killed. But since then his reputation has been wrecked by his poor performance as prime minister in a unity government from 2009-2013 and by his unwise decision to compete in the subsequent election, which was duly rigged more cleverly than before. Having now split into at least five parties, the MDC has fizzled. Still, if Mrs Mujuru’s lot teamed up with all or any of the MDC factions at the next election, due in 2018, and were in addition joined by a third-way party led by a decent ex-Zanu-PF finance minister, Simba Makoni, together they could together add up to a winning coalition—if Zanu-PF were ever to allow a truly fair election.
Meanwhile, Western governments and the EU are acting as if the transition has begun. The IMF is negotiating for Zimbabwe to clear its arrears and let it gradually borrow again in the international markets. But this depends on Zimbabwe’s government sorting out two of its most toxic issues: an “indigenisation” law, which deters foreign investment because it calls for all business to be at least half-owned by black Zimbabweans; and the question of commercial farmland, whose owners, black or white, have no security while the policy of confiscation still continues and ousted owners get no proper compensation. Moreover, the West will not fully re-engage until there is more freedom, culminating in a properly observed and perhaps internationally supervised election in 2018.
The old man just won’t go
Mr Mnangagwa, whom some Western diplomats see as the man to do business with, however thuggish his past, hints that he would give ground on all these fronts. But there are two big snags. Mr Mugabe, however frail, can still block things—and may well insist that indigenisation prevails and land grabs continue. “Nothing will happen till the old man goes,” warns Ibbo Mandaza, a prominent local analyst.
The second snag is the hectic fluidity of politics as Mr Mugabe fades. Next week an annual party conference may witness new ructions. The national constitution says the vice-president should serve out the term of a president who resigns or dies in office. But the succession procedure is itself open to wrangling. A compromise candidate, perhaps Sydney Sekeramayi, the veteran defence minister, could yet emerge. Mr Mugabe may finally endorse a successor—or not: his habit of keeping rivals at each other’s throat dies hard. Few insiders think he will step down before his death.
If Mr Mnangagwa prevails, it is hard to imagine him coaxing the country back to democracy. He was largely responsible for the Gukurahundi campaign in the early 1980s, when 20,000 or so disgruntled Ndebele, mostly civilians, were murdered by Mr Mugabe’s army. He helped orchestrate the shenanigans after the first round of the election in 2008. He is feared but not loved, even within the ruling party. He twice lost his own parliamentary seat. “He is unelectable [as president]in a fair election,” says a former fellow cabinet member.
In any event, the post-Mugabe struggle is in full swing. It could turn violent. The outcome is uncertain. The least awful plausible scenario is that, once Mr Mugabe goes, a sensible path towards economic re-engagement can be charted, perhaps under the aegis of Mr Mnangagwa or another Zanu-PF figure, leading to a proper election in 2018—and Zimbabwe’s return from hell. But there is a long way to go.Economist