Can the technocratic reformers win in Zimbabwe?

If you’ve been finding it difficult to keep up with the situation in Zimbabwe, you are not alone. Since the overthrow of Mugabe in the (not quite) coup in November 2017, the contested elections of July 2018, the 1 August shootings, the January 2019 riots and brutal clampdown, things have moved apace. Meanwhile, the economy has continued to contract, with rising inflation and an acceptance that there are parallel currencies with different exchange rates. It’s fast-moving and confusing.

Contested politics

Luckily, there have been some useful briefings on these rapidly unfolding events. The most recent is a piece in African Affairs that covers the political dimensions, and poses the fundamental question of whether President Mnangagwa is really in charge, and if not who is?

The piece by Nicole Beardsworth, Nic Cheeseman and Simukai Tinhu covers the period from the coup to early 2019, and makes the case that, despite the slick public relations, ZANU-PF has reverted to type, with an increasingly violent, authoritarian, militarised response.

What is absent in this overview is a substantive discussion of the economy, and the role of other players – including the minister of finance, Mthuli Ncube – who are arguing for a technocratic reform agenda from within ZANU-PF. The focus on contested elections and tensions between Mnangagwa and VP Chiwenga, and the role of the armed forces in the state apparatus is of course highly relevant, but it is not the only story.

The military figures and senior ZANU-PF politicians are also business people who look forward to a more stable economy. Rinsing funds on parallel exchange markets, along with all the other corrupt practices open to the oligarchs, only goes so far, especially when there’s not much left to steal. For such figures it is not contradictory to have a strong military involvement in the state alongside reformist business-friendly policies that can be sold to the world.

Another piece that explores in detail the events of January 2019, focusing especially on Bulawayo, comes from the Solidarity Peace Trust. This combines a very useful analytical introduction from Brian Raftopolous with a detailed, day-by-day unpacking of what went on. The conclusions usefully nuance some of those in the African Affairs piece. In particular, they point to the economic context of the riots.

People who are poor, disenfranchised and without hope can quickly become angry and, the report argues, the state should tread carefully. This was not something organised by the opposition – they are not sufficiently organised anyway – but an angry crowd, responding to dismal and deteriorating circumstances, particularly in urban centres, where jobs and services have all but disappeared.

A focus on politics must be located in an understanding of the economy – and its history (as @matigary reminded us in an Independence day Twitter mega-thread). Beyond the electoral politics focus, and the micro-analysis of the many different interest groups, we have to understand how people are motivated – from the urban poor to rural farmers to the oligarchs linked to the political-military elite. And this needs a much wider historical, political-economy analysis than is sometimes offered by narrower political science commentaries.

Positive signs in the economy?

So what of the economy? In the last months, the economy seems to be changing. It’s at the margins, and is far from ‘recovery’, but there are some positive signs. The fourth quarter report from the Reserve Bank had some positive news for the first time in years. The meetings at the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington this month seemed productive. Another IMF staff supervision mission is in the offing, and IMF head, Christine Lagarde, had a few positive things to say. Even the right-wing Cato Institute held a well-attended meeting in Washington DC, with continued sanctions by the US being denounced by all panellists, including the perennial critic, Steve Hanke.

This is all good news for the technocrats, led by Ncube. Whether he is able to bring Mnangagwa and co with him is the unknown.

Eddie Cross’s recent blogs offer some useful reflections on shifts in the productive economy – all in a positive direction. Ncube listened to disgruntled tobacco farmers who were withholding their crop from the floors and removed the 2% transaction tax. The response was immediate, and tobacco auctions are now in full swing.

Cross points to the accumulation of significant funds in $RTGS (the parallel non-currency), a sign that internal investment has an opportunity under a new currency regime, expected in the next year.

A changing mood on international sanctions?

Will international funds flow and sanctions be removed?

International support that was gearing up to support the post Mugabe era dried up after the August and January shootings, as the world was correctly appalled by what they saw on their TV screens. And key players such as the UK even mooted increasing sanctions.

The UK’s confused diplomatic positioning (a sorry, long-running story) is discussed in an interesting piece in Yale’s The Politic, quoting many well-informed authorities from all sides of the debate. With Brexit consuming the UK government’s energies, there are unlikely to be any meaningful initiatives from the UK any time soon, and Zimbabwe is not going to do much to contribute to the UK’s absurd ‘global Britain’ imaginary in any case.

The US does not seem to be budging yet, but may yet. Some (but not all) US commentators, who long argued for sanctions against Mugabe, are seemingly changing their tune.

A key move, playing into the discourse around ‘protecting property rights’ as a condition for releasing sanctions, is the allocation of RTGS$53 million in the recent budget to pay compensation for improvements on farms expropriated during the land reform.

While this is not new (even in the Mugabe era the government had agreed to pay and had allocated similarly paltry sums), but there (finally) seems to be movement on finalising the audit and agreement on the payment formula, and wider discussions about how concretely to link payments to overall debt repayment.

Could this at last help unlock the 19 year post-land reform impasse?

Unpleasant but necessary medicine?

Much of this may be grasping at straws. The struggles between factions that has consumed ZANU-PF since the liberation war will continue. The opposition does not seem to be in any better position. Will the technocrats win out, and the politician-securocrats let them move ahead, if reform is in their own interests too?

An IMF-led technocratic reform regime will undoubtedly lead to further austerity and suffering, hitting those who are already the least well off hardest. Remember ESAP in the 1990s? It will also inevitably allow those with existing assets and connections to do best; perhaps further entrenching the military-political-business oligarchic elite.

In her Washington speech, Lagarde talked of the need for ‘social protection’ programmes, not only in relation to post-Idai recovery, but more broadly to help the poor through the transition.

If this is the medicine that unleashes the investment and opens up the economy again, then unfortunately it may be necessary. But the medicine must not be taken without a much wider debate about the future.

As the Solidarity Peace Trust report argues, “the major strategic task for all democratic forces involved in the Zimbabwe national question in the immediate future will be to build sufficient consensus for credible national, regional and international forces to assist with a national dialogue”.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Ian Scoones. Photo credit: IMF Photo/flickr (Lagarde and Ncube, March 5 meetings)

 

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