Today, November 21, 2017, will go down in African history as Zimbabwe’s second Independence Day, as the nation’s only leader to this point, 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe, resigned in a letter to the country’s Parliament just as they were in the midst of impeachment proceedings. Crowds in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, have been in riotous celebrations ever since the news broke earlier today, as their 37-year quest to seek new leadership in their artificially-impoverished nation has finally come to fruition. Mugabe’s long dictatorship transformed Zimbabwe from a newly-independent state in 1980 with solid prospects for economic and democratic success to a country with the worst hyperinflation crisis of the modern era, unemployment under some calculations approaching 90%, and a government we in the West would consider autocratic at best. How did Zimbabwe get to this point, what happened recently to drive a powerful man like Mugabe to resign, and what happens next for Zimbabwe?
Zimbabwe, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1980 after a long struggle largely led by the charismatic and cunning Robert Mugabe, who then became the new nation’s first President. Zimbabwe was relatively well-positioned for economic success, as the country had excellent agricultural lands, a well-educated populace, and a relatively solid level of natural resources. Over the first years of his reign, many Zimbabweans saw Mugabe as a good leader, someone who was looking to advance the peace and prosperity of his people. This soon changed after a series of actions that not only altered the internal view of Mugabe, but his international reputation as well. First, Mugabe and his allies in the military and his administration carried out what many consider war crimes in the mid-1980s, as they targeted the Ndebele ethnic group in the Zimbabwean region of Matabeleland, where tens of thousands of civilians were systematically killed and scores more were purposefully denied food aid.
A few years after this incident, Mugabe began a program of land redistribution, something common in post-colonial Africa at that time, as much of the productive land in many newly-independent African nations was owned by wealthy white minorities. These campaigns, if carried out fairly with compensation and proper training for new farmers, could be useful in alleviating poverty and ensuring stability and prosperity in decades to come, but Mugabe’s plan did not follow this model once he saw that it was working too slowly for his liking. In the mid to late 1990s, Mugabe’s version of land reform kicked in, which involved forcible expropriation of white-owned land and violent clashes over personal property. By 2013, every white-owned farm had been expropriated by the government or by the people under Mugabe’s orders; this process however has not sustained the previously abundant yields of the agricultural lands, as the new tenants have far less knowledge than the prior owners and consequently yields have declined so much that 45% of the people of Zimbabwe, formerly known as the ‘bread basket of Africa’ are now considered malnourished.
Perhaps worst of all is the country’s economic crisis and severe hyperinflation, which heightened to a fever pitch during the land seizures of the early 2000s and reached the point of absurdity in 2008-2009. Zimbabwe was hit with European Union and American economic sanctions largely due to the controversial land reform plan, and this worsened the nation’s already poor economy. Inflation began to soar, reaching annual levels above 50% by 2000 and quickly shooting over 100% per year. By 2008, when the rest of the world entered financial meltdown, Zimbabwe was way ahead of us; they had inflation rates of more than 200 million percent in July 2008 alone, and printed currency labeled with $1 Trillion Zimbabwean dollars. Citizens had to carry literal suitcases of cash to purchase simple food staples, as the nation’s financial panic spiraled out of control. Eventually Zimbabwe scrapped restrictions on its currency altogether and decided to allow citizens to use the US dollar, the Euro, and the South African rand, as well as limiting bank withdrawals to $Z500,000 per day, which seems like a lot, but was only the equivalent of $0.25. At this point, the majority of transactions in the country are carried out in foreign currencies, as the Zimbabwean dollar is essentially worthless. All of these crises are the fault of poor governance, and the common denominator in that governance is one man: Robert Mugabe.
If you haven’t been hearing much about the burgeoning governmental crisis in Zimbabwe over the past month of so, it’s not your fault: American news coverage, especially on cable television, has been sorely lacking in this regard. This whole process kicked off when President Mugabe decided, on the suggestion of his 52-year-old wife Grace, to fire his longtime ally and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, also known as ‘the Crocodile’, for disloyalty on November 6. This move was seen by most observers as setting up Grace Mugabe as the clear successor to her husband, which rankled many in the ruling Zanu-PF Party, as Ms. Mugabe is heartily disliked within Zimbabwe for her lavish spending sprees (widely known as ‘Gucci Grace’), poor attitude, and history of violence (including use of diplomatic immunity to get off on charges of assault in South Africa). Soon after the firing, on November 15, the military of Zimbabwe, led by General Constantino Chiwenga, affected a coup d’état on the government of President Mugabe, holding him and other leaders under house arrest while they flooded the streets with military vehicles and broadcast a statement on the national television station. Following these actions, the country sat in a state of flux, while the next steps were determined. Mugabe initially was determined not to step down, and stated as much in a live television address to the nation only a few days after the coup, which the military denied was actually a coup (for many reasons, most of all that it would trigger response by other African states). Mugabe’s defiance in the face of reality shocked many in the populace, as well as much of his own Zanu-PF party, which decided to sack him as party leader and appoint former-VP Mnangagwa in his place. After this insult, Mugabe still was determined to remain as President, so the nation’s Parliament chose to begin impeachment proceedings if he would not resign. As I stated earlier, this finally did the trick, and now-former-President Mugabe voluntarily stepped down only a few hours into the impeachment process. Remarkably, there has been little to no bloodshed in this coup, which bodes well for the transition post-Mugabe.
So now that the final independence leader in Africa has been deposed and that generation of often-autocratic rulers is gone, what is next for Zimbabwe? Looking at the history of power vacuums in other African nations, we may expect a serious conflict, but I am far more optimistic about Zimbabwe than I would be if this were a different African nation, or if this were a country on a different continent entirely. Why is that? Well, there are a few reasons. First, it seems clear that Emmerson Mnangagwa is the preferred successor of the military and most of the Parliament, and that he will become President at least until next year’s scheduled elections. Zimbabwe has a history of democratic elections, although Mugabe widely was seen as cheating in them, but the bones are there for a workable democratic system to flourish. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is expected to contest that election now that Mugabe has been deposed, and we may actually see a truly free and fair election held in the country for the first time in decades. Another one of the reasons I have relates to a personal experience I’ve had working with a Zimbabwean expat who left her home precisely because of the financial and economic chaos caused by the Mugabe regime. We worked together as auditors and she was an incredibly intelligent, skilled, and dedicated person who taught me quite a few things about both accounting (the job I was in at the time) and her home country. It was from her that I learned about the massive number of Zimbabwean expatriates who have left their home nation over the Mugabe period, especially in the past 10-15 years of the economic and hyperinflation crisis, and how much money they send back to Zimbabwe each year in remittances ($1.5 billion in 2016) to help their struggling families still living in poverty. These expats are smart, skilled workers who want to return to Zimbabwe to help rebuild their country and make it into something to once again be proud of. One thing Robert Mugabe did right, and that I saw in my former colleague, was to educate the Zimbabwean populace, which has a literacy rate of over 88% and solid educational attainment, although many choose to leave the country for university. As a result of Mugabe’s resignation, I believe that many of these diaspora Zimbabweans, who are scattered across the globe, from neighboring South Africa to as far as the United Kingdom and the US, will choose to either return home or increase their remittances as the nation is on firmer footing without the dictator in charge.
I also believe that due to the departure of Mugabe, a man personally sanctioned by multiple countries and international bodies, multinational corporations and nations like the US will be far more willing and interested in investing in Zimbabwe, as the country has excellent human capital and natural resources to offer. Mugabe was the bar that kept this investment out, and his resignation signals that the country is open for business. Also, Zimbabwe does not have the long history of internecine violence that other areas of Africa have, as most of the violence during Mugabe’s 37-year reign was visited by the state upon the citizens, versus by the citizens on each other. Finally, just viewing the images and videos today from the streets of Harare after Mugabe’s resignation gives me incredible hope that the people of Zimbabwe will finally have the chance to truly control their own futures. Their jubilation at having the freedom to express themselves and celebrate their shot at democracy and rule of law is contagious, and one can’t help but want to celebrate with them. Today, the whole world celebrates with Zimbabwe and congratulates their people on toppling one of the truly awful dictators left in the world. I look forward to coming back to this article in a few years and seeing just how far the ingenuity, intelligence, and perseverance of the Zimbabwean people have taken them. I’m sure it will be quite far, and today we all share in the joy of the people of Zimbabwe.