Jesse B. Awalt/U.S. Navy

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Remaking Zimbabwe, With or Without Robert Mugabe

This past Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s high court formally overturned the ban against protests in the capital of Harare. This move clearly surprised Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, which have systematically destroyed the economy and political opposition, creating resentment and the decimation of living standards for all. Yet while Mugabe may deny an ‘Arab Spring’ moment is occurring, his party and indeed anyone hoping to run the nation would be wise to acknowledge that the current status quo is simply unsustainable.

There has been a great deal of discourse regarding the health of Robert Mugabe and the power struggle which may emerge in his aftermath, a prospect which increasingly looks likely. These discussions often miss a hard truth: regardless of who’s in power, there are economic realities which will need to be addressed, facts which even the ZANU-PF party seems to recognize via finance minister Patrick Chinamasa. Certainly, others have identified doom in the past, particularly in the last decade, yet there are reasons to believe the need for change is all too real now.

The economy is highly dependent upon mining and agriculture and there are no white knights anywhere in sight. Climate change has wrecked harvests and will surely only get worse, the global economy appears to not be speeding up anytime soon making leaving mining activities with only a limited impact, and the once reliable China has continued to slow down as it continues its attempt to escape the middle income trap and transition into a consumption and service economy. As such, regardless of how the leadership struggle plays out in the next year or two, certain reforms will need to be implemented.

Perhaps one of the first steps necessary is to remedy their arrears, a step which would allow Zimbabwe to reengage with international financial institutions. The ZANU-PF government has announced as much yet they have also said this before. Even so, they will need to complete this process if they hope to garner any additional aid, something which they appear to be taking seriously since engaging with the IMF once more. One of the most obvious steps would be to cut benefits to the public sector or, at the very least, to halt the promised increases.

With public payrolls accounting for over 80 percent of government expenditures, such a move would seem obvious yet doing so would also upset the exact base of support which Mugabe and the ZANU-PF have depended on for decades. Resistance to such a measure has even reared its head recently yet it appears as though things may prove to be different this time around since they simply cannot afford to pay employees as it currently stands and supporters, such as veterans, are already turning sour and protesting in the streets.

Such a move would still prove nowhere near enough to even be eligible for foreign assistance: after all, arrears amount to $1.8 billion in a government which gathers approximately $3.7 billion in revenue. As such, some sort of debt forgiveness or restructuring will be necessary, a prospect which Chinamasa has already been attempting. No country, union, or institution, however, will accept such a premise without some concrete reforms in regards to investment and, particularly with the UK and the US, political reforms.

When it comes to investment, there are two policies which could provide massive dividends: rolling back some of the stringent ownership requirements currently plaguing the nation and addressing the disastrous land seizures of the 2000s. These decisions, after all, sunk the economy from 1998 to 2008 so reversing some of these moves could at least reassure investors while providing more flexibility for entrepreneurs to actually take risks within this once thriving nation. This would mean revoking, or at the very least weakening, the requirement that ownership must be at least 51 percent black Zimbabwean, reestablishing property rights, and attempting to reverse much of the seizures that had taken place from previously successful commercial farming operations. Beyond just the reversals, however, extensive privatizations are certainly possible as long as the previous steps are put forward, a prospect which would not only set the tone for future investments but also provide much-needed revenue to aid with the arrears and this transition.

A point to emphasize, however, is that few of these reforms will truly have any meaningful impact without being conducted in synch with others. Halting promised increases within the public sector, particularly within the higher echelons where salaries can easily exceed $200,000 a month, would buy some breathing room for the government yet would quickly disappoint without the reforms to encourage outside investment. This holds true even if Mugabe’s ZANU-PF were to repay their arrears: after all, international financial institutions will certainly not throw good money after bad simply because they have been repaid what they were already due. Rather it will involve not only conducting the politically jeopardizing move of halting increases to the public sector but also reforming ownership laws to at least be a bit more inclusive than the strict 51 percent black ownership requirement demands, returning much of the seized property where possible, and privatizing some of the extensive public holdings which currently stand idle in the hands of political lackeys.

There are certainly additional steps which will be necessary if Zimbabwe is to hope to regain its once-prized position as a thriving economy within sub-Sahara Africa including revisiting its anarchic monetary system, investing in its now fading and decrepit infrastructure, and promoting more regional cooperation and trade agreements. Yet without addressing these primary concerns, the rest of the reforms simply feel far beyond the scope of any administration, whether it be Robert Mugabe, Grace Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, or any other potential successor. There is, of course, another set of reforms, reforms which could prove far more effective in addressing these concerns without inflicting nearly as much pain: ZANU-PF finally embraces true political reforms unlike the sham of the previous decade. Abandon the political repression, allow for opposition, and drop the blatant vote-rigging. To make such a move would allow nations like the US, UK, Europe, and indeed much of the African Union to unequivocally step forward and provide some of the financing and debt restructuring/forgiveness that Zimbabwe will desperately need to truly succeed opposed to simply limping along.

This, of course, feels unlikely, at least in a significantly large enough manner to convince already skeptical outsiders. Yet it is perhaps the best way forward for the nation’s populace and even its political elites. Nelson Mandela, once seen as a peer and contemporary of Robert Mugabe, was quoted saying that “the time is always ripe to do right.” There’s still time for Mugabe to realize this sage advice yet if he will not, the ZANU-PF or indeed any successor can. The time for adaptation and re-engagement has been ripe for some time yet now, more so than ever, is the time to move forward before a terrible situation becomes even worse.