Opinion: Zimbabwe: 2016, the year of living dangerously - CNBC Africa

Opinion: Zimbabwe: 2016, the year of living dangerously

Southern Africa

by Gary van Staden, Senior Political Analyst, NKC African Economics 0

The next 12 months are going to be among the most difficult in memory for Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Photo: Wikipedia

It is not likely to be a happy new year for Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his increasingly beleaguered Zanu-PF. The next 12 months are going to be among the most difficult in memory for the ageing president and his fractured party, which may not even last the year in its current form.

The political environment is more likely than not to turn increasingly hostile over the next few months: unemployment is at unprecedented heights, those still in work feel under threat, and poverty on the streets is increasing. Vacillation over economic reforms and policy realignment provide further sources of heat under the political pressure cooker.

And with Zanu-PF threatening to come apart at the seams under ever-increasing internal squabbling and jockeying for position, it is in no state to take any decisive action.

In a clear indication that Mugabe is a bumbling shadow of his former self, there is open warfare in his party. Elements of the party and State have taken clear positions in the race to succeed the ailing president, who may not even see out this term let alone contest elections in 2018 (when he will be 94).

The military and the wider security community in Zimbabwe have tended to be regarded as critical elements in the survival of Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF, kingmakers as far as his succession was concerned. But that view has tended to be a little simplistic. It was assumed that this unified monolithic military had no competing agendas – that assumption was flawed.

Mugabe did not and does not have enemies in the military or the security establishment, but he does increasingly have opponents of his ideology, his policies and his irrational relationship with potential major donors and investors. The military has senior war hero veterans in command positions who want to see Joice Mujuru, the former vice president, in State House come 2018.

Other senior war hero veterans in command positions want to see Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa in office as he is regarded as the least threat to the patronage networks developed over 30-plus years of Zanu-PF rule; and there are still others who want to see fresh political blood in some combination of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) factions and elements of Zanu-PF.

The idea of a united military and security establishment meekly following Mr Mugabe’s wishes and endorsing a chosen successor (more particularly should this successor happen to be his wife, Grace) is clearly wrong. The gloves are off in every nook and cranny of the party and the State, and the consequences for governance and policy making in Zimbabwe over the next 12 months or so are severe.

Just last month, Mugabe confirmed the infighting in the military and security cluster over his successor stating that it posed a threat to the party. Media quoted Mugabe as telling the annual Zanu-PF conference that one of the major problems confronting the party was ambitious officials angling for positions, which was destabilising the organisation.

And in a portent that the troubles he faces will not only come from within, the president and his government were warned by organised labour to expect a backlash on the streets. Zimbabwe's largest workers’ federation stated in a December 2015 statement that the year had been the worst for workers and warned that the government should brace itself for industrial action if the “ill-treatment” continued in 2016.

In July 2015 many struggling companies embarked on massive retrenchments following a ruling by the Supreme Court that gave employers leeway to terminate job contracts by giving workers just three months’ notice, resulting in close to 20,000 people sacked before the law was recalled to stop the job losses. 

Mugabe’s acknowledgement of the obvious divisions within Zanu-PF is partly designed to curb infighting, but it is also a final plea to allow him and his chosen elites to decide on a new leader and leave him with a little dignity. His call will fall on deaf ears as several competing groups including his wife, the former and current vice presidents, and shady elements known as Generation-40 (or G-40) comprised of younger Zanu-PF officials continue to jockey for power.

The ongoing struggles to anoint a successor under Mugabe’s nose are both humiliating and confirmation that the iron grip that once ruled both party and country is now gone. Such unseemly power grabs would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago, but now threaten political stability.

A teetering, unsure political regime in a state of leadership paralysis will have huge difficulties navigating an increasingly agitated political environment. Given the competition for position in the party, starting at the top, it may be difficult to hold it all together.

The once all-powerful Zanu-PF is splintering with potentially dire consequences for the State’s ability to govern, make policy and deal with a growing list of crises. A happy new year it is definitely not.

*Gary van Staden is a Senior Political Analyst at NKC African Economics