“We’re tired too, but we don’t know what to do with this man!”
A year ago, this would have been dismissed as part of the usual opposition bluster against Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s long-serving leader. But in recent months, even Zanu PF and Mugabe loyalists are beginning to sing the same chorus. We are tired, too, they say privately. But we don’t know how to make him go. The general expression is one of exhaustion, frustration, and exasperation.
“Mbwanana hadzisvinuri musi mumwechete” (Puppies open their eyes at different times after they are born. Some open early, others much later). This is what the opposition supporters say, employing a Shona proverb, which demonstrates an understanding that their fellow citizens have been slow to notice that Mugabe’s rule is no longer tenable. They do not condemn them, they merely note that they have been slow but welcome them.
True, there was a so-called Million Man March a couple of weeks ago, when thousands of ZANU PF supporters converged in Harare, ostensibly to acknowledge Mugabe’s leadership and demonstrate their support for their leader. It was odd to see a ruling party which claims to have won “a resounding victory” in 2013 embarking on such a march as if they were doubting themselves. At the time, I wrote that ZANU PF was behaving like a man who, filled with self-doubt, low confidence, and unsureness, runs naked around the village to prove to himself and others that he is still a man. It is utterly ridiculous and people will only conclude that he has lost his mind.
Many who came were bussed in from the rural areas in the country’s ten provinces. After destroying the national bus company’s fleet of buses, ZANU PF commandeered school-buses from schools around the country to ferry its supporters to and from Harare. There are at least two ways to look at the Million Man March, one external and the other internal to ZANU PF politics.
First, it can be seen as ZANU PF’s show of force against the fragmented opposition, at a time when the government is clearly struggling with the economy and morale is low. In April, the Tsvangirai-led MDC-T, had held a highly subscribed protest march in Harare. The event quashed doubts that Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s main rival for the past 16 years was now a spent-force. In the intervening period, ordinary citizens had also begun to speak openly about their wars and demanding accountability from their government. This was encapsulated in a popular social media-based movement under the banner of #ThisFlag led by a pastor, Evan Mawarire. To that extent, the Million Man March became a response to external opponents and critiques, a show that ZANU PF still commanded support, the economic challenges notwithstanding.
But there was also a second dimension to the Million Man March: it was Mugabe’s message to his internal rivals, a show of numbers that said: I still have more support than anyone in ZANU PF. If anyone within the party was beginning to cast aspersions on his grip on power, this show of support doused them. It matters very little to him how those supporters came to Harare or that they were jobless and hungry young men and women who should have been productively engaged elsewhere. All he saw from the podium were masses of people who were supposedly adoring him. It was an exercise in ego-massaging and he would have left convinced that the people of Zimbabwe still want him to continue.
Mugabe’s emphatic message to his internal rivals is clearer when the Million Man March is considered against the poorly attended May Day rally addressed by his Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is widely regarded as a front-runner in the race to succeed Mugabe. Mnangagwa had to endure the ignominy of addressing an empty Rufaro Stadium at what was supposed to be a celebration of Workers’ Day. He was set up to fail, what with high unemployment rates at above 80%. By contrast, Mugabe had a bumper-crowd. If it was a rented crowd, then clearly no effort was made to extend the same facility to Mnangagwa. Politically, the message was clear: the pretender to the throne does not have the same appeal as the old master. Incidentally, it is this apparent inability to draw people towards him that has always been Mnangagwa’s Achilles Heel, which his opponents have been very eager to emphasise.
ZANU PF members are facing a paradox: they adore their old man but at the same time they now realise his weaknesses. They realise he no longer has the capacity to change the country’s economic fortunes. They are suffering like everyone else in Zimbabwe and yearn for the good times, too. Mugabe now spends a lot of time outside the country, travelling from one country to another, even for minor events where he could be delegating to and sending his Vice Presidents (he has two) or ministers. Back in February, he had to abort an embarrassing trip to India for what turned out to be a mere cultural festival which even the host President was not attending. Last week he was in Papua New Guinea for an event where he was the only Head of State to grace the occasion which was attended by a few Prime Ministers, junior ministers, and ambassadors.
But it is the trips to the city-state of Singapore that have become all too frequent in recent years. In a space of just one, he was in Singapore at least three times. It seems his trips are increasingly towards or around the Far-East so that he can pass through Singapore when he travels. When he went to Papua New Guinea he stopped over in Singapore and when he left Papua New Guinea, he also stopped off in Singapore.
Singapore is an important destination because that is where he receives his medical treatments, which seem to have become more regular in advanced age. But his new grandson was also born in Singapore about two months ago. His daughter, Bona Mugabe who studied in Hong Kong, chose to give birth in Singapore, ahead of Zimbabwean hospitals. Though ironic, her choice is unsurprising. Zimbabwe’s public health system has deteriorated to alarming levels. In November 2015, The Chronicle newspaper reported that 30 percent of pre-mature babies born at Mpilo Hospital, Bulawayo’s biggest referral hospital, die in their first month.
But even if she had chosen to give birth in Zimbabwe, Bona Mugabe would most likely have avoided the decrepit public hospitals which her father has superintended with dismal results for 36 years and chosen the better-equipped private health-care institutions. Either way, it would have been a serious indictment on her father’s leadership.
Nevertheless, it is the economy that has given everyone, including loyal Mugabe cadres a serious headache. “You cannot rig the economy,” say the opposition parties, making reference to the allegations that Mugabe has stayed in power because of election-rigging. On May 4 the central bank Governor, John Mangundya announced that government would introduce Bond Notes, a quasi-currency which would apparently operate at par with the US Dollar. There was a lot of confusion over the plan, which was first announced to be implemented within two months but in recent weeks, it has been moved to October.
Citizens, including some experts, have been vocal in their opposition to this new measure, fearing a return to the dark days of hyper-inflation in 2007-08. Zimbabweans endured the first hyperinflation of the 21st century when inflation hit the 79,6 billion percent mark in November 2008. It was partly fuelled by government’s penchant for printing money. Now Zimbabweans fear their government will do the same once it starts to print Bond Notes. The government says Bond Notes will ease cash shortages which have crippled the banking market in recent months. The government blames businesses and individuals for “externalising” cash. But critics say the cash shortages are due to government’s unrestrained and reckless appetite for spending more than it earns. “We must eat what we kill,” former Finance Minister in the GNU, Tendai Biti used to caution. After 2013, the government abandoned this line of fiscal prudence and discipline. Last year, when Chinamasa announced a suspension of public servants’ bonuses, Mugabe reversed his decision. Fifteen months later, the government is still struggling to finish paying off the bonuses.
Yet in all these debates that have been raging about the economy, Mugabe has been eerily silent, without any solution. He’s travelling a lot of the time and when he’s home, he rarely speaks about the country’s economic direction or what the government is doing to extricate the country from the cesspool of poverty. It’s as if he’s oblivious to the suffering of the people. The 2 million jobs that were promised during his 2013 election campaign have proved to be nothing more than an empty promise. He rarely talks about ZimAsset, the flagship economic policy which was trumpeted during the campaign and a couple of years later. Last September, he came up with a Ten-Point Plan, but very little about it has been heard of since then.
Meanwhile, corruption is escalating to unprecedented levels. He makes promises to clamp down on corruption but does nothing about it. His Energy Minister, Samuel Undenge has been at the centre of various corruption scandals in recent weeks which would warrant at least an investigation. But he remains in post. Other Ministers are doing it too, Undenge is reported to have pleaded in defence. His Health Minister, David Parirenyatwa dipped his hand into the pot of a medical aid society which services public servants. He called in “capitation” but there was a clear conflict of interest and potential abuse of office. Mugabe did nothing and Parirenyatwa remains in post. He claimed to have paid back the funds that had been paid inappropriately. Mugabe does not show any appetite to stem the culture of corruption which is depleting the national coffers. The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, the gatekeeper against corruption, is itself corrupt. It should be playing the role played by the Public Protector in South Africa, safeguarding public funds from corruption and misuse, but with its chief officers suspended for corruption, it’s hopeless. The Prosecutor-General who is supposed to carry out prosecutions was reportedly a beneficiary of one of the corrupt scandals where the commission bought houses for commissioners. Meanwhile, one of his vice presidents, Mphoko, has been living in a hotel since December 2014 when he was appointed. The taxpayer carries the cost of such profligacy.
The situation is gloomy and the future doesn’t look promising. The majority of young people talk about wanting to leave as soon as they get an opportunity. “There is no future for me here,” wrote a nephew two weeks ago. He was born in 1994, 14 years after Mugabe assumed power. I was in my first year at the University of Zimbabwe. I remember taking refuge at their home when he was a baby after clashes with police at the UZ while demonstrating against Mugabe’s rule, among other things. Now, he’s a man, Mugabe is still in charge. He wants out and he is not alone in his generation.
But it looks like there are some significant changes brewing. More and more ordinary Zimbabweans, outside and within Zanu PF are beginning to find their voices. Poverty does not discriminate on party political lines. The economic challenges are affecting everyone. The war veterans are becoming more vocal. After the apparent snub in favour of the youth and women’s wings at Mugabe’s Million Man March two weeks ago, they have become bolder and more aggressive in their statements and demands, in one instance openly declaring Mnangagwa as the sole candidate for succession and attacking co-Vice President Mphoko. And while most in ZANU PF continue to show a hand of public support to their leader, privately, the murmurs of disapproval are growing.
Speaking at the Million Man March, Grace Mugabe said her husband would “rule from the grave”. It was interpreted as a statement which revealed a typical attitude among loyalists who cannot see beyond Mugabe. But it was also a statement that hinted at his mortality. And only Grace Mugabe could hint at the leader’s mortality and get away with it. Most Zimbabweans, including ZANU PF supporters and some in the leadership, will just be hoping that it dawns upon him sooner that taking Zimbabwe forward is now a burden too heavy for him to carry. The truth, however, is that he will not retire. His colleagues in ZANU PF have to save him from himself, but more importantly, they have to save the nation from one man’s ambition.
“We are tired now, but what do we do with him?”
This is the question they are asking each other in private. Whether these private murmurings morph into open public dissension remains to be seen.