The mask slips as Zimbabwe’s ‘new’ regime bares its teeth

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By The Financial Times (UK)

THIS week, Emmerson Mnangagwa, president and ostensible new face of Zimbabwe, cut short a foreign trip, skipping Davos to attend to things at home “in light of the economic situation”.

In his utter failure to capture the gravity of events, Mnangagwa echoed Japan’s Emperor Hirohito who, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been vaporised by atomic bombs, declared that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. Presumably he would have skipped Davos, too.

The truth that Mnangagwa missed in his milquetoast assessment is this: Zimbabwe is bankrupt. Zimbabwe is on fire. The crisis, years in the making, was ignited 10 days ago when the president announced on TV that petrol and diesel prices would more than double to $3 a litre. Having dropped his bombshell, he absconded to Moscow, leaving the country in the hands of his nominal deputy, General Constantino Chiwenga.

In what has become a national “good cop, bad cop” routine, Gen Chiwenga — architect of the 2017 coup that brought Mnangagwa to power and a man who looks suspiciously like the country’s de facto ruler — ordered a crackdown on the inevitable protests that followed.

For long-suffering Zimbabweans, the fuel price rise was the final straw. It topped months of economic meltdown that have stripped supermarket shelves bare and sucked any remaining value from the country’s phoney electronic currency.

Zimbabwe’s paper notes were scrapped a decade ago after raging hyperinflation. That the country survives at all is due almost entirely to the dollars sent home by the millions of Zimbabweans forced to seek a livelihood abroad. Bus fares rose with fuel prices.

Many Zimbabweans now spend the entirety of their earnings getting to and from work. Destitution or worse beckons. Even police have been spotted traipsing for miles with handcuffed prisoners because their vehicles have no petrol.

For years, Zimbabwe’s people have suffered silently, both through fear of reprisal and because of civic norms that shun violence. For many, the fuel price rise proved too much.

The trades union congress called a general strike. In Harare and Bulawayo, a centre of opposition to the ruling Zanu PF, youths barricaded streets and even attacked police stations.

If Max Weber’s definition of a state is a group with a monopoly on violence, it is a definition Zanu PF takes to heart. Gen Chiwenga’s military responded with a crackdown every bit as vicious as during the era of former president Robert Mugabe.

Soldiers fired live rounds at demonstrators. They went house to house, beating up people and dragging off youths to prison. So indiscriminate is the violence that even people who voted for Zanu PF are victims.

George Charamba, once the spokesman of Mr Mugabe and now the voice of President Mnangagwa, described the crackdown as “just a foretaste” of things to come. He accused the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which claims it was defrauded in last year’s election, of seeking power through blood.

Authorities killed at least 12 people, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, during what it has called the “days of darkness”. That alludes to both the severity of state violence and to an internet shutdown intended to keep it under wraps.

Zimbabweans living aboard used expensive airtime to call relatives, getting the news out anyway. “People are not scared any more because they already killed us,” says Simon Mafuu, a 35-year-old Uber driver in Cape Town, who fled Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation a decade ago. “They have no work. They have nothing to lose.”

It is the dearth of prospects that has brought Zimbabwe’s diligent and well-educated population to the brink. Mnangagwa was supposed to breathe life into the economy by wooing foreign investors and repairing relations with international bodies. His efforts, if they were genuine, have been stillborn.

Vested interests within Zanu PF stand to lose by opening up the economy to competition and scrutiny. Many reap rich rewards through control of state coffers and supplies of the fuel whose rationing has tipped the country into chaos.

Last year at Davos, a smiling Mnangagwa told the world that Zimbabwe was “open for business”. Dressed in a rainbow-coloured scarf that has become a symbol of a supposedly new, more enlightened Zimbabwe, he told assembled delegates that his nickname of “the crocodile” was unwarranted.

A year has passed. Like many other liberation movements, Zanu PF appears irredeemable. The new Zimbabwe looks very much like the old one. And Mnangagwa’s teeth — or at least those of Gen Chiwenga — are as sharp as ever.