Why Mnangagwa’s new dispensation keeps old problems

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WHEN President Emmerson Mnangagwa came into office after his former boss Robert Mugabe had been forced to resign following a military intervention, he could have done anything that he wanted and still get away with it. Such was the huge and overwhelming amount of goodwill outpouring from all corners of the world including his former foes, that failure could only come from a tragic inability to realize what needs to be done.

I have always argued that what we changed was the administrator not the administration. Those appointed by Mugabe into senior government and cabinet positions and left in those positions after the military intervention might end up continuing with a business as usual attitude. That realisation is unfortunately now being fulfilled by the catastrophic cosmetic blunders being made.

Change takes time and a dearth of information about what is going on makes it look worse for the citizens. Most people in the opposition deride the assumed contested legitimacy of the current President Mnangagwa administration by calling it a “Junta”, a word which means a political group that rules a country after taking power by force. This is meant to unfairly hurt the credibility of the government and how it is perceived both locally and internationally.

We only had two options, the continued ruinous rule by Mugabe that would have seen his wife Grace take over, or the military intervention that happened in November. Interestingly, the elements of government that have been taken over by former military personnel are the ones that seem to be being transformed and yet the civil service is still operating on yesterday’s pace.

This, in some way, is a reminder that whilst the President is looking ahead and wants to march on with radical changes, he doesn’t have a team fit for purpose yet. The President is surrounded by an administration that seems to be finding it difficult to match the huge citizen expectations. Outwardly, it looks like a bog standard civil service bureaucracy incapable of helping us get out of the political and economic sewer which has been our home for the past 18 years due to Mugabe’s misrule, incompetence and outright corruption.

The coordination of different government departments is not an easy task especially for a government and President who came into being under unplanned circumstances. I live two minutes away from a road used by the President when he is going to work in the morning, I now use his motorcade sirens as an alarm timer for my getting out of bed. He probably leaves his home around 6.45am for work and I am told that he leaves his Munhumutapa offices quite late at night and that he also works during weekends.

However, this is not enough on its own if your subordinates are not pushing and driving your vision in a way that sells your ability to deliver to the electorate. This is the reality that President Mnangagwa and his two deputies, Vice Presidents Constantino Chiwenga and Kembo Mohadi must now face up to. Theirs should be a point of departure from the Mugabe days where government was oblivious to the realities obtaining on the ground, a situation that resulted in complicated election campaigns and contested election results.

There is no doubt that President Mnangagwa is not in any way another Mugabe; those who say so either don’t know the man or are doing so for party political point scoring. He has been resolutely against many things that Mugabe pushed during his days as Zimbabwe’s President. Mnangagwa knew that doing an Edgar Tekere by throwing his toys out of the pram in a political tantrum would kill his political career and also that he would achieve nothing if he were outside the party and government.

He always urged caution according to a businessman very close to him that I spoke to over the weekend at a sociality party. The businessman said that President Mnangagwa has always been the voice of reason and calmness whenever his colleagues were faced with a tough situation that involved Mugabe’s political intransigence. The catastrophic failure and lack of direction by the Mugabe regimes resulted in election challenges that forced Mugabe to order wholesale violence against citizens and electoral fraud which delegitimized his rule and administrations, resulting in an 18-year-old global isolation.

When President Mnangagwa came to power in November, the country and the rest of the world thought that his main and immediate task would be to help pull Zimbabwe out of the political and economic abyss and act as the bridge between Mugabe’s brutal tyranny and a future of any and many positive possibilities. In other words, he will not be a Joshua but a Moses because the undoing of Mugabe’s damage will take decades. As Czech novelist and playwright Ivan Klíma said in Love and Garbage, to destroy is easier than to create, and that is why so many people are ready to demonstrate against what they reject.

Bridging between the past and the future still remains President Mnangagwa’s task that he needs to execute and win if the country is to move ahead. When looking at his work, we should be cognizant of the fact that he is a President for all and not just his ZANU PF supporters. We should also realize that he got a mandate from two institutions, his party ZANU PF and the military that helped him get into power. He doesn’t have a mandate from the citizens yet that can allow him to make wholesale changes.

Politics is complex, that is why British Prime Minister Theresa May sought a mandate from the electorate after taking over from David Cameron. Without one, a leader remains a lame duck President. Those that wish President Mnangagwa to succeed do so because they realize the importance of separating their partisan views and what is good for the country, a complete departure from Mugabe who viewed his personal considerations as paramount and above those of the nation. National interest was never high up on Mugabe’s radar, so in wishing President Mnangagwa to fail, we will be following in the former President’s footsteps of accentuating narrow and shallow personal and political objectives above the broader national imperatives.

There are many Zimbabweans who will vote for President Mnangagwa and many that won’t vote for him in equal measure regardless of what he delivers. What the people around him must remember and consider important are the floating voters who are not bothered about who runs the country, all they want is to see progress. These patriots are an important factor because the issue is not just about winning elections; Mugabe “won” them regardless. The main issue is about coming out of the cold, gaining legitimacy and acceptance into the family of nations.

We are now in the fourth month of President Mnangagwa’s rule and unfortunately, the cautious optimism that many Zimbabweans had expressed is now slowly turning into disappointment.
This has been caused by many political complexities that have now caused delivery gridlock that might prove to be a problem for the President as we head into a general election.

I had dinner with a senior Western diplomat last week who explained to me that Western governments are still sceptical about the Zimbabwean government’s ability to deliver on its many nice sounding promises this side of an election. He told me that many Western governments were waiting to see whether there is any genuine change on the ground and would only act if their diplomats told them to do so.

The Zimbabwean government, the diplomat said, had not given them much tangible evidence to show change on the ground to warrant a different direction and diplomatic attitude towards the Harare administration. This to me is a systematic failure by those around the President, a failure to realize that he needs to win a free, fair and credible election or else he will become Zimbabwe’s new pariah Head of State if he is forced to win the plebiscite by any means necessary. It will defeat the whole reengagement processes that are slowly taking off because these Western governments will be embarrassed to endorse a flawed election.

These Western partners are important because they have been feeding impoverished Zimbabweans and providing all manner of emergency and necessary donor funding as a result of Mugabe’s incompetence and other related commissions. They also control the levers of power at the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank and IMF.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe has nothing important that can force the West to bend down on its knees and turn a blind eye to any electoral and human rights breaches and failure to take a new path in governing the country. A real distinctive departure from how the retired tyrant Mugabe ruled the country with a tight grip is what is needed. So far, we have had whispering sounds about it but no real action and the key people who matter around the world are also saying the same things, they need an excuse to change their past attitudes towards us.

I have argued that President Mnangagwa took over power in the most unconventional of ways, unplanned and not ready. That was not his fault, this was forced on him by Mugabe’s erratic behaviour and lack of sound advice when he unnecessarily fired Mnangagwa as his Deputy President and tried to arrest General Constantino Chiwenga in order to clear the way for his wife’s ascension to power.

Consequently, President Mnangagwa was forced to reappoint some unsavoury and highly unpopular toxic characters for political continuity purposes. Some of his close lieutenants have told me that he also feared destabilising government and the party only a few months before the general election. They argue that some of these people will go after the elections when he has a mandate, something that they seemed so sure of two months ago.

As they say, 24 hours is a long time in politics, the demise of Morgan Tsvangirai ushered in Nelson Chamisa and the legendary narcissism of Mugabe has seen the formation of the New Patriotic Front, the NPF. These new political variables and realities coupled with a youthful electorate, should be considered a genuine headache for the President who many in the opposition see and portray as an extension of Mugabe’s rule.

The formation of NPF has even made it harder for President Mnangagwa to get rid of some of his colleagues in government or the party as they would simply cross over to Mugabe’s party and start fighting him from there. Many of these people have been part of the Mugabe political architecture for decades, they know the screws to loosen to make President Mnangagwa fail and lose an election. This explains why he is carrying the cross by holding on to poster boys and girls of corruption and toxic elements in his team that should have been retired.

President Mnangagwa has had an opportunity to pluck low hanging fruits like the removal or amendment of the repressive and most notorious laws associated with Jonathan Moyo, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). The removal of these vile laws would have and can still send a powerful signal to many around the world that Zimbabwe is now open for business indeed not just in words.

The mere fact that Vice President General Costantino Chiwenga and President Emmerson Mnangagwa assisted in the long overdue removal of Robert Mugabe was enough to give them space to deliver on some of these less painful reforms which Mugabe wouldn’t countenance implementing. They need a clean election to retain international legitimacy after 18 years of pariah status and as such, they won’t need to use repressive laws to retain power. So why keep them?

The reformation of the state media is another key element from the basket of low hanging fruits and a necessary change expected but it hasn’t happened. Yet it doesn’t cost money to ask the ZBC and Zimpapers editors to be fair in their reporting and to cover all political players professionally. After all, this is a constitutional requirement under section 61(4), which says that all State media must be impartial, and broadcast a diversity of opinion. Failure to address such minuscule issues is what gives the President’s opponents legitimate weaponry to attack him with when they ridicule his reformist credentials and promises.

However, in trying to understand where we are, it is also important to be fair in our analysis and not become habitual deliverymen of only negative news. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom, we now have a healthy level of freedom of speech which didn’t exist under the previous President.
I was a victim of that intolerance in many successive years when Tafataona Mahoso, with the connivance of Supa Mandiwanzira, thwarted every move I made in 2004 to get accreditation as a BBC journalist.

I was haunted by shadowy state operatives at the instruction of senior government officials who were implementing the repressive culture of stopping competent journalists from doing their work. That has been suspended for now and will probably be done away with when the notorious AIPPA legislation that scaffolds and gives this media repression legality is done away with.

We have seen the culture of police intimidation and bribery through unnecessary roadblocks removed. We have seen President Mnangagwa rebuild regional alliances in the SADC region and beyond with former critics like President Ian Khama of Botswana and Britain. We have seen the return of serious politics, which acknowledges that we are not an island, and that we are seeking to re-engage with former political foes in the West.

We have seen the passing of legislation to deal with Gukurahundi when the President signed the National Peace and Reconciliation Act into law, something that the previous President still refuses to take responsibility for, choosing to push the blame onto the victims. We have also seen the temporary return of police sanity by not invoking POSA to block opposition parties’ rallies; however, this will be fully applauded when the law is repealed or amended in such a way that it does not weigh heavy on other political parties and its leaders.

The President erred when he failed to acknowledge the 2008 election violence in an interview with the Economist. These are some of the things that can make those floating voters doubt his administration’s sincerity in turning around the ship from a culture of impunity. President Mnangagwa is being judged on his ability or failure to roll back 37 ruinous years of Mugabe’s rule after only spending three months in office. This has been caused by his administration’s inflated promises during the euphoric weeks just after Mugabe’s demise.

Nelson Chamisa is also doing the same thing of inflating promises such as the bulletin train pledge, $15 billion from Uncle Sam, Spaghetti Highways, Gweru becoming the administrative capital and many more such abstract and yet difficult to fulfil election IOUs. Both President Mnangagwa and his opposite number, Chamisa, must speak to us about our immediate pressing problems.

If these are explained in simple ways through plausible policies and audited plans detailing how they will be funded, then we can start having a meaningful and thoughtful national conversation around who has the ability to deliver on their promises. There will be no need to go into fantasyland promising things that can’t be achieved on the part of the leading candidates. What we want to hear is how they will address our immediate problems of healthcare, water and sanitation, potholed roads, money in the banks, well equipped hospitals, jobs and a working economy. Those are the immediate issues that the country desperately needs addressed.

We also want to hear how the different political parties intend to address the debts owed to the World Bank (WB) and the Africa Development Bank (AfDB). Zimbabwe is seeking a private sector loan to pay off these arrears. However, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) will insist that the private sector loan be on favourable terms that will allow the Government of Zimbabwe to pay the loan whilst obtaining new monies from the WB, IMF and the AfDB. The new monies have to be paid back at the same time, therefore the International Financial Institutions don’t want Zimbabwe to sink under its debt.

There are also loans to Japan, Kuwait, Italy and China that have to be repaid. There is no easy or quick solution to this overbearing debt crisis. That is one reason why Zimbabwe needs major private sector development, however without the implementation of the promised economic reforms, it is unlikely to take place anytime soon. All these things must be explained to the citizens but, unfortunately, we haven’t heard the main presidential candidates explain how they will tackle these important issues either in newspaper op-eds or in their campaign material.
We await their election manifestos. These are the key issues in unlocking the much-needed economic turnaround drivers.

The government said all the right things in its budget but then sent mixed signals when it bought cars for traditional chiefs. This again speaks to the political considerations forced onto President Mnangagwa in order to make sure that he secures a clean mandate by appeasing the key elements that have traditionally assisted his party into receiving its much-needed rural social base.

The country owes the many external debtors around 8 to 9 billion United States dollars.
Resolving these financial obligations will go a long way in fixing the cash crisis that has been made worse by the fact that the foreign exchange has also become our local currency. This crisis can’t be solved overnight or in 14 days as promised by Nelson Chamisa. It requires a huge injection of capital that can only take place when all the overhanging debts are taken care of or are being taken care of.

This won’t happen before the elections because the government has signalled to the World Bank that it will resolve its debt with the bank around September because it is working with its hands tied. After paying up these debts, it will then need the United States not to stand in the way by invoking the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA).

Through ZIDERA, the US government instructed the U.S. executive director of each International Financial Institution to “oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan credit, or guarantee to the Government of Zimbabwe and any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the Government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any International Financial Institution”.

ZIDERA can only be removed or suspended if the Government of Zimbabwe implements reforms stated in that law. That is why it is important for the President and his subordinates to start rolling out the reforms which can be done without needing any financial assistance. The intention to address the abusive human rights culture can be signalled through the repealing of some of the draconian behaviour drivers such as AIPPA and POSA in addition to the Gukurahundi law, the National Peace and Reconciliation Act.

It takes time for a group of people to unlearn a decades old culture, but the intention must be shown, the political will to do so needs to be advanced to recede the toxic language in our political discourse.

The quality of state media journalism is appalling, they must start turning the corner by covering all political parties and not being subjective in their journalism. Their professional problems also hinge on genuine incompetence and inability to self-correct. Change is scary, but it should be done in order to remove the constant accusations and attacks on the person of the President, attacks on his inability to instruct that these institutions change.

These attacks have a negative bearing on the country because he is a President for all Zimbabweans and any negativity emanating from his commissions or omissions will affect not just his supporters, but also even those that oppose him. There is a genuine lack of capacity to deliver on the promised goals and sometimes it is more dangerous when those given such important tasks don’t realize their inability to do that work without seeking competent assistance from technical partners like the United Nations. This is a chronic civil service disease.

The President has been fortunate enough to get the support of Zimbabwe’s important and historic partner, Britain. Most of the Western ambassadors that I have spoken to, whilst grovelling about the lack of important changes being implemented, they are convinced that the opposition will find it hard to untangle ZANU PF’s 38-year-old incumbency. Many are finding the opposition’s promises comical and unnecessary.

Most Western countries are afraid of getting their election predictions wrong this time around as the former British Ambassador did in 2013 when she predicted an MDC-T victory according to the director of the Royal Africa Society, Richard Dowden. Both the former British ambassador Deborah Bronnert and the Head of MI6 at the British embassy in Harare called it wrong. M16 is the British foreign intelligence service.

The government must set up a Rapid Results Unit that tracks what is being done and immediately communicates the positives to the citizens. It must improve its communication departments. It is difficult to find any meaningful information on government websites and social media accounts. The civil service should not be afraid of changing its culture. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, change is the only constant in life.

As we head towards a defining general election, the government and President Mnangagwa should start to address the substantive issues that will shape how the citizens feel. The opposition should make sure that it relays responsible messages and also not to rely on an imagined youthful electorate that might not necessarily be registered to vote or is registered to vote but might not turn up at the polling booth.

As they say in football lingua, it is not over until it is over!

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is a CNN African journalist of the year and Harvard University Nieman Fellow. His next film, State of Mind looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe is coming out in March.  He can be contacted on or on twitter @daddyhope