President-in-waiting Emmerson Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe Wednesday, telling a gathering at the ZANU-PF headquarters in Harare they were “witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy.”
The 75-year-old, due to be sworn in as president Friday, was returning from South Africa, where he had fled in fear for his safety after being sacked as the country’s vice-president earlier this month.
Now poised to become the country’s second leader in 37 years, Mnangagwa promised an ambitious, optimistic new direction for the once prosperous country that, under decades of misrule, has become an economic basket-case and international pariah.
“We want to grow our economy, we want peace in our country, we want jobs, jobs, jobs,” he told the crowd.
He acknowledged that international assistance would be necessary, a sign that he is looking to bring the country out of international isolation.
“We need the cooperation of the continent of Africa. We need the cooperation of our friends outside the continent,” he said.
Mnangagwa will need all the help he can get. He faces huge challenges in reversing the fortunes of an economy ruined by decades of mismanagement.
Once considered Africa’s bread-basket, Zimbabwe’s economy has shrunk by half since the turn of the century, when the government launched a disastrous program of farm seizures. The country hasn’t had its own currency since 2009, when hyperinflation destroyed its dollar, unemployment runs at about 90 percent, and the country has an estimated $11 billion in debt it can’t repay.
The good news for Mnangagwa is that the removal of Robert Mugabe gives him a honeymoon period, Chris Vandome, a research analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank, told VICE News. Amid the goodwill accompanying the ouster of the world’s third-longest serving statesman, domestic and international stakeholders will be prepared to give Mnangagwa chance to come up with a roadmap to save the shattered economy and harness the country’s considerable resources, including in mining, agriculture, and a skilled potential labor force.
Reforming failed economic policies will be a priority to rebuild confidence, attract the international investment needed to recapitalize the economy, and entice members of the three million-strong diaspora to return.
The new administration will need push through reforms on multiple fronts, including reworking laws that have weakened property rights and scared off foreign investors, stamping out corruption, and reducing the huge public sector wage bill – which currently accounts for the bulk of government spending. The new administration will also need to negotiate its huge foreign debt with international lenders.
Fixing the economy – Zimbabwe’s most immediate concern – will satisfy another critical challenge for Mnangagwa: establishing his legitimacy and identity as a leader, said Vandome.
While Mnangagwa, known as “The Crocodile” for his political wile and longevity, has strong credentials as a veteran of the independence movement, he lacks Mugabe’s standing as a national liberation hero. There have been questions for some Zimbabweans about the legality of his rise to power, given he lacked any formal position in government after his sacking.
“There’s an opportunity for Mnangagwa to build his legitimacy around being the one who turned around the economy,” said Vandome.
“Whereas Mugabe was willing to make political decisions regardless of economic consequences, Mnangagwa is seen as more business-friendly, more pragmatic and is expected to prioritize economic policy.”
Still, analysts aren’t overly optimistic about his prospects of turning the country around. An analysis by The Economist Intelligence Unit this week said the change of leadership was “unlikely to signal a rapid end to Zimbabwe’s political and economic stagnation.” However, it said it should lead to some reengagement with the international community – critical to reversing the country’s fortunes – and at least trigger an upward revision in miserable GDP growth forecasts.
There’s also the prospect that Mnangagwa will be forced to enact this ambitious reform program in the shadow of his former boss – as well as his arch-rival, former first lady Grace Mugabe. A spokesman for Zimbabwe’s military said Thursday that Mugabe and his wife have been granted immunity from prosecution as part of the agreement to step down, raising the prospect that the former first family will remain in the country.