What Next For A Zimbabwe-Shaped Hole In Africa?

There’s a journalistic protocol for pre-writing obituaries before their subjects have died: all the newspapers do it. After a certain age, if you are prominent enough, there’ll be an obit on file for you, eerily awaiting your demise to publish. If you reach your 90s the editors will be spell-checking it — and at 93, President Robert Mugabe’s is long due. He isn’t even buying green bananas. So let’s get ahead of the game and prepare his right now, and speculate what will happen to Zimbabwe after he expires.

To recap what readers may have missed: the catastrophe of Zimbabwe’s 37 year post-independence decline has been well documented, including recently in The New York Times.

In short, its downward economic trajectory since independence in 1980 reached a seeming nadir a decade ago with hyper-inflation that would make a 1930’s Weimar German blush. Things are worse now. President Mugabe is almost a cartoon of cronyism, nepotism and bad management. Gradually phantoms, “enemies” and other agendas slowly allowed Mugabe to whittle down the rule of property, civil and criminal law in what was once an African economic superpower. Thousands of white farmers, backbone of the agricultural sector and large employers, were systematically and violently hounded out of their land and citizenship. Mugabe seized formerly productive farms and gave them to unqualified goons of his ruling ZANU-PF party as political favors.

The farms went to seed and the overall economy tanked so spectacularly that $100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar banknotes became collectors’ items: a grim state of affairs. Still, “Hero of the Nation” Mugabe and friends enjoyed multi-month annual foreign trips and elaborate birthday parties, most recently his own 93rd, as described in The Guardian.

Looking forward to Mugabe’s demise now we must ask “what comes next.” A systemic problem here is that after a long dictatorship there can be a dearth of qualified applicants to run a state: most of the still living, qualified people who aren’t blood-stained by acquiescence have been imprisoned to the point of lunacy, or fled abroad. Witness the difficulties finding a qualified Iraqi leader after Saddam’s Hussein’s 30 years in power. The search found only known stooges before settling on the notorious President Nouri al Maliki, an Iranian cut-out and disaster by any metric.

Given this dynamic the future of Zimbabwe’s leadership is worrying. More dangerous is what may very well happen as a result: The Wife. Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, 51 — his former secretary — has been jockeying for power for decades and would keep in place all the old schemes and horrible governance. And the cronies who helped wreck Zimbabwe.

Her treasury-funded and ruinously expensive shopping trips to Dubai, Las Vegas and Asia are legendary, and her reportedly purchased PhD single-handedly devalued the reputation of the University of Zimbabwe. Dr.” Mugabe has long been propping up the old man. She’d love the top job and might get it. Widowhood is big in southern Africa: Nelson Mandela’s dangerously criminal ex-wife Winnie was a perfect example. She wanted the presidency in South Africa until Nelson divorced her in time. A weird aside: next door Mozambique’s first widow Graca Machel then married Mandela, making her the only First Lady of two states, ever. Neither widow attained power, but both were popular and in the running. To the West, in spectacularly corrupt Angola, the richest woman is the president’s daughter; might as well keep it in the family.

Hopefully avoiding the first family disaster and taking into account the lack of better qualified applicants, only one real player really comes to the fore in Zimbabwe. The likely best choice is probably the long-suffering Morgan Tsvangirai, 65, and the party he founded, the Movement for Democratic Change.

A one-time Prime Minister, Tsvangirai came as close as anybody could to winning the presidential mandate (2009-2013), and by the reckoning of any honest system he did win. Zimbabwe’s reality is not an honest system, however. Tsvangirai is highly respected by the international community, which is important since foreign/IMF help will be crucial if Zimbabwe’s egregiously mismanaged economy is going to be retooled into something functional.

Tsvangirai’s persistence in sticking to the rules, plus his endurance over decades of finely calibrated personal oppression from Mugabe, make him the best option. Zimbabwean voters seem to agree, even in crooked elections. If he can stay alive (his wife was killed in a suspicious car accident a decade ago,) Tsvangirai hopes to establish a rules-based legal order which befits a lucky country nearly ruined by today’s creaky despot.

David Anderson

David Anderson is an Australia-American attorney in New York City who writes on international politics and law.

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