Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Power Vacuum Looms in Zimbabwe

If economic collapse ends Robert Mugabe’s rule, there may be no political leader there to step in and replace him.
By Joseph Sithole
Professor Jonathan Moyo, the lone independent member of Zimbabwe's parliament, observed last year that the greatest threat to President Robert Mugabe’s hold on power was not political opposition but the crumbling economy.



Zimbabwe has the world’s fastest declining economy with unemployment of 80 per cent, inflation of 1,600 per cent, widespread and deep poverty, a sickly health sector and crippling fuel and power shortages. Non-governmental organisations and civic groups estimate that more than three million Zimbabweans of a population of 11.5 million will require food aid this year, despite good rains for the last growing season.



Moyo's statement stands as a rebuke to the leaders of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, for their failure to mobilise people against the ZANU PF government.



But what he did not say, and what many people may not immediately see, is that a dangerous post-Mugabe vacuum now looms.



The implications could be dire for the nation. When – which is rather more likely than “if”, under the present circumstances – economic collapse finally prompts a political implosion that ends Mugabe’s rule, there may be no leader ready to direct the ship of state. That will leave room for opportunists to vie for power, and it is not far-fetched to imagine civil strife if the transitional process is bungled.



“The paradox of Zimbabwean politics is that everybody else claims to know what is wrong and what needs to be done to restore the economy except those in government,” a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe told IWPR. “Those who know have no political power, those who don’t are in charge,” he said.



Another analyst said political repression was making it almost impossible to effect peaceful change in the country. He said legislation such as the draconian Public Order and Security Act made it difficult for opposition parties to address their supporters so as to mobilise votes.



“Such an environment leads to frustration and could cause a revolution as happened to Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia,” said the university lecturer, who did not want to be named.



But like many observers, this lecturer questions whether the opposition is really in a fit state to take over power.



“The problem with Zimbabwe is that those opposed to the dictatorship have proved themselves [too] poor in strategy and judgement to readily fit in Mugabe’s shoes,” he said, citing the MDC’s lack of clarity on potential rallying-call issues such as land reform, and the perception that none of the current crop of opposition politicians inspires confidence.



The MDC has missed a number of glaring opportunities to assert itself, he said.



“When the government destroyed homes under Operation Murambatsvina, and Gideon Gono [Reserve Bank governor] confiscated their money in the name of currency change last year, people expected opposition leaders to come to the rescue,” he explained. “But no one came, and the opposition has been losing voters and a lot of goodwill.”



The government’s blitz on shanty settlements and informal businesses in Operation Murambatsvina [“Operation Drive Out the Rubbish”] from May 2005 onwards left more than 700,000 people homeless while another 1.2 million were also affected, according to a report released by United Nations special envoy Anna Tibaijuka, dispatched to investigate by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.



The other analyst who spoke to IWPR said the fact that long-time MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai allowed his party to splinter over Senate elections in 2005 exposed his poor leadership.



“Not even Mugabe takes him seriously anymore,” he said. “When did you last hear Mugabe mention Tsvangirai’s name except in contemptuous reference to him as a puppet of Tony Blair? Five years ago he offered the most credible challenge to Mugabe - but all that is gone now.”



A political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe warned that there was little hope of salvation coming from within the ruling ZANU PF.



When senior politicians tried to propose their own choice of candidates for the party’s presidium in 2004, Mugabe blocked them and instead installed Joice Mujuru as second vice-president of the party and therefore of the country.



“That was a major chance to reform the party from within, but Mugabe would hear none of it,” the political scientist said. “Those accused of plotting against Mugabe were instantly punished and expelled from the party.”



The academic also accused ZANU PF senior politicians of cowardice for failing to challenge Mugabe at the party’s national conference last December. He said that despite agreement in the party and government that Mugabe had become a liability, “no one was man enough to tell him point blank to go", and instead they talked about extending his term in office from 2008 to 2010.



Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a journalist in Harare.