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What’s Driving the Crisis in Zimbabwe?

Its Rulers Care More About Power Plays Than Economic Reforms

A man moves a burning barricade during protests on a road leading into Harare, Zimbabwe, January 2019 Phillimon Bulawayo / REUTERS

Over the course of his nearly 40 years in power, former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe demonstrated again and again how disconnected his rule was from the needs of his people. The violent pogroms he ordered in the 1980s against a largely imaginary enemy in the west of the country and the land nationalization program of the first decade of this century he carried out without any economic plan to ensure continued productivity are cases in point.

Mugabe was ousted in a coup in 2017, and since then, many Zimbabweans have hoped for a change of course, including economic reform. Soon after taking office, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor, proclaimed the country “open for business.” But his rhetoric has not translated to action, and the new president seems no less disconnected than Mugabe did from his nation’s woes. Just last month, Mnangagwa announced one day that the government would more than double gasoline prices and flew off on a European tour the next. Given the country’s currency shortages and other economic difficulties, the price increase was sure to cause hardship to ordinary Zimbabweans, but the president seemed oblivious.

For Zimbabweans, the new tax was a last straw. The increased cost of transportation would make looking for work, and even food, far more difficult. Riots erupted, particularly in the poorer outlying suburbs of Harare that depend on commuter buses for transport into the city. The protests turned violent, and the state security services responded with shocking force, shooting protesters, beating hundreds near to death, and raping women. The violence became so intense that Mnangagwa had to cut his European tour short, canceling a speech at the World Economic Forum at Davos to return home.

The military crackdown on protesters took place on the watch of the country’s vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, who was acting as president during Mnangagwa’s absence. And the turmoil that has followed stems from divisions within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, particularly between

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