Zimbabwe – Portrait of a multi-dimensional crisis


THAT Zimbabwe is deep in crisis is plain and cannot be gainsaid. However, it is important to examine and understand the full nature of this crisis, which is multi-dimensional and multi-layered. It is all too easy to get drawn to one dimension or layer of the crisis, and in the process, lose sight of the bigger picture.

Guest Column: Alex T Magaisa

The risk of failing to see the wood for the trees is that the resolution of one dimension of the crisis, without attending to the other dimensions, will be an exercise in futility. This is important, especially for those considering options towards helping the country out of the current morass. The notion that pouring money into the economic system will fix the problems is both simplistic and preposterous.

The multiple dimensions of Zimbabwe’s crisis include a political crisis, stemming from contested legitimacy and a leadership and constitutional crises; an economic crisis manifesting in a crippling debt-trap, severe budget and current account deficits, low productivity, high unemployment and a debilitating currency crisis. Added to this is a human rights’ crisis, which includes the suspension of fundamental freedoms, unlawful killings by the State, systematic torture and mass rape of women as extra-judicial instruments of punishment.

Finally, the multi-layered crisis includes international isolation, which has left the regime turning towards and submitting itself to the authoritarian tip of the world. A conservative prognosis is that at this rate, the future holds no promise. A way out of the present predicament cannot be a piece-meal job. It requires a solid and comprehensive plan which attends to all these layers of the crisis, failing which the layers are only likely to increase.

Human rights crisis

At the moment, alongside the economic crisis, the human rights crisis is the most urgent, visible and pressing. Civil society organisations monitoring the situation say at least 12 people have been killed by the State over the past two weeks, while hundreds more have been wounded through vicious assaults by members of the military and police. British television broadcaster, ITV News this week carried a report of eleven women who testified that they had been raped and sexually assaulted by members of the military and police.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which is constitutionally-mandated to protect and enforce human rights, has observed that the military and police have used systematic torture, targeting mainly members of the opposition and civil society organisations. By all accounts, the deliberate and targeted acts fall into the category of crimes against humanity.

That a human rights protector, which is part of the structures of the State, has publicly confirmed these acts, is particularly damning upon the regime. It is telling that the response of the regime has been to accuse the ZHRC of bias and to use the language of threats against it.

In its detailed report, the ZHRC outlines the multiple human rights abuses that have taken place at the hands of the State. Long after the protests ended, the State has continued the crackdown on citizens, with its officers unlawfully breaking into homes and assaulting residents often, at night time.

It is clear, as corroborated by the ZHRC and other human rights groups, that the military operation is targeting members of the opposition and human rights activists. Hundreds of people who have been detained since the start of the crackdown have been denied their constitutional rights. Despite these illegalities, the justice system, at the magistracy level, appears to have become severely compromised. Human rights lawyers protest that there is an unusual pattern where magistrates systematically refuse bail to all detainees, whatever the circumstances.

Lawyers suspect that the handling of detainees suggests that the prosecutors and magistrates are acting under political direction, which has compromised their independence. These human rights lawyers are caught up in a serious dilemma: continuing to participate in the judicial process risks giving it legitimacy, but at the same time, they cannot abandon their clients who remain at the mercy of the State.

It is clear that the foundations of constitutionalism and the rule of law are broken. The State’s use of excessive and disproportionate force shows that it is unwilling to observe the legal constraints within the Constitution. The refusal to respect human rights shows the government has no interest in a substantive rule of law.

What has happened in Zimbabwe is a de facto state of emergency, in which human rights have been suspended, including those that should never be suspended even during emergencies. It would have been better if the State had officially declared a state of emergency in accordance with the Constitution. At least then, citizens would know what they are dealing with and what to expect.

But the regime was too embarrassed to be seen making a formal declaration of a state of emergency. Instead, it has enforced it through the military and police, without declaring it. All the hallmarks of a state of emergency have been manifestly present: suspension of human rights, use of excessive force, de facto curfews, restriction of movement in parts, mass political detentions and systematic denial of bail and restrictions to the right to communicate.

Nevertheless, the robust report by the ZHRC shows that in the midst of all the chaos, there still exists some small islands of reason, professionalism and hope upon which Zimbabwe can build.

The systematic violation of human rights by the State has eroded its moral authority and the confidence of the citizens. It has also brought Zimbabwe back into the international limelight, but for all the wrong reasons. This has serious implications on the economic crisis, the resolution of which also depends on support from external actors, including investors, lenders and other institutions. With a damaged reputation after a short window of hope, prospects of resolving the economic crisis have become slimmer.

Economic crisis

The current human rights crisis has immediate roots in the imploding economic situation, which is a manifestation of a serious economic crisis. The brutal military crackdown began after violent protests in response to the rising cost of living following the increase in fuel prices. It was this sudden change in policy that drove people into the streets after the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the country’s biggest labour union, called for a mass stayaway.

To be sure, part of the problem was a crisis of expectations following the removal of former leader, President Robert Mugabe in November 2017. Many citizens and the international community invested a lot of hope in the new administration, believing it would chart a new course. This is an expectation that the Emmerson Mnangagwa administration has dismally failed to fulfil. Instead, it has exhibited traits of the former regime and in some cases, it has been far worse. The economic situation has gotten worse since they took over, leaving citizens grossly underwhelmed.

Some of the problems are old. The Mnangagwa regime inherited a huge arrears problem from its predecessor. At the moment total debt is US$16,9 billion with over US$7 billion owed to external creditors. This means gateways to seek more financial support from those lenders are closed until a debt-resolution plan is in place. This has so far proved elusive to achieve, although South Africa is said to be trying to help its ailing neighbour to secure a debt-resolution plan with international creditors.

But South Africa refused to provide a US$1,2 billion bailout package which Zimbabwe was desperately seeking. Lacking external sources of lending, over the past few years, the government went on a local borrowing spree, issuing Treasury Bills (TBs) with reckless abandon. The effect was to crowd out the private sector, as the government hoovered up whatever US$ the banks and other investors held. This is because for banks, it was far more attractive to lend to the government by buying TBs than to a crippled private sector. The net outcome was the escalation of local debt, which now stands at more than US$9 billion.

However, without sufficient production and exports, Zimbabwe has not been able to generate adequate foreign currency reserves. The country imports far more than it exports, creating a crippling deficit and hard-to-meet demand for foreign currency. This has manifested in another facet of the economic crisis: the currency debacle.

Between 2009 and 2013, it seemed that foreign currency was widely available and circulating in the economy. Anyone could walk into a bank and withdraw large amounts of US dollars. The cash machines readily gave out foreign currency. However, even then, Zimbabwe was already losing its foreign currency reserves. Bit by bit, the problem manifested in long queues at banks as customers struggled to withdraw their savings and wages. By 2016, the problem had become so acute that the government introduced a pseudo-currency, the bond note, which it said was at par with the US dollar.

This fiction was challenged by critics and activists as unsustainable. But the central bank was adamant and it pressed on, claiming that the bond note was an export incentive backed by the Cairo-based Afrexim Bank. The nomenclature seems to have been warily chosen to justify the deal with Afrexim Bank, which does not have a mandate to back currencies, but supports and facilitates exports. But in effect, the facility was meant to back-up the pseudo-currency.

Through this pseudo-currency, the central bank got back a critical power it had lost in 2009, after the Zimbabwe dollar became moribund. This was the power to print money. In reality, the government was already printing money through rampant issuing of treasury bills and bonds, which were redeemed through RTGS balances. Over time, as the government got reckless, RTGS ballooned to the current $11 billion. The government wants the market to believe that this $11 million is at par with US$11 million.

But the truth is that there is really no US$ anywhere and this fiction of parity cannot be believed or sustained. Not even the government believes it, as it also demands some taxes and other payments in US$, rejecting its own pseudo-currency because it knows it cannot be equal to the US dollar.

Added to this, is the inconsistency on the part of the government; one day saying there is parity between the USD and the pseudo-currency and the next minute telling the world that they are not. Challenged that Zimbabwe had the highest fuel prices in the world, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube shot back, arguing that it was actually among the cheapest because it is just over a dollar in US$ terms. To achieve this, he had converted the bond price into the US$ using a reduced black market rate. The irony is that the head of treasury, whose government insists that there is currency parity, was admitting to the world that there is actually no parity.

This inconsistency does the country no good, both for locals and investors. Late last year, rating agency S&P Dow Jones suspended Zimbabwean securities from the basket of African securities citing the currency vagueness and uncertainty as a reason. The government’s inability to settle the currency question is itself a crisis within a crisis. There have been many suggestions, including adopting the South African Rand. Now the government is talking about introducing a new local currency by the end of the year. The Finance minister came in with a grand promise to deal decisively with the currency issues by the end of 2018, but this is yet another unfulfilled promise.

The fuel queues, high school fees, rise in fuel costs, increase in the cost of goods and services are all part of the manifestations of a debilitating economic crisis which continues to weigh heavily upon the shoulders of citizens. To cover the gaps, the government has resorted to squeezing pennies out of the taxpayers. It has increased the money transfer tax and demands taxes in foreign currency on cars and other goods. The failure to resolve the economy has been a huge disappointment for many people and it has created a crisis which has spawned unrest and human rights violations.

It might seem that an easy solution is to pour some billions into the economy to resolve the crisis, but the situation is far more complex. The billions would just disappear down a black hole and within a short while, the country would be back where it was again.

Political crisis

The economic and human rights crises have roots in a long-standing political crisis, which has refused to heal despite the departure of Mugabe a year and half ago.

The country has been locked in a crisis of legitimacy for many years, with each election since 2000 resulting in a disputed and controversial outcome. After the removal of Mugabe, there was misplaced hope that things had changed and that the conduct of elections would be free and fair, producing a credible outcome that would be accepted by all and confer legitimacy upon the winner.

However, the 2018 election failed to live up to expectations. Both the process and outcome were disputed. There was no consent from those who were declared to have lost and without loser’s consent, the claims to legitimacy were impaired. International election observers who had been invited for the first time in 20 years refused to endorse the elections as credible.

The killing of six civilians and the injuring of 35 others by the military and police following protests on August 1 2018 dealt a final blow to the credibility of the election and the legitimacy of the new administration. While Mnangagwa proposed a commission of inquiry to investigate, the outcome was lukewarm and read like a whitewash. Besides, no action has been taken to deal with the culprits.

The disputed election resulted in a political stalemate pitting the ruling party against the main opposition party. The opposition refuses to recognise the government, questioning its legitimacy while Zanu PF routinely piles blame on the MDC for the country’s woes. Zanu PF demands that Western sanctions must be lifted, but in return, the MDC says there must be political reforms. The outcome is that there is no movement, each party refusing to give an inch to the other.

All this resulted in a crisis of legitimacy for the new administration. The political risk in Zimbabwe remains high and the recent crackdown and human rights violations have only served to enhance it.
Leadership crisis

When the late former South African President Nelson Mandela was asked about the situation in Zimbabwe in 2008, his response was that the neighbour across the Limpopo was suffering a tragic failure of leadership. A decade later, the situation has not changed and his diagnosis remains relevant and applicable. Zimbabwe is, indeed, carrying the weight of a tragic failure of leadership.

When he came into office in November 2017, Mnangagwa was thought to be the new hope, after the military engineered the toppling of his old boss, Mugabe, in dramatic circumstances. But true to the old adage, there is nothing like free lunch. He had to pay a heavy price for the gift of leadership from his military allies. They had crossed the Rubicon to install him in office. It was their “thing” and he was the civilian face of it. He had the presidency and they had a veneer of legality for the power.

Observers have long noted the latent jousting between the factions allied to the two men at the top – a group that remains loyal to Mnangagwa and another that has allegiance to his deputy, Constantino Chiwenga. The gamesmanship became evident when Mnangagwa’s allies began to clamour for Mnangagwa’s candidacy in the 2023 elections. This was five-long-years away and soon after the last elections. It was a strategy well used during the Mugabe era – place all rivals on notice that the man is not leaving.

The early shrills from Mnangagwa’s allies were intended for Chiwenga. It was to say; we know you want to take over in 2023, but our man is not going anywhere. The Zanu PF conference in December made it official. To insure himself, Chiwenga did what Mnangagwa used to do when faced with the same strategy during Mugabe’s long reign: he took to the podium and endorsed Mnangagwa for 2023. But this is deception.

The ructions reveal a leadership crisis, even though they will vehemently deny it and pretend that all is well. For Mnangagwa, the very fact that some observers have begun to ask who is really in charge of Zimbabwe, is an indictment on his leadership and a manifestation of the leadership crisis. Such a question should never arise when there is a President in place. When children and neighbours ask for the identity of the parents in a household, it is because those who should be parents would have shown no parental qualities. It means there is a crisis of leadership in the household.

Another season of factional battles will be a waste of time and resources. It will be another wasted term just like Mugabe’s last term in office, which was dominated by persistent factional dramas.

Constitutional crisis

However, the political crisis also has a constitutional dimension in that Zimbabwe’s traditional structure of the State is now more compromised and captured by the military. Traditional constitutional theory holds that the State consists of three separate arms, namely; the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

Each of these arms has powers conferred by the Constitution and there is a system of checks and balances which helps to minimise the abuse of power. The military is not a separate arm of the State, but falls under the command of the Executive, hence the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.

The coup in November 2017 disrupted this traditional structure. Not only did the military commanders deploy soldiers without the authority of the President and their Commander-in-Chief, the Judiciary also chimed in with a High Court judge declaring that the conduct of the military was constitutional and lawful. The effect of the order was to confer legality to the coup.

However, the court order also had major political ramifications. It meant that the military had asserted itself as a fourth arm of the State, with the power to also play a role in the checks and balances vis-a-vis the other arms of the State. Not only had the Judiciary confirmed that it had acted within constitutional limits, it also confirmed the purported justification for the coup, which was that under section 212 of the Constitution, the military could intervene in order to protect the Constitution.

This particular constitutional crisis manifests in what has been referred to as “State Capture”, whereby a privileged and powerful group of elites assume overwhelming control in the purpose and direction of the State, designed to meet their personal ends. In this regard, it might be stated that a group of political, military and economic elites have captured the State. To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon, seeing that the State has had an influential role in the affairs of the State before the coup. However, before the coup, that role was mostly played behind the scenes and there was no judicial endorsement of it.

The phenomenon of State Capture is part of the crisis because it is riddled with conflicts of interest, which present rentseeking opportunities and fuel corruption. The political and military elites are also owners of the country’s remaining businesses. It could be in the fuel supply sector, mining operations and agriculture. The people who have the power to set the terms of trading of goods and services are also the suppliers of those goods and services. Hence you find that fuel business owners are also the same leaders who set fuel prices. Also, those who allocate foreign currency are the ones who receive the foreign currency. If they are not directly involved, they participate in the businesses through proxies. The conflict of interest does not diminish because one is using an agent.

Social crisis

Beyond the more commonly discussed political and economic crisis is a series of major social crises across the country. The economic collapse has caused havoc in the communities as bread-winners have become unemployed and redundant. With businesses closing and no investment coming in, there are no jobs for young people. The high unemployment figures, which stand at more than 90% have left millions on the streets, while others have taken the exit option.

The government is failing to deliver public goods such as health, education, energy, infrastructure, water and social welfare. These failures mean the public’s access to health, justice and basic necessities has become severely limited. At hospitals, patients have to bring their own basics because the State is failing to deliver. Ninety percent of medical drugs at public hospitals come from donors and without this support, society would be imperilled. There have been a few improvements on major urban roads, but many smaller ones remain in a dire state. Water in Harare is unclean and hazardous to drink. There is corruption in the judicial system, which compromises justice delivery.

The most vulnerable in society are facing even more dangers. These include young children, the disabled, hospital patients, prisoners and pensioners.
Society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Right now, the situation is dire, especially for those who have no means or capacity to fend for themselves, either by reason of physical limitations or legal constraints. The situation in prisons could be far worse if donors did not chip in with assistance from time to time. The pressure will get worse as the government crackdown sends more prisoners of conscience into the already crowded jails.

For pensioners, their savings have been eroded once again, similar to the torrid experience they had in 2008 when they lost virtually everything after the calamitous fall of the Zimbabwe dollar. The use of the bond note has seen their earnings eroded severely, because the currency rates on the parallel market are completely different from the government’s fictional 1:1 rate. Public service pensioners, who are the majority, are treated with disdain as they fall at the bottom of the queue when it comes to monthly payments. Their meagre payments come last, after everyone else has been paid — the soldiers first.

Without donor support, social welfare for orphans and other vulnerable children would probably be non-existent. Even with this support, more and more children roam the streets. Young children are forced into sex-work, with all the associated risks that come with humankind’s oldest trade.

Crisis of isolation

All efforts to woo the West and regain old friends have come to nothing. After the coup, there was a stampede from some members of the international community as they sought to chaperone the new leader. They had believed the fallacy that he was pragmatic and reasonable; that despite a hideous past, he was a man they could do business with.

Mnangagwa himself spoke a good game. He went on a charm offensive, desperate to win the West’s companionship. It nearly worked. Respected international media obliged to his public relations campaign, accepting and publishing his ghost-authored and neatly-worded opinions. The trouble was that the manufactured words and the man were miles apart. His purported words were not matched by deeds.

The façade soon wore off as preparations for elections were marred by controversies and he himself showed no appetite for serious political reforms. The fake front was ripped apart on August 1 2018 when he ordered troops into the streets of Harare to put down a protest. The crackdown was brutal and vicious. It went on for days afterwards. It was a rude reminder to his new-found friends that while Mugabe had left, the system had remained intact.

The hopefuls in the international community soon lost confidence. Even now, talk of returning to the Commonwealth has become more muted. Western election observers were critical of the conduct of the election and refused to approve it as free, fair and credible. Only the usual allies saw no evil, but what Mnangagwa desperately coveted was Western acceptance.

Feeling rejected and isolated and with an economy in free fall, Mnangagwa has, like his predecessor, gravitated towards the authoritarian end of the international community. Only last week, he was pleading for Russian leader, Vladmir Putin’s hand. “Your Excellency,” Mnangagwa said to Putin, “I would wish that we now attend to deepening economic co-operation between our countries, and our country is developing – it is a third-world country – so that you, as a senior brother, can hold my hand as I try to develop Zimbabwe.”

But wherever the regime has gone to beg, there is no money. Russia’s Prime Minister, Medvedev, tweeted on the day of Mnangagwa’s arrival in Moscow that his country does not provide budgetary support to others, even to its closest friends. It was an ominous welcome. He left with a few agreements, the Russians seemingly the big winners, having cemented their position on Zimbabwe’s rich Great Dyke. The fear is that he gave away the country’s crown jewels in the lofty, but false hope of securing friendship.

South Africa recently declined a bailout plea, although President Cyril Ramaphosa said their governments were talking. China was unyielding last September – we have struggled to pay our debts and the old ally must be at the end of its tether. Clearly, friends who are willing to back their words of comfort with cash are not forthcoming. It’s a total nightmare.


As articulated in this BSR, the crisis in Zimbabwe has multiple layers and dimensions. The solution must necessarily attend to these layers, too. The political, economic and social crises, coupled with the human rights calamity, are combining to produce conditions for a serious humanitarian crisis. This could be exacerbated if the land does not yield a good harvest this year and the government continues with its crackdown.

The ruling party is pleading for the removal of sanctions, but its conduct in the past fortnight, including egregious and systematic human rights violations, is unlikely to work in its favour. The expired regime of Mugabe had a penchant for shooting itself in the foot. The current Mnangagwa regime is no better. If anything, it is outpacing its predecessor in the record books.

The sight of soldiers and police officers breaking into homes and beating up residents only serves to condemn the regime in the eyes of the world.

Stories of women being raped and sexually assaulted are utterly disgusting and reminiscent of the world’s most vile regimes in history. Shutting down the Internet and social media is behaviour that is associated with authoritarianism.

It is very difficult, against this sordid record, to make friends, let alone to be taken seriously. The sight of Mnangagwa grovelling before Putin and asking to be hand-held was embarrassing. The irony is that all these crises articulated in this BSR were preventable. None of them was inevitable. The trouble is that the leadership seems completely out of depth and out of touch. It is neither competent nor sensitive to the plight of its people.

Alex Magaisa in a law lecturer at Kent University. This article first appeared on www.bigsr.co.uk


  1. one of the most comprehensive and in-depth review of the state of Zimbabwe i have yet read. it is complete in it’s analysis of a country that saw predominantly uneducated rural leadership take over a modern nation state. Zimbabwe needs it’s dysphoria to return with their dollars and their modernity. this is the only thing that can rescue the economy and the political administration of a tortured nation.

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