(BBG) Few will miss Zimbabwe’s autocratic leader — but military coups rarely end well.
The fall from power of Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe would be well worth celebrating — were it not for the manner of his exit and the danger it presents for his woefully mismanaged country.
Over the course of nearly four decades, Mugabe has brought what should have been one of Africa’s most prosperous economies to a state of outright collapse. Wishing to create a dynasty, he then tried to engineer the succession of his wife— ousting her most plausible rival, the former head of the nation’s security service. The armed forces stepped in, dethroning one dictator and perhaps making way for the next.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose removal precipitated this struggle, is no paragon of liberal democracy. He leads a rival faction of Zanu-PF, the ruling party, which has a long and brutal history of corruption and repression. Sadly, Zimbabwe’s defense forces are champions of their own economic interests, not the nation’s constitution or its long-suffering citizens.
Africa’s military coups have rarely given rise to democratic constitutional order, so it’s hard to be optimistic. Still, Mugabe has set the bar for political progress about as low as it can go. It wouldn’t be hard for his successor to ease the country’s suffering, and the new leader should be encouraged to make that his priority.
The longer the military remains in control, the worse Zimbabwe’s prospects. A speedy, orderly return to civilian control is essential, preferably through the formation of a transitional government that includes members of the political opposition.
Zimbabwe was supposed to hold elections next year. Letting that vote go ahead would help staunch growing unrest. For the same reason, the next government should also abandon Mugabe’s recent crackdown on social media.
Zimbabweans need relief from their desperate economic straits. The economy has shrunk by half since 2000. It’s impossible to say how many Zimbabweans are unemployed: Estimates run as high as 90 percent. U.S. dollars — Zimbabwe’s de facto currency since a prolonged spell of hyperinflation — are in such short supply that people sleep near ATMs to get the cash they need for daily purchases.
Above all, the next government needs to roll back Mugabe’s commitment to economic repression. As the economy hit bottom, a tentative start in this direction was made. This needs to go much further. Zimbabwe will need to re-engage with multilateral institutions, which can give technical and financial aid. Zimbabwe’s donors and partners, including China, should use their leverage to press for economic reform.
In the short term, the role for outsiders in this is limited, but Zimbabwe’s neighbors and the international community should do what they can to keep a dangerous situation turning into something worse. They need to assure the new government of support so long as it works toward a peaceful and, so far as possible, legitimate succession.