Emmerson Mnangagwa has taken over Zimbabwe, by outmaneuvering the 93-year old Robert Mugabe and promising immunity for Mugabe and his family. By the standards of Africa, the transition has been smooth and orderly. Mnangagwa is taking over without having to fight a civil war and he will not be killing his political opponents. The Mugabe faction has aged off and the remaining elements are willing to take a payoff to retire from politics. It has been one of the more peaceful transfers of power in African history
Zimbabwe is of interest here, because of its history, but also because it has been a great case study of what happens under African rule. When the country was born, following the Lancaster House Agreement and subsequent elections, Zimbabwe was one of the wealthier countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This was despite a long 15-year civil war between white Rhodesia and two black guerrilla movements, both backed by the Soviet Block and independent black nations. The new nation was born with a lot of advantages.
Zimbabwe’s first president, after independence, was a guy named Canaan Banana, no kidding, but he was just a puppet. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party had won the nation’s first election, making him Prime Minister and Head of Government. His first act was to send the Fifth Brigade, a North Korean-trained military unit, into Matabeleland, the home of the main opposition party. This unit slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians accused of supporting dissidents, which meant supporting the wrong side in the election.
In the first ten years of independence, Zimbabwe’s economy grew steadily worse as Mugaba grabbed land from white farmers and stole anything that he could steal. The decline in the economy and the spread of HIV, resulted in civil unrest and strikes by the civil service. The answer to this was repression and more land grabs. The interesting thing about the land reform efforts is they were pretty much the opposite of what the nation needed, but they were exactly what Mugabe needed. It helped him keep power.
Of course, no summary of Mugabe’s policies can skip past his debasing of the currency in an effort to inflate away the nation’s debts. As is always the case, this produced a vicious cycle, where each round of money printing warranted another round of money printing. In a few years locals were carrying around billion dollar banknotes. By the end of the last decade, the largest note was 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. They were useless, as locals used American dollars, but they did make for funny gag gifts and novelty items.
The new regime in Zimbabwe takes over a busted country. In constant dollars, per capita GDP is a third of what it was at independence. The agricultural sector is flat on its back and even mining, which is run by European firms, struggles due to the violence and general chaos. Mnangagwa takes over promising a new era and he says that rebuilding Zimbabwe is the top priority. More important, he is hinting at political reforms to bring in all of the factions of the country, including the remaining whites and exiled non-blacks.
That last bit is a main point of interest. The best way to describe Mugabe’s treatment of whites is as a decades long act of revenge. The best way to describe Mugabe’s rule was as a decades long proof that Ian Smith and his supporters in the West, we right all along about the realities of African politics. The fact that white farmers are being asked to return, and many are returning, is the first flicker of hope for the country in two generations. It means that the country may not be forever condemned to squalor.
It’s easy to be overly optimistic about Africa, as the Africans have an uncanny habit of finding the bad option and then making it even worse. There’s also the fact that Emmerson Mnangagwa is not exactly a break with the past. He is a ZANU party insider, who was an integral part of implementing Mugabe’s policies. He is not called the “crocodile” because he is a sentimental lover of a free and open society. People who get too close to Mnangagwa, like people get too close to crocodiles, usually come to bad ends.
Even so, Zimbabwe has a lot going for it. Like Botswana, it is not fractured into a bunch of different tribes. The Shona are about 70% of the population and the Ndebele are about 20%, with a distinct homeland. Also like Botswana, it has a lot of natural wealth and the willing support of neighboring countries, like Botswana and South Africa. If the government re-institutes property rights, it would see a flood of English speaking companies and tourists, coming in to spend money and invest in the economy.
The comparisons to Botswana are important. It is the one nation in sub-Saharan Africa that has not been a disaster. It has a per-capita GDP of $28,000. More important, it has a highly diverse economy, so the median is higher than the rest of Africa. It has also enjoyed relatively peaceful politics, holding elections and avoiding civil war, revolts and genocide. It also has one of the lowest violent crime rates on the Continent. The murder rate is a fifth of Baltimore. By the standards of Africa, Botswana is a paradise.
Why should anyone care?
Well, the most important graph in the world is going to make everyone care in the coming decades. While it is unreasonable to think that most of African countries can sustain a modern economy, some of them can be much better than they are now. That would mean better civil control and more responsible government. They may never be Athens, but they can be assets in dealing with the more dysfunctional Africa societies. At the minimum, there can be a few less African countries dependent on the white world for survival.