The October 2018 Update

As Zimbabwe undergoes this painful moment of economic transformation, it’s good to remember where we were a year ago. We had police roadblocks manned by officers wielding home-made maces. We faced a fight for the succession that showed every likelihood of turning into a military conflict. And our government was more concerned with infighting and silencing than with reforms and transparency.

Today, we are not terrorised by roadblocks – instead, we’re surrounded by roadworks. We avoided a civil war. And the new government message is “right-size the civil service”, “restore monetary stability”, “open for business” and “freedom of speech”.

Yes, we still have problems. Yes, some things may be taking longer than we hoped. Yes, some of us might have preferred a change of guard.

But I would take the Zimbabwe of 2018 over the Zimbabwe of 2017 any day.

And more importantly, the last twenty years have not taught us to despair in the face of catastrophe.

Instead, we have learned to live in a state of proactive hope. We have shown the world how an economy can survive – not on financial aid – but on diaspora remittances. Zimbabwe has always turned economic crisis into a testament to the resilient power of community.

It is what we are best at.

It is why we will come through.

For the last two decades, at least once a year, Zimbabwe’s rumour mill would go haywire with Mugabe death rumours. We’d speculate about illness, body-doubles, and panicked cover-ups. And every single time, those rumours would be discredited by a jaunty walk off an Air Zimbabwe flight. At the bottom of the mobile stairs, there would be jibing at the woe-wishers, and contempt for their foolishness. Our outgone president had quite the reputation for resurrection.

And this morning, much like this time last week, I suspect that many of us are half-expecting an Air Zimbabwe flight to land, and bring with it the swift winds of mocking retribution.

But it seems that we are only being ‘forgiven’ for celebrating the end of those fears. It is ‘understandable’ that there is this moment of joy. Because the international analysts all place a caveat on the excitement: they warn that Zimbabwe is simply trading tyrants, and that we are foolishly embracing the same forces that repressed us only a short while ago.

They talk as though there were better alternatives to this marvelous week that has just passed.

They are wrong.

There, but for the grace of God, go we!

For months, Zimbabwe has been plagued by the question: “How will this end?”

Our infrastructure is broken. The water pipes carry typhoid. The banking sector does not have the money to pay for crucial imports of food, fuel, and medication. We have watched the black market for currency re-emerge: and the rising premiums drive up the prices of that food, fuel and medication.

On the other side of this, there are ordinary Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe has a 95% unemployment rate, and her informal sector is almost entirely subsistent. There is simply no scope for Zimbabwe’s already stretched population to absorb those prices.

And until last week, there were only so many ways for this part of Zimbabwe’s story to play out. Unfortunately, famine, disease and political crisis are not usually a prelude to a happy ending.

Instead, these are the kinds of details that historians highlight in their opening prologues to the retellings of civil wars.

Consider the alternatives

This is the point that is being missed, I think.

Last week Monday, if you had asked me to map out a path for Zimbabwe, all the options were either terrible or (virtually) fictional:

Option 1: The State fails

This path is the one of outright collapse. “Change” comes too late, if it comes at all – and the political infighting gives way to a grinding succession of warlords.

Option 2: Voting for the opposition in the 2018 elections

If they could last long enough to make it to the polls, Zimbabweans could vote for change. But we have voted for change before – in 2008 – and that vote was taken from us. Instead of change, voters were beaten into submission. And since then, we have circled back to almost the exact same point that we were at in 2008.

Option 3: Civil war

Zimbabweans are not a violent people – but desperation may have driven a few of us to it. Or, more likely, the fight to inherit the presidency would have spilled over into an armed conflict until a clear successor emerged.

And you just have to look at Syria and Yemen to see how modern civil wars play out.

Option 4: a military coup

Unpaid and hungry, the military could have risen to seize power (and they’re the only ones with the immediate means to do so). But SADC and the AU are duty-bound to intervene in the event of a military coup. At best, Zimbabwe would have been locked out of the international arena, and left to suffer. At worst, we faced an external invasion by a coalition of foreign military forces – which would have been no better for Zimbabweans than a civil war.

Realistically, without some “Hail Mary” pass in the final minutes, there were no good endings.

Or, as I was told last night, while we danced on the streets of Harare and took selfies next to the army tank on Samora Machel Avenue, “We thought there was going to be a war.

A Money Conundrum

To fix what is wrong, Zimbabwe needs money. Real money. IMF loans, foreign aid, foreign investment – basically, a bailout to fix the economy. That is what we need for the real economic change that everyone wants. And we need it ASAP.

The first obstacle to getting that money is/was President Mugabe. The erratic policies of his administration during the fight for succession, and his own irrational stubbornness, meant that the donors and lenders had no one to work with.

The second obstacle was finding a way to achieve leadership change in a manner that did not continue to keep Zimbabwe locked out of the international scene.

The conundrum:

  1. Access to international money is dependent on legitimate regime change;
  2. President Mugabe was refusing to leave on his own;
  3. Voting for change has been foiled many times before, and might take too long;
  4. A civil uprising would also take too long (and would be terrible); and
  5. Military-led uprisings are not a real option, because those who come to power afterwards are not recognised as legitimate governments.
A Zimbabwean Hail Mary Solution

What we really needed was a coup that was not a coup. And a resignation that was not a resignation.

To be clear:

  1. For all the talk of constitutionalism, the military were keeping Mugabe in power – so they had to turn on their Commander-in-Chief in order for him to fall.
  2. But to be seen to be doing so would cut Zimbabwe off from the international money that it so desperately needs.
  3. This meant that forcibly removing Mugabe was not an option: in order to open the credit lines, he needed to resign. Or he needed to be removed constitutionally.
  4. But even that would not be good enough – in order to guarantee the legitimacy of a new government, President Mugabe would need to give his public blessing to the military non-coup prior to his departure. And it could not be seen to be coerced.

In short: what Zimbabwe needed was a miracle.

7 Days

A timeline:

  1. In the early hours of Wednesday last week (15/11/2017), the Zimbabwean military launched its non-coup.
  2. It took over the broadcasting services, arrested members of the G40, and placed the President under house arrest.
  3. The military then announced that it was restoring order, arresting criminals, and guaranteeing the safety of the President.
  4. In response, SADC immediately called emergency meetings, and began talking about the Zimbabwe de facto coup. And reiterated that it would not recognise a government that emerged from such an act.
  5. On the Thursday, after a massive social media build-up, Mugabe refused to resign as president. The first calls for a public demonstration against Mugabe were made – mainly to demonstrate to SADC and the AU that they should stay out of it.
  6. Friday: Mugabe appeared at a graduation ceremony, and photos started to circulate of him laughing and shaking hands with General Chiwenga #coupwhatcoup
  7. Also on Friday: the graduation appearance galvanized the ZANU-PF regional branches into passing a series of resolutions calling for Mugabe to resign.
  8. The next day, tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Zimbabweans took to the streets to support the military and call for Mugabe’s resignation. There was not a single reported incident of violence. And some leaders within SADC began to suggest that this was more of a civil uprising, and called on Mugabe to resign.
  9. On Sunday, it was announced that Mugabe was again negotiating his resignation with the military. The ruling party, ZANU-PF, met and recalled Mugabe as president. They kicked his supporters out of the party, and issued a deadline of noon on Monday for his resignation.
  10. Instead of resigning, Mugabe used his public appearance that night to ‘defiantly’ not resign. Flanked by generals – he instead declared that the military, “to a man”, acted within the norms of constitutionalism #iherebyblessthiscoupasconstitutional
  11. Monday: enraged by Mugabe’s defiance, the ruling party began drafting impeachment papers. On Monday night, the military announced that it was encouraged by the communication between Mugabe and his former Vice-President (and freshly-annointed leader of ZANU-PF), and called for patience. Mugabe also summoned cabinet for meeting at State House on the Tuesday morning.
  12. Tuesday: the ruling party called all its MPs to headquarters to plan the impeachment process, and threatened to expel any cabinet members that attended the cabinet meeting. After a week of silence, Emmerson Mnangagwa issued a public rebuke to Mugabe, and called on him to resign.
  13. Impeachment proceedings began in Parliament.
  14. And in the midst of those impeachment proceedings, Mugabe submitted his resignation, declaring it to be of his own volition.

And what followed?

Congratulations and reminders of friendship from leaders across the world. Only a week after a military coup.

And this:

Politics and Providence

Two observations:

  1. This was unbelievable politics.
  2. Think of all the ways in which this could have gone wrong – and yet it did not.

The military could have overstepped at any point. The people could have overstepped at any point. SADC could have intervened. Mugabe could have doomed Zimbabwe by calling the coup a coup. But instead, everything fell into line.

Zimbabwe leapt off the cliff of regime change, and swan-dived into a cup of water at the bottom without so much as a splash. Not a single splash!

I have never seen the hand of Providence so transparently at work, and on such scale.

And looking forward?

Yes, it is true that the winners of this particular game have played other games.

But they did not simply “seize power” in a coup – as so easily they could have. Instead, they went to great lengths to assume power in a manner that gives Zimbabwe a fighting chance.

That alone is reason enough to hope that this will be different.

And at the very least, we are no longer facing a regime distracted by a political fight for succession.

But perhaps most importantly of all

We are not celebrating in spite of what comes next.

Rather, we are celebrating because this was change without violence and change without suffering. There was no war.

Until last week, that was only a dream.

Today, we woke up to it.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and sometimes things that are only loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at Also, check out the RA podcast on iTunes: The Story of Money.