History Monday: Post 2015 Political Instability

Political instability and potential violence could threaten Zimbabwe in the coming twelve to eighteen months. Zimbabwe’s ninety-one-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, has no clear succession plan, and considerable uncertainty exists about whether a stable succession will take place. Zimbabwe’s economy remains weak and vulnerable to potential shocks that might precipitate political instability as well. At the same time, government suppression of fundamental freedoms continues. Past crises have produced waves of refugees that have burdened Zimbabwe’s neighbors. Renewed instability in Zimbabwe would be a special challenge for South Africa, which is attempting to deal with its own pressing economic and social needs. It would also set back U.S. interests in southern Africa, which are focused on support of good governance, trade, and investment. Alongside these risks, a post-Mugabe transition could present opportunities to begin to reverse the effects of decades of misrule in Zimbabwe. The United States should position itself to take advantage of these opportunities by working with others, notably South Africa and the other countries of the southern African region, to limit the risk of civil violence in Zimbabwe and to lay the groundwork for a better future.

The Contingency

The risk factors associated with political instability in Zimbabwe are growing. Although President Mugabe has moved to strengthen his already tight grip on the levers of power within both the government and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), doubts remain as to how long tight discipline will last. Following the ZANU-PF party congress held December 2–7, 2014, Mugabe ousted Joice Mujuru from the vice presidency of both the party and the government, installing former Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa in her place. Although Mnangagwa is widely seen as having gained an important advantage, the identity of Mugabe’s successor remains an open question. Mugabe may serve out his term and successfully hand off power to an anointed successor, but events may unfold in a less orderly fashion. Acute instability in Zimbabwe could emerge at any time and play out along one or more of the three following lines:

Mugabe dies or becomes incapacitated before installing a chosen successor. Mugabe’s most imminent challenges are his advanced age and poor health. He has traveled abroad repeatedly for medical treatment of an undisclosed ailment. Despite this, Mugabe appears vigorous, maintains an active domestic and international schedule, and insists that he will run again for president in 2018. He was also elected in August 2014 to chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—an intergovernmental organization that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation—and assumed the leadership of the African Union in January 2015.

In the past, Mugabe has treated his vice president as a figurehead rather than as a successor, and he seems to be continuing that practice even since the party congress. Mnangagwa has taken care of routine state functions during Mugabe’s absences, but not the more important ZANU-PF party responsibilities. If this pattern continues, Mnangagwa will have limited opportunity to cement the loyalties he would need to rely on to succeed to the presidency. That failure could portend serious instability should Mugabe die or become incapacitated.

Mugabe’s control is challenged and undermined by growing factionalism. The ZANU-PF won a resounding victory in the July 2013 national elections, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is demoralized and somewhat discredited. Nevertheless, the run-up to the party congress demonstrated that factionalism is far from dead within the ruling party. The potential for intraparty strife may have increased as the result of the purge of former Vice President Mujuru, several of her loyal cabinet ministers, and large numbers of party and government officials at the regional and local levels. In dismissing Mujuru and her supporters—who at one point enjoyed majority support at the local level—Mugabe ran roughshod over electoral rules, made all significant decisions on his own, and dispensed with the facade of democratic procedures.

Mugabe will use his security apparatus to control the resentments and grievances of those who lost their offices and to provide the accompanying material benefits, but that dissent could boil over. Mujuru’s allies have already filed a legal challenge to Mugabe’s recent actions. Even in the likely event that the challenge goes nowhere in the courts, it symbolizes the open wound that exists in the ZANU-PF.

As the drama within the ZANU-PF plays out, President Mugabe will continue to play the dominant role, but the parts played by the current and former vice presidents, Mnangagwa and Mujuru, and by the first lady, Grace Mugabe, will bear close watching. Vice President Mnangagwa takes every opportunity to display his loyalty to Mugabe, sometimes even kneeling before him, but he has fallen into disfavor with Mugabe in the past. Historically, Mugabe’s deputies have not fared well. Former Vice President Mujuru, the apparent major loser in the party congress and its aftermath, should not be counted out. She has strong support at the local and regional levels within the party, and she has significant ties to the security establishment on the basis both of her own record in the liberation conflict and that of her late husband, former army chief of staff Solomon Mujuru. Grace Mugabe is a wild card. Until the fall of 2014, she had occupied herself principally with tending the family’s business interests. During the run-up to the party congress, she became hyperactive, waging a campaign against Mujuru, but also promoting her own role. Most observers believe that Grace Mugabe sees Mnangagwa as her future patron and protector, but others believe Mrs. Mugabe has ambitions to succeed her husband.

An economic crisis triggers demands for political change. Zimbabwe may be increasingly isolated from the West, but it is not insulated from the world economy. Bad economic news seems baked into Zimbabwe’s future. Commodity prices have declined and a turnaround is not in sight. China, Mugabe’s current principal benefactor, is focused on slowing internal demand and seems less willing to invest in Zimbabwe than in the past. In August 2014, President Mugabe came back from a high-profile visit to China with few commitments from Beijing for additional aid or investment. Prior to the trip, some media reports indicated that Mugabe was hoping for commitments by China for as much as $4 billion in new funding.

The government’s misguided economic policies, including land confiscation and forced “indigenization” of businesses, continue to have the predictable results of depressing productivity. According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate is falling and will decline to less than 1 percent annually by 2016. Difficult economic circumstances could lead to both civil unrest and new flows of refugees. The opposition MDC party, which was credited with the currency reform that ended the last economic emergency, might reemerge as a political force.


  1. Ward, G (2015) ‘Political Instability in Zimbabwe’

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