The Crocodile in Crisis

The Crocodile in Crisis
Published: 20 August 2019 (241 Views)
Editorial by The Times newspaper, Britain's newspaper of record, on Zimbabwe under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a "state that is close to collapse"

ZIMBABWE once prided itself on being the bread basket of Africa, a fertile nation. Now it is again a basket case. World Food Programme officials warn that the African country is "marching towards starvation."

It was Robert Mugabe's four decades of cruel and autocratic rule that ground his people down. When he was eventually ousted in late 2017 and replaced a year ago by a former henchman, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabweans were promised an economic revival. The country, he said, was open for business. Drawing on biblical authority, he told voters: "Be patient, bearing with one another in love."

Now the people of Zimbabwe are running out of patience. Rather than taking to the streets, they are saving their energy to struggle through the coming weeks. But the lack of political protest at collapsing living standards should be of no comfort to Mr Mnangagwa, dubbed the "Crocodile" for his ruthlessness during the Mugabe era.

Part of the country's woes are admittedly down to natural causes. Cyclone Idai swept through the region in March, leavings tens of thousands without a home and devastating the maize crop. More than five million people, that is about a third of the population, need food aid; 2.5 million are said to be on the very cusp of starvation. Low rainfall has caused drought and emaciated cattle. It has also left its power plants unable to produce even a fraction of the necessary electricity. Wells have run dry. It is a country in the dark: children do their homework by candlelight. Electricity is switched on only for seven hours at night from 10pm to 5am; that is when welders and carpenters can do their work. The power cuts sometimes disable mobile phone connections — making it even more complex to settle daily bills.

These problems are compounded by bad economic management. The country has the world's highest inflation rate after Venezuela and in a bizarre move has decided to withhold all further inflation statistics for six months. Zimbabweans disillusioned with the local currency and stumbling attempts to dollarise the economy have been reaching for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. There is an unsustainable budget deficit run up by imprudent borrowing. Zimbabwe needs a massive injection of cash, but few are willing to lend. The economy is set to contract for the first time since 2008.

Zimbabwe needs a dose of austerity and good housekeeping. But the Mnangagwa administration lacks the confidence to sell such a policy to a population that is already buckling under the strain. An attempt to remove subsidies from petrol prices earlier this year proved politically explosive. As Zimbabwe became the world's most expensive place to fuel a car, protesters shouted their opposition to the Crocodile. His honeymoon has been short.

Practical policies could help. Households could, for example, shift more rapidly to solar power rather than rely on faltering generators. But that demands a degree of governmental efficiency and organisational prowess that is sadly lacking.

The World Food Programme of the United Nations has launched a £270 million appeal to fend off famine. It is clear to everyone in and out of the Harare government, however, that Zimbabwe has become a failed state in desperate need not only of cash and food but of hope.

- The Times

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