Zimbabwe navigates choppy waters

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Leslie Chimbama

The news out of Zimbabwe has not been good this year.

Like the rest of Africa, the country is faced with a rising rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Compounding this are economic challenges predating the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic and citizen restlessness stemming from alleged corruption involving senior political figures.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government continues to put on a brave face, touting incremental gains in economic reforms in a country battered by 20 years of Western economic sanctions.

A key pillar of the administration’s turnaround strategy was re-engagement with Western countries, but this policy has stuttered as overtures from Harare have not been met with much reciprocity, particularly within the context of the sanctions.

On Tuesday, President Mnangagwa tried to pour oil over troubled waters when he made an abrupt televised address to the nation.

But rather than cool tempers, his call for unity in the face of COVID-19, his reassurance that he would not tolerate corruption, and his firm statement against threats of violent protests all did little to assuage the growing restiveness.

After all, while President Mnangagwa was signing an agreement to pay white about 4,000 ex-commercial farmers US$3,5 billion over the next five years as compensation for land acquired for resettlement of more than 200,000 black families, the World Food Programme was launching an aid appeal for Zimbabwe for US$250 million.

According to the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency, about 60 percent of Zimbabweans - or 8,6 million people – could require food aid by year-end.

 

It is thus not difficult to locate the origins of the frustrations that are simmering in Zimbabwe.

Until Monday, the country had gone for more than a month without a permanent secretary in the crucial Health and Child Care Ministry even as the country battles spiking corona-related deaths.

Zimbabwe had gone nearly a month without a Minister of Health, until assignment on Tuesday of Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga to oversee that portfolio.

The former Health Secretary, Dr Agnes Mahomva, was controversially booted out of the ministry in May and reassigned Chief Co-ordinator of the National Response to COVID-19 in the Office of the President and Cabinet.

There were reports that she had been blocking senior government officials and well-connected individuals from getting lucrative COVID-19 contracts.

She appeared to be onto something. Soon after her reassignment, Health Minister Dr Obediah Moyo was arrested for allegedly awarding an inflated US$60 million contract to Delish Nguwaya, a shady businessman with ties to Zimbabwe’s First Family.

By any measure, the health sector is in need of urgent attention.

Doctors and nurses alternate going on strike, often doing so concurrently. They complain about low salaries and lack of equipment and medicines to do their jobs professionally.

There is hope that Tuesday’s appointment of VP Chiwenga to the Health Ministry will bring traction to the overhaul needed in the sector. The VP has in the past taken a personal interest in the ministry and broken industrial deadlocks by engaging health practitioners.

Whichever way it is looked at, Zimbabwe’s problems can be distilled to the economy.

The problems in the health sector mirror challenges in manufacturing, agricultural and mining output.

These are reflected in high formal unemployment and low salaries.

Which leads to the threats of demonstrations from political opposition quarters.

One such threat was diffused on July 31, when a group of opposition politicians tried to rally the masses to demonstrate against President Mnangagwa’s administration.

The government made it clear it would not tolerate gatherings that could potentially degenerate into violence, more so at a time there are health regulations in place to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

But the anti-government sentiment appears to have outgrown even the opposition, and there are strong indications that some senior figures within the ruling ZANU-PF are also discontented by the way the economy is being managed.

Last week, the party sacked a Politburo member, Cleveria Chizema, after she was found in possession of posters supporting the abortive July 31 demonstration.

The fear some observers have is that President Mnangagwa could increasingly become distracted by fighting political battles with less and less attention being paid to pressing economic concerns.

The logic is simple: fix the economy and the politics will fix itself.

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