So, after 37 years, he’s gone. Robert Mugabe has resigned as the President of Zimbabwe. The 93-year-old autocrat, having failed to resign during a chaotic appearance on state television last week, has finally yielded to political pressure and mass protests.
Mugabe’s resignation brings to a halt impeachment hearings in the Harare Parliament that were expected to go against him. It also allows Zimbabwe’s political classes to now claim there’s been a smooth transfer of power.
Emmerson Nmangagwe, expected to become President over the next day or so, denies this has been a coup d’etat. So too do the khaki-clad, beret-topped generals who, on 14th November, seized control of the state broadcaster, took over the government and placed Mugabe under house arrest.
Acknowledging a coup, after all, could lead to suspension from the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community, further complicating financial support for Zimbabwe’s stricken economy – hence this ridiculous pretence. It would also make Nmangagwe more vulnerable to a future counter-coup, which would plunge this chronically mismanaged country into even greater crisis.
Everyone wanted Mugabe to go quietly, then. And now he has – maintaining a veneer of dignity and due process and keeping up appearances abroad.
Details have yet to emerge of the concessions Mugabe has won, in return for doing the decent thing. He’ll have likely fought for immunity from prosecution, assurances his cash hoard is safe and, perhaps, statutes in his honour are maintained across the country.
The physical protection of Mugabe’s family will also surely have figured in the final terms for his departure – not least that of his 52-year old second wife. It was ‘Gucci Grace’, after all, plotting to gain the Presidency herself, who convinced her ailing husband to oust Nmangagwe from government – the move that finally riled the generals, convincing them that enough was enough.
Zimbabwe is, of course, blessed with coal, copper, iron, diamonds and platinum in abundance, to say nothing of its famously fertile soil. It also boasts one of Africa’s most educated populations. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1980, though, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has reaped a harvest of plunder and violence.
The world is focused on Harare, not only due to the riches at stake but also because a political implosion could have dangerous ripple effects across central and southern Africa. And of all the questions relating to Zimbabwe, one is particularly intriguing. Because many are now wondering – citizens and outsiders alike – what role China has played in ousting Mugabe from power?
Collaboration between Zimbabwe and China dates back to the ‘bush war’ of the 1960s and 70s, as Mugabe and other guerillas fought a then white-dominated Rhodesian government, as part of the broader independence struggle. After failing to secure Soviet backing, Mugabe turned to China – which provided his guerilla fighters with weapons, ammunition and training. Formal diplomatic relations were established in the 1980s, upon Zimbabwean independence – and Mugabe has regularly visited Beijing ever since.
During the early 2000s, Mugabe alienated himself from the west, amidst police brutality against protesters, new laws limiting press freedom and repeated election irregularities – eventually leading to EU and US sanctions. Mugabe responded with his ‘Look East’ policy, encouraging more trade with Asia, in a bid to curb western influence. “To this day we bear the lasting scars of that dark encounter with colonialism,” declared Mugabe, during a rally in 2005, held in Harare’s Chinese-built National Sports Stadium. “So we have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets”.
Beijing used this period of Western sanctions to establish extensive economic ties with Zimbabwe:
- By 2015, China had become the country’s largest trading partner, buying almost 30% of Zimbabwe’s exports, with no less than $1.1 billion of Sino-Zimbabwean trade last year.
- The People’s Republic is now also Zimbabwe’s leading investment source, pumping in $450 million a year on the latest figures, accounting for over half of all foreign investment. The Chinese government has stakes worth many billions of dollars in everything from agriculture to diamonds and construction. Zimbabwe, in turn, has made the Chinese yuan an official currency.
- The extent of Beijing’s economic influence across Zimbabwe is quite phenomenal. China is financing a new 650-seat parliament in Harare, having just built a new $100 million National Defence College –Zimbabwe’s first military higher education academy. A massive $2 billion Chinese investment has meanwhile been earmarked to revive operations at Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company (ZISCO), which ceased production in 2008 at the height of the country’s economic meltdown.
- China is already heavily involved in helping Zimbabwe overcoming its chronic electricity shortage. In 2015, China’s state-owned Power Construction Corporation agreed a $1.2 billion deal – sealed during a state visit to Harare by President Xi Jinping – to expand the Hwange Power Station, Zimbabwe’s largest thermal plant. China’s Sinohydro Group is backing a $355 million expansion of the Kariba South Hydro Power Station, while other Chinese investors are focused on solar projects.
- Financing: A new supercomputer centre has recently been built at the University of Zimbabwe, financed by a zero-interest loan from China – to be used in research on life science, agriculture and climate change. China has also pledged to set up a ‘cutting-edge’ urological surgical centre in Zimbabwe over three years, while regularly sending medical experts, supplies and medical equipment each year and training Zimbabwean doctors in China. That’s on top of a $100 million medical loan facility agreed in 2011 and a Chinese-built 130-bed hospital in rural Eastern Zimbabwe.
China is, to say the least, heavily invested in Zimbabwe. With little serious competition from other foreign investors except South Africa, and the support of the ruling Zanu-PF, the Chinese have taken large stakes in hugely promising Zimbabwean industries, which have long awaited significant capital injection.
Beijing faces risks, though – as illustrated by last year’s sudden enforcement of the indigenisation law. Passed in 2008, the law stipulates that “all foreign and white-owned companies with assets of more than $500,000 should cede or sell a 51% stake to black nationals or the country’s National Economic Empowerment Board” – which poses a huge danger to Chinese interests.
So far, these rules have been only lightly enforced. In March 2016, though, notice came that the indigenisation laws would soon bind – and, since then the Zimbabwean government has closed diamond-mining companies owned by Chinese, Russian, South African and Emirati businesses.
It may be telling that Patrick Zhuwao, until recently the Indigenisation Minister, has been part of Grace Mugabe’s ‘Generation 40’ faction. His zealous application of indigenisation laws has been challenged by former Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa – associated with the incoming President, Mnangagwa. Despite criticism from the Presient’s wife, Chinamasa has tried to assure foreign-owned businesses in Zimbabwe that they won’t face censure.
In 1980, Robert Mugabe inherited a well-diversified economy with the potential to become one of Africa’s star performers. Today, Zimbabwe is the region’s basket case, with real per capita incomes down 15% since independence.
In 2009, Zimbabwe was forced to abandon its currency – the victim of incessant hyperinflation –adopting the dollar as its principal means of exchange. Faced with a dollar shortage, Mugabe introduced ‘bond notes’ in 2016 – theoretically backed by hard currency, but themselves over-printed, resulting in yet more inflation.
Could it be, then, that faced with economic chaos and a power struggle within Zanu-PF, that China moved to protect its investments in Zimbabwe? Beijing certainly seemed to prefer the relatively stability of Mnangagwa – who did his military training in China during the 1970s – than the promise of more turbulence and kleptocracy under ‘Gucci Grace’.
It is now well documented that less than two weeks before tanks rolled on the streets of Harare, Zimbabwean army chief Constantino Chiwenga visited Beijing for a meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan. There is widespread suspicion Chiwenga, a leading figure in the ‘non-coup’, was seeking China’s support for a move against Mugabe.
Officially, since that takeover, Beijing gave little support to a beleaguered leader, extending only “hope that the situation in Zimbabwe will become stable and the issues will be resolved peacefully and appropriately”. But a comment piece in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper was more explicit.
An analyst from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences wrote:
“We have good reasons to believe that as Zimbabwe enters the post-Mugabe era, China will see an improved environment to cooperate with the country.”
And if readers were in any doubt, continued:
“Chinese investment in Zimbabwe has fallen victim to Mugabe’s policy and some projects were forced to close down or move to other countries in recent years, bringing huge losses. Bilateral cooperation did not realise its potential under Mugabe’s rule”.
Whether Beijing gave the nod to Zimbabwe’s generals or not, it’s clear the country now wields far more influence in Zimbabwe, and across much of Africa, than the USA. It speaks volumes, perhaps, that at this crucial moment in the history of post-colonial Africa, the State Department’s top position for Africa, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, is vacant.
The end of Mugabe is unlikely to bring the end of Mugabe-ism, of course. Having been named as Zanu-PF’s new leader and candidate for the 2018 general elections, Mnangagwe has taken on an air of respectability. And at just 75-years’ old, he is a spring chicken compared to the incumbent.
Yet Mnangagwa is a life-long Mugabe ally who was himself sanctioned by the US in 2003, described as one of several officials “who undermined democratic processes and institutions in Zimbabwe”. And after the 2008 election, which Zanu-PF lost, it was Mnangagwe who helped instigate the terror campaign, which saw countless thousands slaughtered, that ultimately kept Mugabe in power. Back then, China vetoed a proposed Western-backed UN resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and financial and travel restrictions on Mugabe, Mnangagwe and 12 other officials, saying it would “complicate, rather than ease the conflict”.
China clearly has serious commercial ambitions in Africa. Having invested hundreds of billions of dollars, it has much interest in establishing and maintaining political stability and property rights across the continent –not least in Zimbabwe. It is striking that Beijing recently deployed troops to its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
Beijing’s ambition for Africa, though, clearly doesn’t extend to democracy. It wants peace and order, however achieved – which is why it has consistently backed Mugabe over the years, despite rising international criticism over his authoritarian rule and human rights violations.
There is fatigue across much of Africa with the West, fatigue at our failure to tackle the grotesque EU and US agricultural subsidies and other protectionist measures that prevent African farmers from bestriding global markets. There is impatience, also, at the Western media’s focus only on Africa’s instability, corruption and disease.
African commentators point out that little came of former US President Barack Obama’s ‘Power Africa’ initiative, and that the African Growth and Opportunity Act still mostly favours US commodity companies. President Trump, meanwhile, has yet to seriously to engage with the world’s second most populous continent.
This is the power vacuum China has exploited for several decades now – particularly over the last ten years. The precise extent of Beijing’s influence in Mugabe’s removal, the toppling of ‘the old man’, and the implications for Zimbabwe and Central and Southern Africa can be debated. What cannot be debated is that Beijing is a player in this vital region – and Washington is not.
Despite many misgivings Africans feel about China, the continent’s leadership – and much of its population – has made a hard-nosed calculation they can benefit from a close relationship with China in a way they can’t with the West.
“China will never forget an old friend,” said President Xi to Mugabe in January 2017, when the Zimbabwean was in Beijing. But China’s affection extends not to clapped-out tyrants, but to the investment opportunities in what Xi calls “a distant but friendly country”, and doing what’s needed to protect them.
That’s why, faced with a choice between an unreliable, rabble-rousing Grace Mugabe, and a more pragmatic, if morally bankrupt Nmangagwe, Beijing chose the latter.