After replacing Robert Mugabe as the president of Zimbabwe in late 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa promised a “new” Zimbabwe, a country with “a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors and democracy and equal rights for all.” But those hopes have died as Mr. Mnangagwa has turned out to be no different from the strongman he served for decades and eventually deposed.
On Sunday, Mr. Mnangagwa announced a more than 150 percent increase in the fuel price. In response, the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions and the prominent civil society leader Pastor Evan Mawarire called for a three-day strike starting Monday against the increasing fuel price and worsening economic conditions.
In a broad crackdown, the government blocked the internet — and with it, social media. It deployed the military and the police in urban centers and residential areas of Harare and Bulawayo, the two major cities, where they opened fire on protesters. At least eight people were killed, 68 were shot, and 100 cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” were reported as the strike continued on Wednesday.
Confidence in Mr. Mnangagwa’s government has fallen over the past several months as the economy has steadily slid toward a crisis. Zimbabwe has been facing a currency shortage, which has led to devaluation of salaries. Doctors have only recently returned to work after a six-week strike over salaries and working conditions, and their demands have not been met. Civil servants, who number 300,000 and earn between $280 and $300 per month, recently threatened to strike, demanding higher salaries and to have a portion of their salaries paid in dollars.
Major businesses are halting operations and, in some cases, shutting down. This harsh reality became personal on Friday as I read a message from an uncle on a family WhatsApp group. He had worked for years for Olivine Industries, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest companies and the leading manufacturer of cooking oil, soap and margarine. My uncle’s employer shut down its operations, citing a crippling $11 million debt, and sent its employees on “indefinite leave.”
Zimbabweans, particularly the urban poor, who have been most affected by the state violence following the strike, are very angry with Mr. Mnangagwa’s management of the economy. After 37 years of Mr. Mugabe’s rule, the new Zimbabwean president did inherit an economy debilitated by huge government debts, a serious currency shortage, widespread unemployment and broken infrastructure.
Mr. Mnangagwa responded with the slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business.” In September, he appointed Mthuli Ncube, a respected economist who has taught at the University of Cambridge and served as the vice president and chief economist of the African Development Bank, as his finance minister.
In November, Mr. Ncube presented the new “Austerity for Prosperity” fiscal policy, which included the continued use of the bond note, the country’s surrogate currency; new import duties to be paid in dollars for an array of goods including vehicles, despite highly inefficient public transport; and a new tax on electronic transactions, which now form the bulk of exchanges in the severely strapped economy. These measures increased the burden on consumers already buckling under some of the highest inflation rates in a decade.
Mr. Ncube also proposed reducing the number of civil servants and privatization of loss-making parastatals, which reminded many Zimbabweans of the disastrous economic structural adjustment program of the 1990s. It led to a 25 percent reduction in the Civil Service, withdrawal of subsidies, commercialization and privatization of several state-owned companies, and introduction of user-fees in the health and education sectors, among other measures.
Then, as now, there was much corruption in government spending. And the combination of structural adjustment and economic bungling — such as the payment of around $300 million in unbudgeted compensation to war veterans in 1997 — resulted in price increases, currency devaluation and job losses, followed by protests led by organized labor and civil society.
Mr. Mnangagwa has urged Zimbabweans to “take the pain,” but the reeling populace could not take his announcement of the increase in fuel prices. For months, people in Harare have waited for hours in lines, sometimes longer than a mile, outside gas stations. At $3.31 per liter for gasoline and $3.11 per liter for diesel, Zimbabwe’s fuel price is now the highest in the world.
Citizens in Zimbabwe’s two major cities vigorously heeded the call for the strike on Monday. In some urban centers and high-density suburbs, people enforced the business shutdown, set up roadblocks and stoned vehicles. Some frustrated citizens vandalized and burned government property and looted shops, including those owned by the power elite, such as Choppies, a major supermarket in Bulawayo that is partly owned by former Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko. In response, the police and military forces who had already been deployed to the streets began to violently clamp down on protesters.
Mr. Mnangagwa had set out on a multination trip to Europe to attract international investment. Even as the crisis worsened, he continued his tour and is expected to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week. Speaking from Russia, Mr. Mnangagwa blamed sanctions by the European Union and the United States for the foreign currency shortage.
Before the internet and social media were blocked, Zimbabweans used the #ShutdownZimbabwe hashtag to express solidarity with the national strike. Many expressed their outrage at government’s austerity measures by sharing images of Mr. Mnangagwa boarding a luxury Boeing jet hired for his foreign trip.
Over the past few months it has been increasingly common to hear people comment that “Mugabe was better.” That debatable statement is a reflection of the intense discontent and disappointment among a people who were desperate for change. At their most cynical, some Zimbabweans might have hoped that military-backed Mr. Mnangagwa would be the kind of “decisive benevolent dictator” that the economist Dambisa Moyo has argued African countries need.
But even the false hope that Mr. Mnangagwa might improve the economy while he takes away democratic freedoms has been shattered. His military regime has not only closed Zimbabwe for business but also violently shut down any chance for meaningful civic engagement.