The fall of a dictator and rising Chinese clout in Zimbabwe

China and Zimbabwe got closer ever since Mugabe started pursuing his ‘Look East’ policy after the imposition of sanctions by western countries because of human right concerns.

 Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, roadmap, crisis, dictator, Mugabe, Africa

Mugabe, circa 1980

Robert Mugabe, at the ripe age of 93, was fighting the last battle of his long, eventful life, and he didn’t want to go down easily. Like all dictators, he believed that sticking to office, even though it became a nominal one, somehow gave him the authority to shape his future, which didn’t look very bright. On Tuesday, Mugabe resigned as President, and called his decision voluntary, much to the jubilation of lawmakers and the citizens. The Zimbabwe military had, before this, made its intentions clear, and his party Zanu PF, had started impeachment proceedings against him. Despite all the signals and intense pressure, Mugabe sprang a surprise by refusing to resign, and instead, in a TV speech, vowed to preside over next month’s Zanu-PF party congress.

It all started when Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s former vice president, fled Zimbabwe after Mugabe stripped him of his position. It was seen by many as him clearing the way for his wife to succeed him as leader. This was the last straw for the military, which then decided to step in and put Mugabe under house arrest.

Even when it was clear there was no public support for him to continue, Mugabe dug in his heels. It was decided that his own party would accuse Mugabe of various charges, including allowing his wife Grace to “usurp constitutional power.”

Fearing a bad end, there were signs that Mugabe was willing to negotiate his way out of the crisis. Zimbabwe’s military had agreed with Mugabe on a “roadmap on the prevailing situation in the country” which would have seen Mugabe hold direct talks with his former vice president, who was expected to soon return to Zimbabwe to meet with the veteran leader. Mnangagwa had already been elected as the new leader of Zanu PF, and was poised to take over as the country’s leader.

African politics has been beset with military coups, but the crisis in Zimbabwe has not been termed one. The military denies it vehemently. This is partly because of the historic role Mugabe has played in Zimbabwe’s history, and partly because coups are no longer favourably treated by regional leadership in Africa. In order to avoid regional and global opprobrium, the military has been careful to shape the discourse around their anti-Mugabe venture in a way that does not increase costs for them. Compared to their heyday during the Cold War, coups are now passé in Africa. Not surprisingly, both the African Union (AU) and the regional South African Development Community (SADC) have been reluctant to endorse the military takeover.

The most striking feature of the Zimbabwe episode has been the talk surrounding China’s role. It has been suggested that China was aware of the Zimbabwean army’s plans to oust Mugabe, as General Constantino Chiwenga, head of Zimbabwe’s defence forces, had visited Beijing just days before the army moved against Mugabe. Beijing, of course, has denied it by arguing that General Chiwenga’s visit this month was a “normal military exchange” and that such reportage was aimed at undermining its image and would “drive a wedge” between the Asian power and Africa.

China and Zimbabwe got closer ever since Mugabe started pursuing his ‘Look East’ policy after the imposition of sanctions by western countries because of human right concerns. Mugabe was categorical in putting this message out: “We have turned east, where the sun, rises and given our back to the west, where the sun sets.” China, for its part, not only vetoed United Nations Security Council sanctions on Zimbabwe but also emerged as one of Harare’s biggest investors, trading partners and suppliers of defence equipment. As recently as January 2017, Mugabe visited Beijing despite reports that China was concerned about the way he was managing the economy. Mugabe’s decision to nationalise Zimbabwe’s diamond mines did not go down well with Beijing. China needs a better investment climate in Zimbabwe and is reported to be favouring Mnangagwa.

That China should take an active interest in who runs Zimbabwe should not be at all surprising. After all, major powers throughout history have done the same. China is now the superpower in the real sense of the term. Such interest and interventions would be the norm for China now. We should stop being surprised every time China’s name crops up. Zimbabwe won’t be the last of such Chinese projects, it is just the beginning.


This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

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Harsh V. Pant