Helia Ighani is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last week, the United States extended sanctions on Zimbabwe’s “president for life”—Robert Gabriel Mugabe—who recently turned ninety-one. He has been Zimbabwe’s only ruler since the country gained independence from Rhodesia in 1980 after more than a decade of war. However, his presidential reign will end and the world should be ready for the likely unstable aftermath.
Mugabe’s over-the-top lifestyle has made the headlines over the years: serving baby elephants at his extravagant birthday celebration, and the lavish shopping sprees by his wife, “Gucci Grace.” His controversial land reform in 2000 made him the first African leader to seize white-controlled farms and redistribute land to (often politically connected) indigenous populations, which exacerbated Zimbabwe’s economic downturn. (View a timeline of Mugabe’s political career below.)
Yet, the nonagenarian has insisted that he will run again in the 2018 presidential election when he will be ninety-four-years-old. Mugabe has even taken on additional leadership positions in his old age. He currently heads the South African Development Community and was recently appointed to chair the African Union.
The United States should be poised to respond to a potential succession crisis. A new Center for Preventive Action contingency planning memorandum, “Political Instability in Zimbabwe,” by George F. Ward of the Institute for Defense Analyses, does just that.
Ward lays out possible outcomes for political instability in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe:
• Mugabe dies before choosing his successor
• Mugabe loses control of his party due to growing factionalism
• The economy tanks, demanding political change in Zimbabwe
As Mugabe’s health continues to decline, the United States should also watch for increased signs of infighting within the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Greater public unrest could also be a potential warning indicator, particularly if senior leaders of the police and armed forces—known as “securocrats”—fail to tighten their grip on state security and keep control of Zimbabwe’s economy, over which they exercise significant control.
An unstable Zimbabwe could have serious domestic and regional ramifications, as was the case in 2008. Past instances of economic and political instability have had a significant impact on the country, which has the highest inflation and lowest life-expectancy rates in the world. In 2008, a bottle of water costs $1.9 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, or nineteen U.S. dollars. That same year, more than 1,000 people per day flooded over the border into South Africa due to the violent post-election crackdown, in which at least 200 people died, more than 5,000 were abused or tortured, and 36,000 were displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.
What would instability in Zimbabwe mean for the United States and the region? It could create a significant humanitarian problem, which would require increased U.S. economic assistance. The United States is already Zimbabwe’s biggest donor of humanitarian assistance, providing $130 million in 2013. A political crisis could also affect the already minimal U.S.-Zimbabwe trade, which was just over $50 million in 2012.
For more about sources of political instability and potential violence that could threaten Zimbabwe in the coming twelve to eighteen months, as well as U.S. policy recommendations, read George F. Ward’s contingency planning memorandum, “Political Instability in Zimbabwe.”