Reviving a country from the devastation and plunder of a dictator is a daunting challenge for the best intentioned of leaders. Whether it’s possible at all if the successor is a close comrade of the fallen despot is an open question. Zimbabwe, where 37 years of misrule by Robert Mugabe were finally ended in a palace coup 14 months ago led by his vice president and onetime enforcer, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a case in point.
This month, after President Mnangagwa raised the price of gasoline by 150 percent, protesters hit the streets. Mr. Mnangagwa arguably had no choice, since the government could not continue subsidizing fuel, and the protests were inevitable. The problem was that security forces replied with all the viciousness of the Mugabe era — a crackdown like what Mr. Mnangagwa used to mete out when he was in charge of internal security and earned the nickname “Crocodile.” Soldiers and unidentified thugs went door to door in Harare beating and arresting scores of people at random; 12 shooting deaths were reported; the internet was shut down.
The crackdown against protesters in Zimbabwe was violent.CreditPhilimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Mr. Mnangagwa was away on a fund-raising tour when the violence broke out. When he cut short the trip and returned, he promised to investigate the actions of the security forces and to open a dialogue with political, civic and religious leaders. Whether he ordered the crackdown remains unclear; one rumor is that his vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, a hard-line former commander of the army who backed Mr. Mnangagwa in the coup, was trying to undermine the president for his own ends.
It almost doesn’t matter. What does is that many Zimbabweans — and potential international investors — concluded that things had not changed with the exit of Mr. Mugabe. The ZANU-PF political machine that the old dictator ran since independence in 1980 was still in command and up to its old ways.
There was a moment of hope when Mr. Mnangagwa, backed by the military, ousted Mr. Mugabe. People danced in the streets — anything was better than the enfeebled nonagenarian autocrat who had all but destroyed the economy of a country rich in resources and human potential. The new president donned a bright scarf in the colors of the Zimbabwe flag (which he has worn ever since) and promptly lifted much of the petty oppression and harassment that had been the norm. A few weeks later he was in Davos, spreading the word that Zimbabwe was “open for business.” At home, he declared that “the people’s voice is the voice of God,” and he promised free elections.
The doubts set in with those elections, held last July 30. Mr. Mnangagwa was elected to a full term, and international observers declared the vote a marked improvement over elections under Mr. Mugabe, which, granted, is not saying much. But the 40-year-oldchallenger, Nelson Chamisa, claimed fraud, and when his supporters gathered in protests, government forces crushed them mercilessly.
The economic challenges before Zimbabwe are enormous: vast debts, a battered infrastructure, hyperinflation, soaring unemployment. Confronting them will require foreign aid and investment, lifting the international sanctions imposed during Mr. Mugabe’s rule and restoring a glimmer of optimism for the future in a population that will be asked to make more sacrifices, like the fuel price increase, before things can get better. Under American law, removing sanctionsrequires a nonpartisan army and respect for the rights and freedoms of all people.
It is far from clear whether Mr. Mnangagwa or ZANU-PF are up to the challenge. But if they have any hope of surviving in office or lifting Zimbabwe out of the mess they helped create under Mr. Mugabe, the time to start is now, by immediately reining in the security forces and opening the dialogue Mr. Mnangagwa has pledged with the opposition and civil society. The United States and other potential donors could create an incentive by preparing a major package of assistance once the Zimbabwe government shows it is really committed to change.