Why there is unlikely to be an 'Arab Spring' in Zimbabwe

Jul 26, 2011

There have been recent violent anti-government protests in Uganda, Senegal and Malawi over issues that affect Zimbabweans every bit as much. What are the chances of similar protests in Zimbabwe?

The chances of them are very slim.

The lazy analyst's reason that has been often trotted out in recent years is 'Zimbabweans are docile, peace-loving and scared.' But if a few months ago you had visited the capitals of any of the three countries that have recently erupted in anger at their rulers, you would have heard much the same thing said by many of their citizens about themselves.

The demonstrations were largely spontaneous, with the fragmented opposition leaders of all three countries following behind rather than leading them. In all three countries, the causes of the unhappiness is the same as just about everywhere else in Africa: rising cost of living, widespread joblessness, frequent and prolonged power cuts, arrogant and unresponsive governments, and so on and so forth.

Some key reasons Zimbabwe is unlikely to see a spontaneous uprising similar to those in Malawi, Senegal and Uganda:

Zimbabwe hit economic bottom in 2007/2008 and has been on a relative upward swing since then. That bottom, including hyperinflation in the millions of percent, was briefly far worse than any of these other countries are experiencing at the moment. So even though in absolute terms the economic hardships in Zimbabwe may be similar to those in these and other countries, when Zimbabweans compare where they are today with where they were three years ago, there is an objective, measurable and vast improvement. All these other countries are arguably on a downward trend in man-on-the-street terms.

The recovery of Zimbabwe's cotton and tobacco sectors, while affecting the relatively few people directly involved, sends a positive subliminal message that for those who are willing to apply themselves, self-help opportunities are opening up. In all the three other countries, there is at the moment more hopelessness than hopefulness about the immediate future.

Gallup, the American polling company, has been trying to keep track of Zimbabweans' sentiments about their country over recent years. Not surprisingly, Zimbabweans felt bleakest about their country and its prospects between 2006 and 2008.

Gallup's most recent poll shows that in 2011 there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Zimbabweans who express satisfaction with their lives and are hopeful for the future.

This is all very simplistic and obviously nowhere near exhaustive. It is also true that Zimbabwe is now moving up from the very low base to which it plunged between 2006 and 2008. The economic problems remain severe, and not everyone is gung-ho about the economy. The country's politics remain messy and could yet reverse the nascent recovery. But there is no escaping that relative to three years ago, there is really no way to deny that Zimbabwe today is a far better off place in most respects.

Political factors like the special ruthlessness for which the Mugabe government is known have not been factored in here as a reason to discourage a peoples' uprising, although that reason lurks in the background.. Of the three countries mentioned here that have recently been in turmoil, with the possible exception of Yoweri Museveni's in Uganda, none have the strong arm reputation of Mugabe's, although the differences may be a matter of degree.

Despite the military's recent sabre-rattling against the MDC part of the coalition government, the overall political/economic 'normalization' of things since 2008 has defused overall tension to where that ruthlessness of the Mugabe regime does not really need to be deployed or obviously used as a club to threaten people against expressing dissent. That could quickly change in the run up to the next election, and some would say it already is changing, with more reports of voter intimidation, especially in the rural areas. (All the uprisings in the three countries were mostly if not exclusively urban phenomena.)

Despite clear persecution of the MDC party by the ZANU-PF aligned security portions of the government, the clear acceptance of the MDC asa substantial political counter-balancing force to ZANU-PF has now been well-established. There are no more illusions about it being a flash-in-the-pan that can be written off. This kind of entrenched multi-partysm is fairly new to Zimbabwe, and serves as a useful, if curtailed blow-off valve for political expression. It adds to stability, despite the rancor between the two main parties, by giving an organized conduit by which people can express dissent with the effective ruling authority.

Grumbling, protests and tense electioneering can all be expected, but it is unlikely that the kind of explosions surprisingly seen in these other countries will take place. In a nutshell, in relative terms Zimbabwe is moving up while many other African countries are beginning to experience problems of a nature and of a severity that Zimbabwe has just left behind.


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