Zimbabwe continued to make international headlines in 2015 because of its intriguing political stories surrounding President Robert Mugabe’s succession, an imploding economy and the illegal killing of a celebrated lion at the Hwange National Park by an American dentist. Below are some of the stories that kept Zimbabweans and the world talking in 2015.
BY EVERSON MUSHAVA
Grace Mugabe’s health woes
Mugabe returned home alone on January 22 after a prolonged holiday in the Far East with news that First Lady Grace was recuperating from an operation to remove an appendix. During the first family’s long absence from the country, there had been rumours that Grace was suffering from colon cancer. Mugabe and his family had left the country in mid-December 2014 after a tumultuous Zanu PF congress where Grace had successfully elbowed out former vice-president Joice Mujuru and her allies for allegedly plotting to assassinate her husband. A frail Grace returned to Zimbabwe on February 16, declaring herself to be as fit as a fiddle.
Mugabe falls at Harare International Airport
As if the illness of his wife was not enough, Mugabe’s bad start to the new year only got worse. In February he tumbled on all fours after addressing the crowds at the Harare International Airport soon after arrival from an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Mugabe’s bodyguards tried to stop images of their boss falling from going viral by ordering photographers to delete the pictures, but before the end of the day, memes of the president trying “to break the fall” — as described by former Information minister Jonathan Moyo — were trending on social media.
There were reports that hordes of Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) agents that were charged with ensuring the president’s security that day were severely punished, with some being redeployed to less glamorous posts.
The official reason for the fall was that Mugabe was tripped by a poorly laid-out carpet, but Zimbabweans were convinced it was a sign of the 91 year-old leader’s deteriorating health condition.
In October, Mugabe also became the subject of ridicule when he almost fell over backwards as he tried to climb onto a one-step dais, forcing Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and some aides to rush to his rescue in New Delhi. Mugabe was attending the India-Africa summit.
A video capturing the near-fall went viral on social media, reigniting debate about Mugabe’s health.
Another video of the president struggling to walk at the G20 summit in Turkey provided more cannon fodder for Mugabe’s critics who say he is no longer fit to rule.
On March 9, Mugabe critic, activist Itai Dzamara was abducted by people believed to be State agents. He was bundled into an unmarked vehicle while coming out of a barbarshop and disppeared without a trace. Dzamara’s disappearence put Zimbabwe back on the spotlight with the European Union and western governments piling pressure on Mugabe’s government to find him.
Zanu PF purges Mujuru allies
Mugabe wasted no time soon after returning home from holiday, kicking out from the party all perceived Mujuru allies. Mujuru and her top allies that included Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo were banished from the party after what were described as Kangaroo courts. The purges persisted throughout the year as the party struggled to realign itself after one of the most far-reaching purges post-independence. The lastest purges took place in November, where a former minister in Mujuru’s office, Sylvester Nguni was fired from Zanu PF. The number of senior officials expelled or suspended for allegedly supporting Mujuru is believed to be close to 200. Mugabe spent most of 2015 trying to justify Mujuru’s expulsion and at one time claimed that the former freedom fighter wanted to assassinate him the same way the late Democratic Republic of Congo leader Laurent Kabila was eliminated. Mugabe also claimed Mujuru tried to bewitch him with the help of Nigerian wizards.
Three Cabinet reshuffles in nine months
Mugabe fiddled with his Cabinet line up three times in nine months between the Zanu PF congress in December 2014 and September this year as he struggled to find the right balance after the wholesale expulsion of suspected Mujuru sympathisers.
There were initial suggestions that Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa had influenced the rapid changes in Mugabe’s team, but as the year progressed it became clear that the First Lady and her alleged faction of young turks — now known as G40 — was dictating the pace in the succession race.
President reads wrong speech
If the fall at the airport and stumble in New Delhi were an embarrassment for Mugabe, then the performance in Parliament on September 15 was catastrophic for the ageing leader. Mugabe ploughed through a wrong speech during the official opening of parliament and did not notice he was reading an old text until he left the House. The president read a speech he had delivered before the same audience on August 25 during an unforgettable State of the Nation Address where he was heckled by opposition MPs. Mnangagwa was forced to table a correct version of the speech in Parliament the following day. The gaffe led to more calls for Mugabe’s resignation on the grounds that he had become a liability to the nation.
Mugabe insults Kalangas
Xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa stoked tensions between Africa’s biggest economy and its neighbours who accused President Jacob Zuma’s government of not doing enough to stop the killings. A Sadc summit was hastily arranged in Harare to discuss the attacks and Mugabe stunned the world when he turned against the victims. He riled people from Matabeleland when he claimed Kalangas are “known to be crooks because they are not educated enough to get [decent] jobs.” Demands for an apology fell on deaf ears.
Grace Mugabe consolidates power
Grace began the year by denying reports that she was preparing to take over from her husband but as the year drew towards the end, she could no longer hide her ambitions.
The 50-year-old First Lady resumed her controversial rallies that she launched before her official entry into politics in 2014. She revealed at the rallies that she was more senior to vice-presidents Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko because she was the president’s wife. She also defended members of G40 who were now in clear combat against war veterans that back Mnangagwa.
By the time Zanu PF held its conference in Victoria Falls early this month, it had become clear that Zanu PF was back to its factional ways, with G40 and Mnangagwa’s faction battling for the soul of the party in preparation for Mugabe’s eventual departure. The factional wars were more pronounced in the women’s league led by Grace and among war veterans led by Christopher Mutsvangwa, a Mnangagwa ally.
Mphoko’s lap of luxury
There was outrage following reports that Mphoko had been living in a five-star hotel since his appointment in December last year to as late as this month. The former ambassador to Russia, Botswana and South Africa had reportedly turned down a $3 million house in the upmarket suburb of Ballantyne Park, choosing to live at the Rainbow Towers.
The government says it has since found a $4 million house for the VP, but critics feel the damage has already been done as Mphoko drained the fiscus at a time the government was failing to pay pensioners.
Cecil the lion
There was an unprecedented global outcry following the killing of Cecil the Lion at the Hwange National Park by American dentist Walter James Palmer. Palmer allegedly paid $35 000 to kill the much loved lion with a bow and arrow. The government first vowed to have Palmer extradited to face trial in Zimbabwe before backtracking to drop the charges in October. A Bulawayo- based professional hunter who assisted Palmer is still facing trial. According to The Guardian, after news of Cecil’s death 4,4 million people visited the Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (Wildcru), whose project at the Hwange National Park had been tracking Cecil. More than $1 million was donated to the project, securing its future for a further three years. Cecil’s death also renewed global efforts to conserve Africa’s endangered lions and inspired new legislation as far as the United States.
Cyanide elephant poaching escalates
Over 60 elephants were killed, mainly from the Hwange National Park, through cyanide poisoning, prompting the government to deploy the army at the country’s parks to fight poachers. The cyanide poisoning crisis was a chilling reminder of the slaughter of more than 300 elephants by a syndicate which ravaged Hwange National Park between 2008 and late 2013. Zimbabwe was again at loggerheads with conservationists after it exported 24 baby elephants captured in the Hwange area to China. The exports sparked outrage from animal rights advocates who included Hollywood actors, but the government defended the move saying it needed the money to fund conservation efforts.
Job carnage after Supreme Court ruling
Thousands of workers lost their jobs after the Supreme Court ruled on July 17 that employers could terminate contracts after giving three months’ notice and had no obligation to pay benefits. The number of workers who lost their jobs before the government responded by hastily amending the Labour Act is not known, but some have put it at 30 000. Employers insist the figure could be as low as 5 000.
However, there was no doubt that the ruling had changed the labour market forever.
Zanu PF wins 30 by-elections
The purges against Mujuru’s supporters and MDC-T’s decision to fire MPs that had revolted against party leader Morgan Tsvangirai triggered an unprecedented number of parliamentary by-elections across the country. June 10 witnessed the highest number of by-elections when 15 polls were held to replace the expelled MDC-T legislators. MDC-T and other major opposition parties resolved early this year to boycott all elections in Zimbabwe until electoral reforms were put in place, paving the way for Zanu PF to make a clean sweep of all the polls held this year. For the first time since 2000, Zanu PF managed to win parliamentary seats in Bulawayo and managed to strengthen its control of Harare after MDC-T capitulated.
Second-hand clothes ban, war against vendors
In July, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa announced several austerity measures, meant to resuscitate the economy that included new levies and taxes on churches, imported groceries, fertiliser, and a ban on importation of second-hand clothes. Chinamasa claimed the ban on the importation of second-hand clothes was for health reasons but he was pilloried for being insensitive to the plight of the poor.
Prior to the ban, MDC MP Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga brought the National Assembly to life after parading used undergarments, which she said were being sold to local women on the streets.
She said the undergarments were degrading for women and urged the government to intervene. The year also saw the government renewing the war against vendors who had proliferated on the streets of urban centres across the country. Attempts were made to use the army to force the informal traders out of the streets, but the moves were resisted by the vendors who argued that they had nowhere to go as the government had failed to create jobs for them.
Meanwhile, Harare City Council demolished hundreds of houses built in undesignated areas. The affected residents were from areas such as Kambuzuma, Kuwadzana and Aspindale. Mugabe also ordered the destruction of settlements near Harare International Airport.
Most of the victims are members of Zanu PF linked housing co-operatives, or clients of land barons linked to the ruling party.
Power shortages worsens
Water levels at the Kariba Dam dropped drastically, forcing Zesa to reduce power generation. Zesa intensified load-shedding as it struggled to source power imports to cover the deficit. The power cuts saw some areas going for more than 18 hours without electricity every day. In a desperate measure to deal with the crisis, the government announced plans to ban the use of electric geysers, which it claimed consumed 40% of domestic electricity. The authorities said Zimbabweans would now be forced to install solar-powered geysers.
Xi Jingping creates buzz in Zimbabwe
The visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping was probably the highlight of a quite business year for Zimbabwe. It was the first such visit by a Chinese leader since 1996 and was hailed as a major coup by Harare, which has been struggling to attract foreign investment. Xi and Mugabe oversaw the signing of a number of infrastructure and investment agreements, which Zimbabwe hopes will kickstart its comatose economy.
Mugabe brought to account in Nigeria
In June, Nigerian television journalist Adeola Fayehun ambushed Mugabe as he left an inauguration ceremony for President Muhammadu Buhari and she asked the 91-year-old leader why he hasn’t stepped down. The video of the encounter became a hit on social media and was another embarrassment for Mugabe, who was already enduring a torrid year. Fayehun works for Sahara Reporters, an online news channel that promotes citizen journalism in Nigerian. She was to become a thorn in the flesh for the Zimbabwe government after Mnangagwa told Parliament that she had apologised for accosting Mugabe. Fayehun called Mnangagwa a liar and challenged him to prove that she made the apology.
Zanu PF splinter party takes shape
Expelled Zanu PF members spent most of 2015 mobilising to form a splinter party, which they say would be led by Mujuru. The party — to be known as People First — is expected to be launched early next year. Indications are that the birth of the Mujuru-led party would reconfigure opposition politics in Zimbabwe as some established parties are already losing members to the new outfit.