A country 'marching towards starvation' and wracked by water and power shortages, its citizens thought they had rid themselves of Robert Mugabe only to find themselves at the mercy of his successor. Foreign Editor David Pratt takes stock of the country’s escalating crisis

It’s a little over year ago now since I spoke with Joy Mviro. It was early morning when we met while she was standing in a queue with other young mothers outside the Edith Opperman Maternity Clinic in the heart of Mbare, one of the biggest, oldest and poorest townships in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Just 21 years old, Joy told me how much she was looking forward to life now with her six-month-old daughter Keisha, who she had brought to the clinic as part of a regular check-up since the baby was born around the time that Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe was overthrown in November 2017.

“We can now talk openly, but before Mr Mugabe was kicked out, I would have thought twice about talking to a journalist or answering their questions,” she told me confidently.

Watching television news pictures of the protests on Harare’s streets on Friday, I couldn’t help thinking about what might now have become of the optimism Joy and other Zimbabweans like her had in the wake of Mugabe’s removal from power.

Not that all Zimbabweans I met back then, of course, were as convinced that Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was capable of delivering them to the promised land after decades of misrule characterised by authoritarianism, corruption, human rights abuses and widespread poverty.

Mnangagwa, these sceptics insisted, was really just a chip off the old Mugabe block and another apparatchik of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

The “Crocodile”, as Mnangagwa was nicknamed because of his ability to survive a turbulent political career with a mixture of cunning and ruthlessness, was always more than capable of snapping back when things got tough for him, these same sceptics told me.

That much rings true if the scenes from Harare these past days are anything to go by after riot police charged and beat protesters before arresting and loading some into armoured vehicles. Once again, Mnangagwa has shown that he’s no more willing to tolerate dissent than his autocratic predecessor Mugabe.

Indeed, as David Pilling, Africa editor of the Financial Times wryly observed the other day, when Zimbabweans start expressing nostalgia for Robert Mugabe you know things must be bad.

Yet such sentiments suggesting things are worse under Mnangagwa than the man he deposed are not uncommon in Zimbabwe.

To say things are bad in what was once dubbed Africa’s “breadbasket” would be a gross understatement. For the simple inescapable fact is that Zimbabwe is in meltdown and an economic wreck. Just consider these chilling statistics.

According to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), this is a country “marching towards starvation”.

It’s a place where, by early next year, about half of Zimbabweans will need help to get enough food. A place where a loaf of bread can cost the equivalent of a few weeks' pension money and where food is in such short supply that some people have stopped taking their HIV medicine because they cannot afford to pay for the meals that accompany the tablets.

This, too, in a country that is suffering its worst drought in 40 years, and where freshwater taps work for a few hours once a week.

“I’m washing in a bucket, my friend, as if it is Southern Rhodesia in 1923,” observed Tendai Biti, an opposition MP and former finance minister, saying that life had gone back to colonial times.

If water is in short supply, then the electricity supply is even worse, with low water levels in the Zambezi river limiting hydropower from dams adding to more power cuts.

Some now describe Zimbabwe, once among Africa’s most industrialised, as a country that quite literally has “descended into darkness”.

Rolling blackouts mean that it’s only after many have gone to bed that the electricity comes on, robbing people of sleep by forcing them to wake up in the middle of the night to cook or iron their shirts.

Children often have to do their homework by candlelight or be woken before 5am if they want a hot breakfast, as that’s when the blackout starts again. It could be their only hot meal of the day.

Factories, offices and bakeries often stand idle during daylight hours when the cuts are imposed, meaning workers arrive after dark, hoping they will be able to switch on their machines, computers or ovens

“We need to run on generators, not only to heat our water so people can bath, and enjoy hot meals, but more importantly, for people who rely on oxygen provision to keep them comfortable, and ultimately alive,” one charity that runs a retirement home said in an appeal for help as it struggles amid the blackouts.

Not that any of this hardship or the fact that inflation doubled to 175% in July impacts much on the likes of Mnangagwa and the rest of the wealthy "elite" in the country.

After a previous round of hyperinflation in 2009, the government scrapped the currency and a few years ago introduced bond notes and electronic money. These were pegged at a fictional one to one to the US dollar, though there were almost no reserves to back them up.

It was a fantasy fiscal measure that convinced few ordinary people in the country and now, as things again worsen, the government has suspended the publication of inflation figures.

Zimbabweans, however, are known for their patience. It was the former US ambassador to Harare, Christopher Dell, who once less than flatteringly perhaps, described Zimbabweans at the height of the economic meltdown and hyperinflation under Mugabe as “famously passive”.

But these days that passivity is morphing into a growing sense of political frustration that has become increasingly palpable.

“You fly around in a luxury private jet and when on the ground you move with a convoy that not even the President of the United States enjoys,” wrote economist and former MP Eddie Cross in a hard-hitting opinion piece in the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper on Friday.

In the same article, clearly aimed at Mnangagwa and those that surround the president, Cross, a founder member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party led by Nelson Chamisa, pulled few punches in expressing the frustration and increasing anger that many Zimbabweans feel. “You are surrounded by hard-eyed men who protect you and keep you in isolation from the people who long to be able to talk to you and explain how tough things are on the streets and in the villages in our rural areas," Cross continued in his critique of the country’s privileged elite.

"You take what you want because you can and your colleagues emulate your actions and also abuse their positions and power over others.”

Expressing such criticisms in Zimbabwe, especially doing so on the streets as protesters last week found out, can be a risky business.

It was the main opposition party the MDC, of which Cross was a founder, that called for the nationwide demonstration against Mnangagwa’s government on Friday. The series of demonstrations is widely viewed as a test of how the president responds to dissent in a country tainted by a long history of repression.

Back in January, a violent security crackdown in Harare against fuel demonstrations left more than a dozen people dead, which many felt was an ominous portent of things to come.

This suppression of any opposition has continued and days ahead of the planned Harare demonstration on Friday, six political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men, a coalition of rights groups confirmed.

On Friday itself Zimbabwe police fired tear gas and beat scores of opposition supporters as the authorities moved to enforce a ban on an anti-government protest that the country’s high court had upheld.

The ban – announced late on Thursday by police who said any demonstrators would be committing a crime – had exposed the government’s true colours, MDC vice-president Tendai Biti told reporters outside the court.

“The constitution guarantees the right to demonstration ... yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right to the people of Zimbabwe,” he said on Friday.

“We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the coup of November 2017 ... We don’t accept the conduct of this regime, the conduct of Mr Mnangagwa,” Biti insisted.

Perhaps heeding these words more than 100 MDC supporters defied the ban, clashing with police who fired tear gas and water cannon, chasing them from one of Harare’s main squares with batons and drafting in reinforcements to prevent the group from reassembling.

Eyewitnesses on Friday saw police and armed soldiers searching buses, taxis and private vehicles at checkpoints and randomly asking for identity documents. In downtown Harare, swarms of riot police officers could be seen patrolling the streets, bellowing warnings to the public using megaphones.

“Do not take part, you will rot in jail,” the officers desperately warned. This latest crackdown by the authorities has again drawn stern criticism from human-rights groups.

“The Zimbabwean authorities should know that the world is watching. The authorities must end the escalating crackdown on dissent and respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” insisted Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Southern Africa.

“There must be full accountability for these attacks, which left scores of people injured and shows the government’s contempt for human rights,” Mwananyanda, said, calling for a “prompt, impartial and effective investigation” into the attacks.

Undaunted by the crackdown, the MDC and other opposition groups said they will hold another protest tomorrow in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, and will go to other cities and places until the government addresses the economic plight so many Zimbabweans now face.

“The endgame out of this is a people’s government, a legitimate people’s government, elected by the people, chosen by the people,” said Nelson Chamisa, president of the opposition MDC on Friday.

Some observers have suggested that the Zimbabwean government’s response to the demonstration that same day reveal deep-seated fears of massive Sudanese-style protests that overthrew the dictatorship of president Omar al-Bashir four months ago.

Analysts say that the Zimbabwe government has become worried that the rank and file of the army, police and intelligence assigned to contain and if necessary crush the opposition demonstrations in the country are also adversely affected by the economic crisis that has necessitated the protests.

Since the November 2017 coup that ousted Mugabe, low-ranking soldiers have been complaining about deteriorating standards of living, with some suggesting they have not benefited from their effort in deposing the dictator. In Sudan, of course, it has been the positioning of the military there almost as much as the scale of the civilian opposition that has determined the trajectory of the country’s current political direction of travel.

Writing in the South African Weekly Mail & Guardian on Friday, David Kode, head of advocacy and campaigns with the civil society alliance Civicus, highlighted how Sudan’s protest might be setting a precedent for the continent. “Africans, and particularly African youth, are fed up with this normalisation of dictatorships, failed promises and human rights violations," warned Kode.

“In the coming years we are likely to see more peaceful uprisings in these countries which will aim to force political transitions,” he predicted.

What happens in Zimbabwe now and in the near future might well bear out Kode’s case. For his part, president Mnangagwa continues to blame the country’s economic situation on the natural disasters and years of Western sanctions, which has isolated the country for many decades. But the real problem in Zimbabwe, as more of its citizens now realise, is simply bad government. They know that the current crisis in Zimbabwe is its worst since the bad old days of Mugabe rule in 2008/09, and that it’s still one of the old dictator's former henchmen who calls the shots.

Looking back to last year and the expressions of optimism I heard from that young mother Joy Mviro and other Zimbabweans, one wonders what they now make of the dire situation facing their country.

Zimbabweans' reputation for patience is once again being tested. But this time that patience might just have run its course.