It’s not been a good year for Robert Mugabe. When cameras caught him stumbling down the steps of a podium in February, photographers were forced to delete the images and several bodyguards were later fired. Nevertheless, photoshopped pictures of the nonagenarian dictator went viral. Some show him sprinting up a football field, riding a surfboard, astride a missile, and were almost affectionate. Others might be tactfully described as vulgar, hostile — and symbolic of his approaching end.
An indication that his grip on power might loosen sooner rather than later came in September when, in an address to Parliament, he spent nearly half an hour oblivious to the fact that he was reading the same State of the Nation speech he had given in the same chamber to the same M.P.s only a few weeks before. The speech drew polite applause, but begged the question: What happens when the 91-year-old president either steps down or dies?
It is a question of growing importance in a country beset by so many self-inflicted wounds — from Mr. Mugabe’s ruinous land redistribution effort that destroyed a prosperous agricultural sector and fueled the flight of white farmers, to the rampant corruption and political violence that has caused Western aid to shrink. Though foreign direct investment is trickling in, it’s nowhere near enough to help. Chinese aid will do some good in the long term, but China is not subsidizing budget deficits. Though the use of the U.S. dollar means that the hyperinflation of a decade ago won’t return, the lack of national income means fewer dollars to buy fewer goods. Meanwhile, the rains have failed and agricultural production has declined.
As Zimbabweans hunker down for a bleak 2016, many speculate about the coming power struggle. There are no reformers waiting in the wings. About the best thing to be said is that at least the presidential wannabes appear to be divided equally between male and female figures.
On the female side, there is Mr. Mugabe’s 50-year-old wife, Grace — widely known as “Amazing Grace,” for her lofty rhetoric, and “Gucci Grace,” for her compulsive shopping sprees in Western capitals. Then there is Joice Mujuru, a heroine of the struggle for independence from Britain, and a vice president until last December, when a barrage of savage political attacks fired off by Grace cast her into the political wilderness.
On the male side, there’s Ms. Mujuru’s replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, another celebrated liberation fighter. Known as the “Crocodile” for his political guile and ruthless suppression of Mr. Mugabe’s critics, he was reportedly delighted by the purging of his former comrade in arms. Then there is the defense chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, now widely thought to be positioning himself as the power behind the throne — no matter who occupies it.
With the exception of Ms. Mujuru, all are members of the ruling ZANU-PF. The fortunes of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, have plunged since its poor showing in the 2013 elections, and it is now splintered and rudderless. None of the other small opposition parties have made any headway. Ms. Mujuru has conspicuously delayed any formal announcement establishing her much-touted People First party, amid reports that some government leaders would like her to be reinstated into “the party of liberation.” People like Phelekezela Mphoko, a vice president, want ZANU-PF to remain a tightly knit party, one that solves all problems from within. They do not want a popular politician like Ms. Mujuru splitting their base.
Though Grace Mugabe has the rhetorical skills to lead the putsch against Ms. Mujuru, the fact that she herself has no guerrilla credentials suggests that she will find it difficult to galvanize the hardened men and women of the country’s ruling party. Nevertheless, her husband wants to secure his family’s security, and thus she cannot be counted out.
Given these uncertainties, what can the West do to promote stability and renewed prosperity? Zimbabwe has great economic potential if its agri-industrial sector can be revived and its immense mineral resources developed. The last thing the West needs is another failed state in an increasingly troubled region.
Unpalatable as it appears, there is much to be said for swallowing hard and re-engaging with the regime. The West has little choice but to put up with the last years of Mr. Mugabe while actively cultivating moderates like Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa. Though hardly an angel, he nevertheless seeks something that resembles fiscal stability — and a modicum of probity — even as Mr. Mugabe urges him to find money somewhere.
Mr. Chinamasa might in turn encourage Senior Vice President Mnangagwa to learn what it takes to be seen as user-friendly by the West, should his moment for the top seat come. Though Mr. Mnangagwa has his own internal enemies, his party might rally, albeit reluctantly, around one victor so that the spoils of office can continue to be shared among the faithful.
Should there be conditions for re-engagement? The West probably won’t be able to resist making calls for less opaque financial and political dealings. But the land issue is settled: There is no politically viable force that would seek to restore farms to ousted whites. And given the implosion of any viable opposition, the West has little choice but to work with ZANU-PF — unless Joice Mujuru establishes her own party. But if she decides to do so, General Chiwenga or Mr. Mnangagwa or Grace Mugabe might each claim the mantle of the true defender of Mr. Mugabe’s legacy.
The world will one day soon see the end of Robert Mugabe. But his party will likely live on, and it is within that party that, like it or not, the West must now find people with whom it can work toward some kind of viable future for this unhappy country.
Stephen Chan is a professor of world politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of “Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits.