Is Zimbabwe Next? Following the Path of Political Revolution

The recent weeks have undoubtedly ushered in a period of political change in the Middle East and North Africa. The governments of Tunisia and Egypt have been overthrown by the popular will of the people, and the forces of change are currently at work in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Seeing the potential for revolution, other countries in the region have taken some tangible steps toward government reform as a means of pacifying possible protesters. In a country that has faced serious economic decline, food and public health crises, and human rights abuses over the past decade, will Zimbabwe face similar uprisings resulting from mounting frustrations of its people?

Although there have been reports that Zimbabwean authorities have arrested 46 people for attending a lecture on the Egyptian and Tunisian protests, several economic factors must be weighed to consider whether a country is volatile enough for an uprising.

Most of the analyses of the peaceful revolutions argue that the protests signal demand for political freedom, and have therefore risen primarily in countries ruled by dictatorships and oppressive regimes. Others argue that economic rights are central to the problem considering the large number of unemployed youth in those countries. The protests are thus seen as wildfires that will spread to countries where the rulers have been in power for far too long or where economic conditions are tough.

If these yardsticks are applied, then 12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa—including Zimbabwe—in which rulers have been in power for more than 15 years should be on the watch list. The list of countries with their respective age of current regime include Equatorial Guinea (32), Angola (32), Zimbabwe (31), Cameroon (29), Uganda (25), Burkina Faso (24), Swaziland (24), Sudan (21), Chad (21), Eritrea (18), Gambia (17) and Ethiopia (16). All these countries are faced with the problems of youth unemployment and are also ranked as poor countries.

However, Sub-Saharan Africa is different from MENA in one particular respect. MENA lies largely in the desert where landed resources are limited to oil and perhaps other mineral deposits. Individuals and households lack arable farmlands that primarily provide employment and livelihood in many societies; and as a result, they have limited ability to generate economic activity independent of the state. This has led to employment opportunities being largely created by the state. For example, in Egypt, the public sector is the primary employer of college graduates. As a result, these countries must be organized as welfare or “nanny” states. In contrast, the productive farmland, instead of the state, remains the primary source of livelihood for individuals and families in Sub-Saharan Africa. With the exception of South Africa, the concept of welfare statehood is generally unpopular in the region.

The decline in capacity of the “nanny” state is arguably the proximate cause of the on-going revolution that is spreading worldwide. Inadequacies of the welfare state over the years in Tunisia and Egypt were the seeds of the recent revolutions. Protests for political rights would have little effect in the welfare states that are performing well in the region. For example, the Al Saud dynasty retains monopoly of power in Saudi Arabia since the country was formed in 1932 but the country has remained a healthy welfare state. Similarly, Qatar has been ruled by the al-Thani family since the 1800s—the current ruler has been in power for 15 years—but remains a strong welfare state. Other performing welfare states include Brunei, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Although protests have recently been organized in Bahrain, the protesters still find it difficult to articulate the purpose of their dissent.

By all standards, Zimbabwe is far from being a nanny state. Although economic conditions, such as an estimated 95 percent unemployment rate, and recent hardship could fuel dissent, there are many factors that serve as effective counterweight. As in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the middle class in Zimbabwe is emerging gradually, and not many of them are likely to jump into the protest fray. The power-sharing government has provided some stability and made possible a cessation of the recent hyperinflation. The inflation rate was about 5.3 percent in 2010. Despite many economic hardships, Zimbabwe is seeing consistent growth. The country went from -14.4 percent of GDP in 2008, to a growth of 4.1 percent in 2010. This progress is likely to keep Zimbabwe clear of an uprising; and it is not likely the country would fall in the near future, at least not before the next election.