Poor economic conditions in Zimbabwe, paired with longtime leader Robert Mugabe’s lavish personal spending, have increased tensions in the country and raised questions about a possible regime change following the 2018 presidential elections. Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, has held power since the country gained independence in 1980, following a long career as a political activist and guerrilla leader.
Mugabe began his presidency with policies that supported agriculture and promoted post-colonial reconciliation with white Zimbabweans. Following the death of his wife 12 years into his presidency, Mugabe married Grace Marufu, a State House secretary 41 years his junior, who many say has encouraged his regime’s corruption and extravagant spending. His popularity began to dwindle as drought worsened conditions in the country, even as the president and his new wife spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on birthday parties and a 25-bedroom private mansion, as reported by CNN.
In 2000, Mugabe ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms across the country in response to opposition party efforts to limit his power. “It’s the beginning of the end of the economy of this country,” said one man forced to leave his farm.
Food production collapsed in the early 2000s, leading to massive hyperinflation as Mugabe’s government continued to print money to cover its increasing debt. At its highest point in 2008, inflation hit 500 billion percent, reported Bloomberg, and a single loaf of bread cost over Z$10,000. Unemployment stagnated at 94 percent. Corruption became more explicit as state-sponsored violence and intimidation of opposition parties led to Mugabe’s sixth presidential victory in 2008 in an election shunned by leaders all around the world.
Power sharing agreements put into place after the 2008 election eased economic strife, but Mugabe continued to spend exorbitantly, hosting opulent parties and buying his wife a $1.3 million diamond ring with government money. Chronic health issues have also required Mugabe to travel frequently to the international doctors, resulting in millions of dollars spent on private jets. Although the aging president has reassured the country several times that he still plans to run for reelection in 2018, doubts about his health may create an opportunity for the ascendancy of another candidate. Grace Mugabe has indicated her willingness to run after her husband’s death, and she may have to in order to retain any semblance of political power. However, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa is the current favorite to succeed as president.
Opposition leaders, however, could choose their own candidate. Weeks after Mugabe’s multi-million dollar ninety-third birthday celebration, the president sent 1,000 packages of generic dry biscuits to victims of a devastating floodin the southern half of the country. This blatant disparity between the luxury of the current administration and the poverty of the country may serve as a flashpoint, galvanizing anti-Mugabe sentiment and giving outsider candidates a chance in 2018.