Cover: A New Zimbabwe?

A New Zimbabwe?

Assessing Continuity and Change After Mugabe

Published Feb 6, 2020

by Alexander Noyes


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Research Questions

  1. To what extent has Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivered on his promises?
  2. Where is Zimbabwe headed?
  3. Is Zimbabwe on the road to becoming a fully fledged democracy or will it remain semiauthoritarian?
  4. Will Zimbabwe's economy stabilize or deteriorate further?
  5. What are the opportunities and challenges for international reengagement and investment?

After 37 years in power, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was toppled via a military coup in November 2017. His successor and former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, promised a break from Mugabe's authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement, declaring a "new Zimbabwe" that is "open for business." To what extent has Mnangagwa delivered on his promises?

In this report, the author seeks to answer this pressing question by assessing Zimbabwe's political and economic reform efforts after Mugabe. In the report's conclusion, the author forecasts the country's likely trajectory over the next one to three years and offers recommendations for the international community to help support Zimbabwe's recovery. The author conducted more than two dozen semistructured interviews in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Washington, D.C., in July and August 2019.

In short, although Mnangagwa has deployed flowery reform rhetoric, his administration's piecemeal actions belie any movement toward genuine political or economic reform. Repression has increased and the economy continues to sink. With the old guard and military still firmly in power — and both benefiting from perches atop the highly cartelized and patronage-based economy — genuine reform is unlikely in the next one to three years under present conditions in Zimbabwe.

Politics and economics are inextricably linked in Zimbabwe, and the country will be unable to recover unless the two sectors are addressed in tandem. To help the country recover from years of mismanagement, corruption, and state violence, international actors — including the United States — would be wise to push the government in a coordinated fashion to implement genuine political, economic, and security reforms.

Key Findings

Politics and economics are inextricably linked in Zimbabwe

  • Genuine reform is unlikely under present economic and political conditions in Zimbabwe in the lead-up to national elections in 2023.
  • Zimbabwe is likely to continue down a path of political polarization, protests, political violence at the hands of the state, and economic deterioration.

Government pledges under Mnangagwa have fallen short

  • Although the Mnangagwa government has taken some modest steps that could be seen as an indication of progress — particularly on the economic front — there is a wide gap between the government's reform rhetoric and the reality on the ground.
  • Well-rehearsed slogans appear to be largely political theater targeted at the international diplomatic community and investors.

On the political front, reform promises are severely lagging

  • The Mnangagwa government continues to prevent and violently suppress political protests, and the media remain heavily biased in favor of the ruling party.
  • Few tangible steps have been taken toward reconfiguring Zimbabwe's autocratic system.
  • Security forces have cracked down on several protests since Mnangagwa came to power.
  • Although the military has always played a prominent role in Zimbabwe's political economy, its influence has increased under Mnangagwa.

Halting and piecemeal economic reform amid near collapse

  • Despite a brief government surplus and the introduction of a new currency aimed at curbing inflation, the economy is again close to collapse.
  • Zimbabwe is suffering from fuel, food, and electricity shortages reminiscent of Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis in the mid- to late 2000s.


  • Politics and economics are inseparable in Zimbabwe, and the country will be unable to recover unless the two sectors are addressed in a coordinated fashion.
  • International actors — including the United States — would be wise to push the government in a coordinated fashion to implement genuine political, economic, and security reforms.
  • Genuine reforms would go a long way toward putting Zimbabwe on a democratic path, lessening high levels of political polarization, and repairing the collapsing economy.
  • Reforms would also reassure potential investors and help to earn back the goodwill — and possible access to lending — of the international community.
  • The international community should proceed with extreme caution on economic support for the government.

This research was sponsored by the James Harmon Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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