Herman J. Cohen was the first President George Bush's top Africa diplomat, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993.
It was a long time coming. I worry any time I hear of the military seizing control of a government. But the end of Robert Mugabe's rule offers the people of Zimbabwe a chance at opportunities the regime denied them for 37 years. It is too bad that it did not happen earlier.
I met with Mugabe on occasion during my Foreign Service tenure. He is likely to make a graceful exit. Mugabe has always been keenly concerned with his legacy, building a cult of personality around his revolutionary past and image as an African liberator. He will not want to upset these decades of work in his final moment. Reports state that Mugabe is now back at the Blue House, and I expect he will stay there for his remaining days.
Former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa is unlikely to stay in power in the long run – nor should he. Although he is closely allied with the military, they are not keen on keeping him around. Much like Mugabe, he is old and in ill health. Military rule must come to a swift end: the military has become quite corrupt in the last decade, and is now essentially a business organization specializing in the export of diamonds.
Zimbabwe is now ready for a new generation of leadership. Despite her corruption and boundless ambition, some Zimbabweans admired Grace Mugabe as a representative of a younger generation eager to come to power and institute reforms. But the people have never known a Zimbabwe without the Mugabe family, and after decades of their violence and graft, citizens will push hard for quality leadership. There are many Zimbabweans of Grace Mugabe's generation who have the capability and will to institute reforms and lead the country to democracy and prosperity.
The United States and the international community should now reengage with Zimbabwe and support vibrant new leadership dedicated to both economic growth and personal liberties. The previous U.S. administration's relationship with Mugabe was generally hostile; one of President Obama's last acts while in office was to extend sanctions against the regime.
The Trump administration so far has no meaningful policy toward the country, and with Mugabe out of the picture, they have a clean slate to push for good governance and integration with international institutions and the global economy. This would be a boon for both the United States and the region, with potential for enormous economic and security benefits.
Zimbabwe was once a breadbasket for Africa. Though its people now starve thanks to failed agricultural policies, the country itself is replete with fertile land. At the outset of his tenure Mugabe focused heavily on commercial farming – supporting white farmers who prospered under the Rhodesian regime while attracting new investment – before he brutally removed them from their land as part of a demagogic campaign to tighten his grip on power, leaving unemployment, poverty, famine, and desperation in his wake. With Mugabe gone, Zimbabwe can become an agricultural powerhouse, once again growing food staples for the region and export-ready commercial products.
The Zimbabwean economy is in need of immediate attention. Stabilizing the economy may not be a top priority for Mnangagwa and the military at this time. It should be. The nation is essentially without a currency: Mugabe abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar after it became infamously unstable due to his failed monetary policies – at one point the government issued $100 trillion banknotes.
Foreign currencies are often used, but lately the highly volatile crypto-currency Bitcoin has become popular, and purchases of it have surged since the coup. This is a dangerous situation for both Africa and Zimbabwe. The IMF and the World Bank are prepared to step in and help rebuild Zimbabwe's economy and monetary policy, and the African Union, United Nations and United States should work closely on this issue and ensure it is seen through.
The next few months will be crucial. Zimbabwe must not return to feeble Marxist-Leninist ideas of an absolutist one-party state and an economy closed to private investment. But I am optimistic that the younger political generation of Zimbabweans who were raised under the thumb of the Mugabe regime will move the country forward. They have been waiting for this opportunity for 37 years, and finally, there is hope.