Zimbabwe is preparing for crucial elections next year amid serious economic problems and succession battles in the ruling Zanu-PF party over who will succeed 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe. The elections are set to test the country’s democracy, and the big question for many is: What does the future hold for Zimbabwe against the current economic meltdown and other challenges? VOA’s Gibbs Dube reports.

Once described as the jewel of Africa, Zimbabwe has over the years faced many challenges, emanating from what the international community has defined as mismanagement of the economy by President Mugabe’s government, rampant corruption, lack of rule of law, election rigging and other alleged offenses. Mr. Mugabe has in turn blamed the country’s worsening economy on the western-targeted sanctions imposed on him and some top party and business officials in 2001.

During a recent panel discussion at the Voice of America, titled 2018: Zimbabwe’s Watershed Moment – Beyond Elections, panelists debated this debacle, with opinions differing over the cause of the country’s socio-economic degradation.

Panelist Harry Thomas, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe challenged assertions that sanctions are causing havoc in Zimbabwe.

“If you look at the economy… What is the challenge? What caused it? There has not been management of agriculture properly …. President Mugabe himself listed how many millions and billions of dollars have gone missing. That wasn’t the United States who said that, it was President Mugabe. The other thing is that Zimbabwe was in arrears to IMF and the World Bank, which they have recently settled with the IMF. Those things started before sanctions were imposed because Zimbabwe stopped paying its loans when it was off in the Congo. Those are facts.”

Ambassador Thomas Jnr., who was one of four panelists at the discussion, urged a more informed discussion on sanctions, rather than the emotional, name calling and refusal to accept, that he says he often receives.

“Africans are educated, Africans are smart, especially Zimbabweans … So, why is that (sanctions claim) never backed with facts or statistics? This is amazing to me and again we are not responsible for the (Zimbabwe) economy. If you ask me have there ever been an area where sanctions affected people, I would say yes, and where, but don’t give me everyday every person.”

Ambassador Thomas Jnr. said Congress and a sitting president have the prerogative to either keep or remove the sanctions. His remarks attracted sharp reactions from some members of the audience, including co-panelist Dr. Chipo Dendere, assistant professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, USA

“I want to respond to the ambassador … You mentioned that Zimbabweans are very smart, so we should have data to prove that sanctions just don’t work and there is data, so I will be happy to share with you some of that just to show you how sanctions have affected the everyday person in a very negative way.”

Her sentiments were echoed by African Union representative to the USA, Ambassador Arikana Chihombori Quao.

“… To the ambassador it’s a known fact that sanctions do not work and in fact they do affect the everyday women and children … In your position if you say the sanctions are not making a difference in Zimbabwe, why not remove them?.”

Western countries, including the U.S., imposed targeted sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his close associates in early 2000 to force Mr. Mugabe to respect the rule of law and hold credible elections, following allegations of vote rigging and human rights violations that included the forcible removal of white farmers from their land.

International development consultant, Dr. Tawuya Katso, also a panelist, alongside Ambassador Thomas Jnr, Dr. Dendere and Dr. Rhoderick Machekano of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Network North America, blamed Zimbabwe’s current problems on the ruling Zanu-PF party.

“We have a problem and the problem is the government of Zimbabwe … We need to ascertain how we can change the administration in Zimbabwe and it starts with each and everyone of us contributing ideas and really stating the point that, hey, things have failed. Let’s go for plan B.”

Dr. Katso raised concern over the government’s inability to meet the citizens’ most basic needs.

“We have to hold our government responsible and we have to question them. We need that authority and that power to start asking questions to Zanu PF or whoever is in the party to say hey, how come there is no water. Why? That’s a natural resources. Your degree won’t give me water. I need water because I am a human being … human rights … People, that’s what we are talking about, right.”

While some participants supported Dr. Katso’s push for a constitutional change of government, not all were quick to write off the ruling party. Dr. Frenk Guni who lives in the U.S., and supports Mr. Mugabe, agreed that change was necessary in Zimbabwe, but said that change could be best achieved with a reformed Zanu-PF.

“Is anyone of you panelists actually believe that the front man in the opposition in Zimbabwe is going to win the elections in 2018? Seriously!! … Change is necessary not just for the people in the diaspora not just for the people in Zimbabwe but even within Zanu PF … I am challenging anyone in the diaspora that let’s come together rejuvenate and reform both the ruling party and Zimbabwe in order to move forward.”

Staying clear of attacking the ruling party or supporting the opposition, panelists Dr. Machekano urged Zimbabweans to work together for the benefit of the nation.

“As Plato said, if you do not participate then you are governed by those who are inferior to you. I am urging the Diaspora to participate.”

Dr. Machekano shared that the Zimbabwean government has already started working with members of his organization, ZDNNA, to revitalize the country’s economy.

“We have already started engaging with the government of Zimbabwe. I don’t know if anyone of you has read the Zimbabwe Diaspora Policy which they put out through the Ministry of Manpower Planning and some of the input in the policy came from us. They also sent out the draft policy for us to put in comments and we are there to stay, we are participating, we are engaging. We have representatives in Zimbabwe formerly in the diaspora. They have returned back home and they are keeping the link between us and Zimbabwe. So, whatever is happening in Zimbabwe they are engaged and they keep up abreast.”

Dr. Machekano, however, noted that though the situation is not rosy in Zimbabwe, the country can pull out of the doldrums.

“It’s not something that is going to happen overnight and that’s where my positivity comes from in that we have the human resources, the capacity to do … It’s not like a gloom situation where we have nothing to build on.”

His appeal for fully engaging Zimbabwe had some takers, especially Dr. Dendere, who owns ZimTuckshop, an online-business for buying and selling Zimbabwean products in the USA.

“I also want to urge the diaspora to go home and start businesses not with your family members because they are probably just gonna use you money and we know this is the case. Start businesses because lots of us who started businesses at home we have been talking about the difference that it will make if there were 10 or 15 hundred people who have businesses and we could lobby as a group. So, you see, when I try to lobby the government as Chipo with my two businesses, my voice is very weak. That’s why the government is able to walk all over me and make conditions which by the way.”

Dr. Dendere implored upon Zimbabweans in the diaspora to fund democratic efforts by civic society groups trying to bring change.

“We have to use the space that we are in to speak up to support the people at home who are doing good work and to use our resources. This costs money. Democracy is expensive and if we do not put money into it, that’s how people become corrupt because they are also trying to live and they don’t have a salary. Where do you think they are getting money for bread from? Where do you think they are getting money for their school kids from? … So, we have to put our money and mouths where our democracy lies. I can’t tell you to trust but you need trust if Zimbabwe has to be better.”

Some of the participants argued that an opposition coalition is the only solution to Zimbabwe’s problems. Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, former Vice President Joice Mujuru and Professor Welshman Ncube of another formation of the MDC, have already forged an alliance aiming at forming a coalition ahead of the 2018 general elections.