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Strikes and deadly protests in Zimbabwe began on Monday against an increase in petrol prices. Police used tear gas and live rounds in confrontations with protesters. Motorists are enraged at the government which announced an almost 150% increase in fuel prices last weekend. According to Amnesty International, at least eight people have died, although that number may soon rise. There is danger that the protests may continue to escalate and lead to more damage and loss of life unless the situation is diffused quickly.
The government has not taken responsibility for the unrest. Instead, it chose to blame the mainstream opposition. Owen Ncube, Minister for National Security and State claimed that “the prevailing security situation in the country is a culmination of a well-orchestrated series of events by the MDC Alliance, working in cahoots with NGOs, civil society, youth organizations, pressure groups, and individuals”. However, the opposition denies involvement and has called for calm, declaring its “solidarity with peaceful citizen action across the country”. Piers Pigou, an International Crisis Group senior consultant on Southern Africa, said of the protests, “the opposition appears not to be in charge or leading this … We are now seeing the results of volatility that has been building for some time and that everyone has been very complacent about.”
Zimbabwe’s economy is struggling. Inflation is at 31% while wages remain stagnant; this has made the impact of increased fuel prices even more severe on people’s strained budgets. Zimbabwe also has a severe fuel shortage, The South African reporting that queues for fuel have reached up to two kilometres. The rationale for the price increases was to reduce fuel demand, thus shortening queues and discouraging fuel waste. The fuel shortage is caused in part by a lack of foreign currency, necessary to pay for fuel imports. The lack of foreign currency is caused by a poorly performing economy which exports much less than it imports.
Massive fuel price increases are a superficial measure which will not stabilize the economy or solve supply issues. The demand for fuel will remain high, the only difference being that those who can pay will have access, rather than those prepared to queue. Those struggling the most will suffer the most, thus further increasing their anger and inciting riots. The government should take responsibility for the crisis and ensure that police are not using live rounds against protesters, or more deaths are likely. Fuel prices should be lowered to appease the protesters and end the violence. Long-term solutions to the economic causes of the crisis will be difficult to construct but cannot happen while the country is embroiled in strikes and battles between police and rioting protesters.
Measures should be taken swiftly, as the longer this crisis continues, the more people might be killed, and the more Zimbabwe’s weak economy will be harmed. Many Zimbabweans fear a return of the hyperinflation which took place in 2008. Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is working to prevent such a collapse, but his economic reforms have made little difference. According to The Guardian, Zimbabwe has enough foreign reserves to sustain less than two more weeks of imports.