The leader of one of Zimbabwe’s newest political parties, Noah Manyika, only moved back to the country of his birth in January after an absence of more than two decades.
But according to the founder of Build Zimbabwe Alliance (BZA), he has keenly felt the struggles of his motherland, which has suffered economic mismanagement, human rights abuses and civil unrest in more than 30 years of rule by President Robert Mugabe.
“You are a Zimbabwean wherever you are,” Manyika, 54, tells Newsweek during a trip to the U.K aimed at raising support among the estimated 110,000 Zimbabweans living there. “Ours is shared pain. The Zimbabwean who has been living outside the country has paid the price—right now, we are the pension system for our families, we are the medical aid system for our families… We are all bearing the cost of the dysfunction in our country.”
Now back in Zimbabwe, Manyika wants to help bring about political change in one of the most entrenched governments in Africa, with the world’s oldest non-royal head of state at its helm. The country holds its next general election in 2018, and the ruling ZANU-PF coalition has already put forward Mugabe, 93, as its nominee.
Over the past year, however, Zimbabwe has been convulsed by mass anti-government protests on an unprecedented scale coupled with an economic crisis. Unemployment remains high, GDP growth slumped to 1.5 percent in 2015, and a U.S. dollar shortage pushed the government to introduce a quasi-currency—known as bond notes—in late 2016, which are worthless outside the country.
“Our view is that we actually don’t have economic problems, we have a leadership problem manifesting itself as an economic problem,” says Manyika.
But the BZA leader believes that the country is ripe for change, and that its citizens in the diaspora have a key role to play. According to Manyika, the BZA wants to bring about “an unprecedented mobilization of Zimbabweans and friends of Zimbabwe, wherever they are.”
Those outside the country remain a pillar of Zimbabwe’s crumbling economy: in 2016, remittances from individuals and organizations in the diaspora totaled $1.57 billion—10 percent of Zimbabwe’s total economy given that its GDP is around $14.4 billion.
And as long as they hold Zimbabwean citizenship by birth—i.e. were born in Zimbabwe and have a Zimbabwean parent or grandparent, or were born outside the country but whose parent(s) is a Zimbabwean citizen living in the country—those in the diaspora are constitutionally permitted to vote; however, the country’s electoral commission has indicated that it does not have the funds to facilitate diaspora voting in the 2018 polls.
Manyika himself has experience of looking in from the outside. Following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, he joined a government media corps and was sent for training in Romania, which was then under the rule of the authoritarian Communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Upon his return to Zimbabwe, Manyika says he saw similar tendencies in his homeland as he had in Romania—including excessive centralization of power around the head of state—and so in 1984 he left for the United States. There, he has worked on numerous community projects, including a scholarship fund for underprivileged children in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But Manyika has kept his hand in Zimbabwean affairs: he was involved in designing national healing programs for Zimbabwe’s national unity government, which came to power following violence-ridden elections in 2008.
The BZA plans to drum up support among diaspora Zimbabweans, while also rolling out a leadership training program—known as P210+, a reference to Zimbabwe’s 210 parliamentary constituencies—to equip young people in the country with the tools to build a new future for a country that has only known one leader since independence.
Manyika says that Mugabe’s insistence on staying in power in Zimbabwe has created a leadership vacuum that needs to be filled. “Zimbabwe has people who have tremendous potential,” he says. “We have a lot of people in the diaspora and in the country itself who can really do something to rebuild our economy.”
Ahead of the 2018 elections, the BZA will hold its own party conference, during which a candidate for the polls will be selected. Manyika hopes to win the nomination, but says that Zimbabweans need a change of mindset ahead of the elections.
“What we’ve heard for so many years is that we only have one person who knows how to solve the problems of our country,” he says. “We have all kinds of social problems, our healthcare system is broken and there are graduates who have now become vendors on the streets, all because [we’ve been told] there is only one person who can run the country. So I’m not the only one who is qualified…I’m stepping in as a Zimbabwean to go against that myth.”