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Zimbabwe: Looking beyond the horizon

Zimbabwe’s harmonised election, which saw presidential, senatorial, parliamentary and local government elections being held simultaneously, took place peacefully on March 29 2008. This watershed plebiscite was anticipated to be a poll that would radically change the political landscape of this troubled country.

More than two weeks have passed since the initial votes were cast with no clear indication of the future trajectory of Zimbabwe. Parliamentary and senatorial results trickled out during the weeks following the elections but the all-important presidential results have been withheld by the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), this amidst growing speculation of the doctoring of the expression of the will of the people in favour of the will of Zanu-PF.

Most observers’ attention has been narrowly focused on trying to establish the causes of the delay of the release of the results. The main opposition party, the MDC-Tsvangirai, has noted that Zanu-PF is preparing to unleash a reign of terror on its citizens and has called for international intervention. They also appealed, unsuccessfully, for an urgent injunction to the High Court to compel the ZEC to release the results.

Amidst wide media speculation on the results, the behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring, and the anxiety that has gripped the local and international communities, we must maintain a focus on how to transcend the deepening quagmire that has gripped this country for the better part of this decade.

The parliamentary and senatorial results reveal a society that is politically torn down the middle. This polarisation has been evident since the elections in 2000. The divisions coalesce around two dominant crisis narratives. One focused around regime security concerns and an alleged neo-colonial imperialist conspiracy epitomised by the campaigning slogan, “sovereignty, land and empowerment”, and one that has been championed by civil society and the opposition parties emphasising the need for a post-nationalist liberation discourse centred around good governance, democratisation and human security that finds expression in the broad notions of political choice and societal renewal.

Elections have become the main battleground between the contending discourses, personalised in stark contrast by a militarized Zanu-PF with Mugabe at its helm and a people-centred MDC with presidential hopeful Morgan Tsvangirai steering the battleship.

The air of optimism that permeated in Zimbabwe on the 30th of March has now given way to despair as the battleground is seemingly shifting from the polls, to the courts, with the possibility of spilling over into the streets. Violence has flared since Zanu-PF lost its parliamentary majority in elections, with reports indicating the deployment of security forces and paramilitary groups like the War Veterans and Youth Militia, especially in the rural areas.

On Monday 14 April the High Court rejected an application by the MDC to force the release of election results.

It has become increasing apparent that the attention of both domestic and international observers alike has been captivated by assessments of events and personalities that have shaped recent political development in that country.

The net effect of this demand for “event-centric” analysis has left little or no room for a rigorous consideration of the “structural” or “systemic” nature of the crisis that has afflicted Zimbabwe for almost a decade now. The danger is that many of the assessments of the situation in Zimbabwe that enjoy what can be best described as popular appeal have been characterised by this event-driven analysis of this very complex situation that has now come to be commonly known as the Zimbabwean crisis.

Most of these event-centric analyses that typically focus on proximate causes and triggering events normally only serve to indicate to us what the symptoms are without shedding much light on the actual causes of the problem and possible solutions.

While such analyses do serve some utility, they have unfortunately, in the case of Zimbabwe, led to numerous miscalculations about the factors that have influenced this country’s politics and what motivates the seemingly irrational behaviour of this troubled country’s political elites.

Many of these miscalculations have often been characterised by a disproportionate focus on the personality of President Robert Mugabe and the haphazard implementation of land-reform programme as the primary factors that have led to the socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

As a result of this propensity to seek easy answers and quick fixes, very little structural analysis of the Zimbabwean situation has been presented in the public domain that assists in dispelling some of these myths and which also allows for clearer thinking on what the true causes and, more importantly, possible solutions to the this crisis are.

An understanding of these structural aspects or pervasive factors, which have become so engrained into the institutions, policies and the fabric of this country’s society, may help us to better gauge the trough of the Zimbabwe cycle. An example of some of these structural characteristics that have not featured as prominently in other assessments of the Zimbabwean situation relate to; governance and political institutions, political culture, ideology of political elites, economic structure and performance, and last but not least, the impacts of external factors.

This why so much hope was placed on the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which held an extraordinary summit in Zambia on 12 April 2008, to discuss the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe following the March 29 elections.

This extraordinary meeting came in the wake of mounting international condemnation of Zimbabwe’s failure to publish the presidential election results of the March 29 poll that the MDC have claimed would show that President Mugabe lost to Tsvangirai. The leader of the opposition has been on a tour of neighbouring states to help defuse the political crisis and curb an increasing number of attacks on his party.

He told African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, and presidents Ian Khama of Botswana, Armando Guebuza of Mozambique that a peaceful Zimbabwe was in the region’s best interests. In an interview with SABC news, Zuma said that “keeping the nation in suspense … keeping the international community in suspense”, was wrong. “I don’t think it augurs very well,” Zuma said. In contrast, President Thabo Mbeki urged “patience” and described the situation in Zimbabwe as “manageable”.

Regime change vs regime reconstitution: polarised perspective on resolving Zimbabwe’s crisis
Regime change
One of the main challenges that have limited progress in finding a solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe has been the existence of different and often asymmetrically aligned approaches aimed at assisting in bringing about political and economic reforms to this country.

These differences have come to the fore due to the varying interpretations of what the causes of the crisis are in the first place. This divergence in approaches has largely lead to the polarisation of public policy perspectives on Zimbabwe, that has seen many governments in the global West pushing for “regime change” while African governments, particularly in Southern Africa prescribe that “regime reconstitution” should first occur as a prerequisite for broader reforms in governance.

Generally speaking, public policy sentiments in the West that have advocated for what can be described as a “regime change” approach have been influenced by assessments that indicate that the primary problem in Zimbabwe is President Mugabe and his Zanu-PF, and what is required to resolve the crisis in Zimbabwe, somewhat simplistically, is a replacement of the ageing head of state and his party with a more amenable political alternative, (read, until recently the Movement for Democratic Change) that is open to the practice of democratic principles and implementation of sound neo-liberal macroeconomic policies.

What this approach betrays is that it is based on the deionisation of Zanu-PF and the notion that this country’s ruling party is a monolithic organisation that suffers from a curious absence of progressive agents of change.

It is not surprising that many Western countries quickly adopted this approach when they were first faced with having to deal with President Mugabe’s cleverly set Pan-African Trap, with its accompanying persuasive anti-colonial rhetoric, which enjoys high levels of resonance in Africa and its Diaspora.

By internationalising the Zimbabwean crisis President Mugabe has been able to displaced the crisis affecting his country from the national to the international as a pan-African struggle against imperial domination. In this regard, President Mugabe argues that the sanctions imposed by the West were a form of punishment for the dispossession of the West’s “kith and kin” of lucrative commercial farms, which was done as part of the land-reform programme that Mugabe claims was introduced to address the social injustices that arise from the inequitable distribution of resources, which was a common feature of the colonial experience in Africa.

Regime reconstitution
On the other hand, the “regime reconstitution” approach that is diametrically opposed to regime change, which has been primarily advocated for by many African countries, has been shaped by what can be described as a realist assessment of political development and their implications in Zimbabwe.

This perspective rejects the notion that Zanu-PF is monolith that suffers from an absence of change agents. Instead those who push this point of view locate the crisis in this country as resulting from the failure of Zanu-PF to effectively transform itself from a liberation movement to a modern political party that is open to political competition and also to this party’s inability to address the issue of presidential succession and leadership renewal.

Furthermore, those who support this perspective point out that due to the increased securitisation of the state that has been deliberately carried out by the government (mainly as part of its ongoing preoccupation with regime security), the military perceive themselves to be more than just the custodians of Zimbabwe’s territorial integrity and sovereignty from external threats, but also as some type of Praetorian Guard that must safeguard Zanu-PF’s political dominance. Until the latter sanction the implementation of political reforms a stable and sustainable change is highly unlikely to occur in Zimbabwe.

Regime reconstitution: a means to addressing Zimbabwe’s security dilemma
This regime reconstitution approach has enjoyed more credence, due to a watershed event the occurred on the eve of presidential elections in 2002.

On 9 January 2002 a startling statement made by all the security chiefs publicly and jointly declared that they would not salute a president lacking “liberation credentials”, which was interpreted as a thinly coded reference to the MDC candidate Tsvangirai in the March 2002 presidential election.

The former Commander of the Defence Forces General Vitalis Zvinavashe, flanked by all service chiefs and the head of the CIO, issued this statement declaring that the country’s security organisations would only support political leaders who “pursue Zimbabwean values, traditions and beliefs for which thousands of lives were lost in pursuit of Zimbabwe’s hard-won independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interest.”

The statement continued: “To this end, let it be known that the highest office on the land is a ‘straightjacket’ whose occupant is expected to observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. We will, therefore, not accept, let alone support or salute anyone with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty, our country and our people.”

This widely condemned ultimatum to the voters was not only dangerous and unconstitutional, but was the clearest signal that the Zimbabwe military was prepared to take over the reigns of political power should there be an electoral outcome unfavourable to them.

As such it could also be seen as indicating the willingness of the security forces to carry out a pre-emptive coup d’état if Tsvangirai had won the presidential elections. It was also the clearest indication of the existence of the disposition to intervene in active politics by the security establishment in support of Zanu-PF.

Many public institutions have been securitised through the appointment or secondment of serving or retired military officers, purportedly to instil discipline and efficiency in the institutions. The security personnel are now ubiquitous in carrying out even straightforward law and order enforcement functions. Such active involvement of the security sector has contributed to the alienation of the military and other security branches from the general public.

There is evidence that the military has assumed a distinctly expansionist political role in the affairs of the country. In fact, the role is so decisive that for the ICG, “the security services now overshadow the Cabinet as the country’s primary policy-making body, with the National Security Council [NSC], which Mugabe chairs, effectively managing macroeconomic policy”.

There is also the secretive Joint Operations Command (JOC) — comprising the top commanders of the army, air force, police, intelligence services and prisons — that may in fact be the real and core “kitchen Cabinet” that makes strategic decisions about the direction of the country. The official Cabinet may now be reduced to rubber-stamping the critical decisions made by this all-powerful but unaccountable JOC. This suggests that the official Cabinet may now be as much a rubber-stamping structure vis-à-vis the JOC as the Zimbabwe legislature is with respect to the executive.

The security sector, as hinted above, has also entangled itself deeply in the battle for succession. All indications are that the security establishment, particularly the military branches, will be a decisive factor in determining or at least giving it’s blessing to the next person to reside at State House. Apparently, with the possible exception of Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, all the other service commanders — ZDF Commander General Constantine Chiwenga, Air Force Commander Air Marshal Perence Shiri, Director General of the CIO retired Brigadier Happyton Bonyongwe and the Commissioner of Prisons, retired Brigadier Paradzai Zimondi — are protégés of retired General Solomon (“Rex Nhongo”) Mujuru. This makes for an interesting point of conjecture, when we consider the alleged close links between the latter and Simba Makoni.

The point here is not to declare any of the dominant perspectives on facilitating change in Zimbabwe to be superior or more effective than the other, but to provide an analytical foundation which helps us to understanding the rational that underpins and motivates the various interventions in Zimbabwe.

It is still not clear whether SADC will be able to take decisive action on this crisis since the member states of this organisation are believed to be divided about whether their organisation should assume a wider role in the Zimbabwe crisis.

Many observers hoped that the unfortunate events in Kenya, following elections, would spur Southern African leaders into action in a bid to avoid another contested election, which could usher in a period of mounting political instability in Zimbabwe.

Faced with the possibility of a political transition, concomitant loss of status and possible prosecution for misdeeds committed while in office, Zanu-PF hardliners are beginning to act as spoilers: re-mobilising the security apparatus both formal and informal, contesting constituency results, demanding a recount of presidential results, assertions of vote-rigging, detaining its own ZEC election officials for allegedly tampering with the results and rallying around the president to face a run-off election — all of this while the presidential results are ostensibly unknown.

The MDC, after proclaiming an outright presidential victory, have had to temper their rush to State House and engage with the realities that a run-off is a likelihood and/or that their win would have been by a marginal majority and hence the need for alliance building and possible deals with Zanu-PF prior to any exit, i.e. the politics of political expediency rather than political morality. It is clear that if a solution is to be found to this protracted crisis a middle ground has to be reached, the winner-takes-all rule that presides heavily in the political culture of the elite, on both sides, has to begin to give way to compromise.

What then are the possible scenarios emanating from this political stalemate?

Scenario one: Run-off (rating: most likely)
The ZEC finally releases the results that show that no presidential candidate got more than 50% of the vote and they both decide to participate in a run-off.

A de-facto opposition alliance puts the opposition in a prime position to take the lead. Zanu-PF retaliates through the use of violence as a campaign strategy: it intimidates the electorate, restricts the media and freedom of association, engages in more vote buying and possibly extends the period in which the run-off has to take place from 21 to 90 days by presidential decree.

The MDC changes strategy to focus on mass mobilisation leading to a violent confrontation with state security forces that side in the main with Mugabe. The run-off keeps Zimbabwe in an adversarial political competitive climate for a longer period. A positive end result in this scenario is that despite the obstacles, Tsvangirai still obtains the majority in a massive protest vote and a new government is formed.

The more disturbing end result is an election in which Mugabe wins but, because of the process, we are back to square one with an election that lacks credibility and therefore a ruling party that lacks legitimacy and thus slips further into international isolation — regime security becomes the only game in town and the country slides further into the political and economic abyss.

Scenario two: Clampdown (rating: likely)
The Zanu-PF refuses to have ZEC release the results leading to possible violent confrontation. Mugabe declares a state of emergency and continues to rule. A few friendly states to Zanu-PF in the region rally to his aide causing a rift in SADC.

The SADC organ is paralysed and we go on in this predatory situation for a number of years until Zimbabwe is categorised amongst those states in Africa said to have experienced “state collapse.” Alternatively this provides sufficient grounds for SADC to mobilise and intervene using its voice and if necessary standby force and we see the emergence of a negotiated settlement.

Against the background of hyperinflation, an economy in rapid descent, and the possibility of Zimbabwe emerging from an election marred in controversy, one could easily make the argument that these conditions were indicative of the fact that Zimbabwe was on the brink of experiencing some kind of mass revolt. However, the lack of organisational capacity, and tactical divisions that have emerged in the opposition and civil society have militated against this segment of society’s ability to organise widespread protest action against the government.

It has also become apparent that the operations of the state security apparatus, especially the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), which has resulted in the government experiencing success in its objective of infiltrating and disrupting the activities of the opposition and civil society, have acted as a further disincentive. Furthermore, the propensity of the state security forces to use violence against citizens perceived to be supporters of the opposition have made political activism in Zimbabwe a dangerous activity that few of this country’s citizens are willing to risk engaging in.

These factors highlighted above and the seemingly pervasive presence of the partisan state security forces will make it very difficult to organise protest action that could lead to mass revolt that would lead to the unseating of Zanu-PF. What is more likely is that following an electoral victory by Mugabe in a run-off, Zimbabwe will experience a number of sporadic protests that are unlikely to gain the required momentum for a change driven by mass action.

Scenario three: Mugabe victory (Rating: likely)
The ZEC announces that Mugabe has an outright majority. He continues to rule in similar fashion and Zimbabwe slides further down the slippery slope to ruin. Alternatively, having proven the world wrong in its assessment of his people’s support for him, a few months down the line he invokes the 18th amendment and appoints a successor.

The successor is a moderate Zanu-PF who is able to turn the party around and begin to put in place measures for the rebuilding of the society — or it is a hardliner where we see a different face but the same rhetoric and bankrupt visions of the future as we essentially wait until the next set of elections to once again see the ideological battle between Zimbabweans take its course.

A Mugabe victory at the presidential polls would not result in increased political stability but in Parliament becoming the next battleground. As indicated above in passing, it is not impossible to foresee a situation arising from this that would culminate in President Mugabe within a year of his election seeking to invoke new powers derived from the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment 18 of 2007 to anoint a successor to take over from him.

Mugabe’s decision to step down would be motivated by pressure from dissidents within his own party, from opposition MPs and the expected accelerated economic decline. At its climax this pressure could see a united front across party lines being formed in Parliament in a bid to impeach the President.

This situation would set the stage for a protracted battle in Parliament that would see the attention of the Parliament divert away from passing legislation geared towards finding a resolution to the crisis and instead focusing on playing political games.

Inevitably this scenario will result in the state, ruling party and its policy-making bodies continuing to be absorbed in the struggles for succession within Zanu-PF. This scenario certainly has beneficiaries as those dependent on ruling party patronage continue to use the criminalised state to pursue their accumulation activities. Moreover given the paralysis characterising the ruling party over the succession question there are strong forces pushing for the maintenance of the status quo in Zimbabwe.

Scenario four: Mugabe bows out (Rating: unlikely)
The results show a run-off but President Mugabe concedes defeat, this only on the basis of a deal that sees the formation of a transitional government of national unity and that provides protection for him and his comrades. This provides him with a face-saving measure in that he did not lose outright but has placed the greater good of his country before his own interests. This results in a win-win situation.

Scenario five: Tsvangirai victorious (Rating: unlikely)
The ZEC announces that Tsvangirai has won an outright majority. State House is vacated and its new incumbents enter. They receive assistance from all quarters and are able to put the country back on track. Alternatively, the military refuse to accept the victory and we have a stalled transition with similar results outlined above.

One of the striking features of the scenarios presented above is that none of them seem to resolve the structural aspects that have characterised the crisis in Zimbabwe; none has the possibility of succeeding without the buy-in of all the key political actors. Therefore, the party that emerges victorious may be of little consequence in resolving Zimbabwe’s long-standing crisis of governance if both Zanu-PF and the opposition are not committed to entering a new phase in their relationship, one which could foster broader positive interaction and policy formulation geared towards recovery.