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The insecurity dilemma faced by Zimbabwe’s ruling elite

Reflecting on the crisis in Zimbabwe, one is immediately struck by the preoccupation of most commentators with President Robert Mugabe and the land reform programme. Many have touted the confluence of these two issues as the main drivers of that country’s political, economic and humanitarian woes. This particular perspective, which is most dominant in the media, has captured popular attention. This is another indication of the prevailing “event centric” analysis on Zimbabwe that i referred to in my last contribution.

However, while these two factors are certainly important to understanding the current problems faced by Zimbabwe, little room has been left for the consideration of a number of underlying dynamics that have also contributed to the current stalemate. This omission encourages the perpetuation of myths and rumour, and leads to serious miscalculations in the various transition scenarios that have been mooted. One of the dynamics that has been largely omitted from the debate is the critical role played by what I have chosen to term the “security dilemma” faced by Zimbabwe’s elite.

In this regard, for the purposes of this particular assessment, I have located Zimbabwe’s political crisis as the result of attempts by the ruling elite to block the transition to enhanced democracy. Also central to the argument that I present, is a brief conceptual framework that explains how this powerful ruling group has responded to the threat implicit in political transformation, and how the dominant nationalist ideology represented by the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu–PF) has fed into this dynamic.

The celebratory mood that should have marked Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations has eluded a large proportion of Zimbabwe’s’ population, who find themselves in the throes of the worst social and economic depression to have hit the country since it became independent. The current economic and political crisis has reversed the social and economic gains that the country experienced under the leadership of President Mugabe in the first decade of his administration. These positive developments were brought about by massive investment in such sectors as education and primary healthcare. In contrast, Zimbabweans are currently faced with an economy that is nearing collapse. It is characterised by hyperinflation, rampant unemployment, food and fuel shortages, and has been rated by some economists as the fastest-shrinking economy in the world.

The steady decline in living standards for most Zimbabweans throughout the 1990s was generally identified as one of the main reasons for the growing dissatisfaction with the government felt in society. This prompted civic groups and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to form a political party, the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, in September 1999. Judging by its track record, Zanu–PF has failed to provide the broad mass of the people with either human security or social peace, despite its nationalist rhetoric. This deficiency is examined by Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya in their work Zimbabwe’s plunge: Exhausted nationalism, neoliberalism, and the search for social justice. They argue that after two decades of independence, the country’s voters are experiencing “fatigue” arising from the ruling party’s misgovernment and economic mismanagement.

Unfortunately the MDC has not been able to translate the popular discontent over the government’s policies into mobilisation in support of the opposition, which might ordinarily lead to a transition in its favour. This failure stems not only from deficiencies within the opposition, but also from extreme structural bias in the electoral process. The MDC has yet to participate in an election that can objectively be deemed free and fair, and to express the will of the people. It is ironic, particularly in the year that marks 28 years of independence, that the early struggle for liberation from colonial rule was based on extending the vote to all, regardless of ethnicity, race or affiliation (whether political or religious). The Zanu–PF-led government through its conduct, especially during the last four elections, seems to have disregarded this aspect of the nationalist struggle for liberation in which it took part.

But this argument may be challenged. Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, as positive as its intentions were, may have had the unintended effect of adding certain tendencies or ideologies to the whole nationalist movement that may account for the ruling party’s apparently revisionist and counter-revolutionary stance. It can be argued that Zanu-PF nationalism, seen as a social movement, was basically hegemonic and intolerant of diversity, internal and external criticism and dissent. As a movement it was basically sweeping in what it claimed and annihilatory in what it rejected. This negative aspect of the legacy of liberation is particularly evident in the electoral politics of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe illustrated this phenomenon when he said in 1976: “Our votes must go together with our guns; after all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun, which produces the votes, should remain its security officer, its guarantor. The people’s vote and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”

While the liberation struggle was necessary and indeed instrumental in the country’s gaining independence, the style of rule in Zimbabwe has scarcely evolved in institutional terms. It is still characterised by intolerance, intimidation and violence. The political culture derived from Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle seems to have instilled in many political leaders and their supporters a militaristic conception and perception of politics and political process. These elements in Zimbabwe’s political culture are the main reasons that many observers have argued that in the current political context the prospect of holding a free and fair election that can result in the peaceful transfer of power is unlikely, if not impossible. This will probably be the case until the present style of government, which is predicated on the importance of regime security, is replaced or radically transformed. What is needed is a political dispensation that embraces a more pluralistic conception of political competition, based on democracy, human security, tolerance, rule of law, consent of the governed, and respect for human rights. The crisis in Zimbabwe is essentially structural and deep-rooted. It cannot be resolved through tinkering with peripheral symptoms or piecemeal measures. Instead it requires far-reaching, honest and all-encompassing solutions.

What follows is an attempt to establish the extent to which the insecurity felt by the regime helps to explain the manner in which Zimbabwe’s political elite has behaved in response to the political and socio-economic challenges that have brought about the country’s present state of near-collapse. As such, I would also argue that the political elite in Zimbabwe are increasingly trapped in an “insecurity dilemma”. This formulation not only supplies a reason for the uncompromising rigidity and resistance to change currently evident in the higher echelons of Zimbabwe’s government, but, equally important, it may contribute to a more realistic assessment of possible models for transition.

Change has, in and of itself, become an anathema to Harare’s ruling elite, a social evil that must be opposed at all costs. While it is expected as normal political behaviour that an elite should attempt to control the pace and the nature of political change, the degree to which President Mugabe and his Cabinet have directed the political process goes beyond the simple perpetuation of Zanu–PF’s regime.

The process of regime change in Africa, as in most of the world, has typically occurred during periods that are characterised by political and/or economic crises. While the general expectation is that peaceful, negotiated regime change will result in more inclusive (and, many would hope, more democratic) political systems, the reality is that political change rarely occurs in a linear manner. However, the question that the Zimbabwean crisis also poses is what prompts authoritarian regimes to liberalise, to become more democratic, to accept political competition?

Traditional political scholarship has often put forward expected-utility theories, and in particular used rational-choice models of decision-making as the conceptual framework most suitable to explain political behaviour. In this sense, as Nicholson points out, “actors behave in circumstances of risk as if they were maximising the expected value of some defined concept of utility”. Applied to Zimbabwe, this would mean that the use of violence or other means of coercion would cease when the cost of coercion is estimated as being higher than the benefits of liberalisation. Yet, even when faced with economic collapse, a deteriorating humanitarian situation and the increasing likelihood of social unrest, Zimbabwe’s ruling elite continues to view the use of violence as an acceptable means of attaining its political objectives.

Zimbabwe has historically been characterised by a culture of impunity that allows those in power to use it without restraint. This has continued from colonial times, through the Smith regime, the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s, to the more recent wave of organised violence and torture, particularly since April 2000.

It has been argued that the impartial application of justice will convey the message to present and future generations in that country that perpetrators of politically motivated acts of torture and assault will be held accountable and punished.

Such a message could presage an end to the cycles of political repression and violence that have afflicted Zimbabwe for decades. However, very few countries including Zimbabwe have constitutional provisions that allow for the prosecution of sitting presidents. Furthermore, the international norm has tended to protect a head of state and, in certain instances, government officials, giving them immunity from prosecution while in office.

The modern trend seems to run contrary to this, especially when the state takes the dual principles of accountability and transparency seriously. There is also the possibility that a head of state may face two kinds of prosecution. While an agreement may be made to grant amnesty to perpetrators of gross human rights violations (notably Mugabe himself) in order to smooth the political transition and act in the spirit of reconciliation, national amnesties do not protect individuals from international prosecution.

Charges can be brought either by other states, using the principle of universal jurisdiction, or by the recently established International Criminal Court. This prospect, in and of itself, has contributed to a heightened sense of vulnerability in Harare’s inner circles. Undoubtedly this has been the reason for their increasingly inflexible attitude towards negotiation with the MDC.

The now internationally accepted trend to hold heads of state and other government officials accountable for their actions after their term in office has been most evident in the cases of Augusto Pinochet and Charles Taylor. According to the developing international legal position on crimes against humanity (including other gross human rights violations such as torture), no immunity can be granted for such crimes, there is no statute of limitations, and any state can try offenders in terms of international law. So, even when hiding in foreign countries, tyrants and torturers can only be assured of safety only while their host governments remain in power. A pragmatic reason that international law provides for universal jurisdiction is to ensure that there is no safe haven for those responsible for the most serious crimes.

While Zimbabwe has not ratified the statute of the International Criminal Court and is therefore not bound by it, ratification by a future government in Zimbabwe or jurisdiction granted through a United Nations Security Council resolution could mean that those responsible for directing, inflicting or condoning torture and like crimes might well find themselves before a court. Alternatively the perpetrators will have to spend the rest of their lives under threat of prosecution. The Pinochet case established, as a historic precedent, that former heads of state and their officials are no longer immune from international prosecution for crimes against humanity committed while in power.

As a result of the above, a dilemma arises, particularly for authoritarian and undemocratic political cabals confronted with the possibility of change. This centres on whether they should reach an accommodation with opposition forces when there can be no guarantee of immunity from prosecution. In Zimbabwe, the spectre of the prosecution of Zanu–PF’s most prominent members for gross human rights abuses has created a feeling of insecurity in their minds, particularly President Mugabe’s and some of his security chiefs. To a certain extent this may help to explain the unwillingness of the political elite to share power, contemplate the possibility of a government of unity and national reconciliation, or negotiate a peaceful change. This phenomenon is referred to as “the insecurity dilemma of the elite”.

Transitions of the kind Zimbabwe is facing at present would be negotiators with the problem of balancing the need for justice for the victims with the needs of the perpetrators for amnesty and/or immunity from prosecution. In Zimbabwe, negotiators or would-be negotiators are faced with the added pressure that a transition is urgently required to bring the country out of its political and economic quagmire. Yet, is it possible to grant exemption when there are strong prima facie grounds for charging the Zanu-PF regime with gross human rights violations? These have involved “the concerted conduct of many and [are] liable to involve the complicity of the officials of the state in which they occur, if not of the state itself”. How is it possible to bring the regime to the negotiating table without making concessions that compromise justice? On the other hand, how can those managing the negotiations prevent justice itself from holding Zimbabwe’s political change to ransom? Is it simply a matter of a clash between principle and expediency? Another consideration is that, while political pragmatism may lead those who will negotiate Zimbabwe’s political future to reach an internal compromise by granting amnesty and immunity to members of the regime, there can be no guarantees that crimes committed by them will not be prosecuted outside the borders of Zimbabwe.

One solution to the problems of balancing the principle of justice against that of political expediency is to separate the issues of transition and accountability. For Zimbabwe, the current economic and political crisis requires a solution without delay. This does not and should not mean that investigations should not take place, or that crimes against humanity should not be examined. While there should never be a trade-off between addressing the regime’s history of gross human rights violations and finding a political and economic solution to the country’s crisis, actions to redress human rights violations should wait until the transition has been negotiated. At this stage accountability should not be made a matter for negotiation, but be left to the (as yet hypothetical) new democratic regime to decide.

If progress is to be made in moving Zimbabwe on from its current stalemate, negotiations will have to take place between the two main political parties. To most observers, a negotiated settlement between these parties offers the best way forward. Any process initiated to solve the multi-layered national crisis should include a participatory and comprehensive review of the Constitution and of the country’s electoral laws and institutions. These reviews should involve the full participation of civil society, political parties, the business community and faith-based organisations, and their recommendations should include provision for a comprehensive and equitable redistribution of resources. Afterwards preparations for fresh national elections should begin, and a truth, justice and reconciliation body that interrogates Zimbabwe’s past and present injustices should be established.

The current dilemma facing the Zimbabwean elite has arisen to a great degree out of uncertainty and fear of prosecution. This group’s need to secure itself and the state against change has worked both ways. It has attempted to preserve itself by excluding alternative political and social influences but it has created a protective iron cage that imprisons its members. The dangers faced by the political elite in Zimbabwe can be expressed in another way. As Mohamad Ayoob puts it in, The Third World Security Predicament: “[I]n most Third World states there are competing forces of authority, usually weaker than the state in terms of coercive capacity, but equal or stronger in terms of legitimacy.

“This greater credibility of political forces outside government leads to greater domestic insecurity for the ruler, creating “vulnerabilities that threaten to, or have [the] potential to, bring down or significantly weaken state structure, both territorial and institutional[,] and regimes”.

One implication of this theory is that transitional times in authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe are especially difficult for the governing regime, as they become exposed to domestic challenges. If this is true, then one can expect that in such periods as the one that Zimbabwe is currently facing, the elite will turn to repression of political opposition and co-optation as a means of addressing its insecurity and regaining legitimacy.

However, this may well be counter-productive: the desire for legitimacy and increased security may well push the elite back into its iron cage and stall any prospects that justice and a negotiated political settlement may prevail. The words of James Der Derian encapsulate the current situation in Zimbabwe: “A safe life requires safe truths. The strange and the alien remain unexamined, the unknown becomes identified as evil, and evil provokes hostility — recycling the desire for security.”

To avoid recycling old insecurities that may very well result in the perpetuation of the current political stalemate, there is a need to balance the desire of the victims of the regime for justice against the wishes of the perpetrators for amnesty and /or immunity from prosecution. Failure to balance these contending needs could result in the principle of justice becoming a retardant to Zimbabwe’s political transformation. One solution to the problem is to separate the issues of transition and accountability. For Zimbabwe, there is an urgent need to solve the current economic and political crisis. Therefore it is a question of deciding whether calling to account those responsible for the regime’s appalling history of gross human rights violations is as imperative as finding a political and economic resolution to its woes.

End Notes
P Bond & M Manyanya, Zimbabwe’s plunge: Exhausted nationalism, neoliberalism, and the search for social justice, Weaver Press, Harare, 2002.

These sentiments expressing his view of electoral democracy were uttered during a radio broadcast from Maputo in 1976.

This view camouflages a basic contempt for electoral democracy in that it is actually saying the gun is the more important of the “inseparable twins”. If the twins have to be separated, the vote is readily sacrificed for the gun. Zanu-PF has demonstrated this philosophy ever since it attained power in 1980, although admittedly this was power guaranteed it by its control of the gun. Zimbabweans have, therefore, been held hostage by the gun ever since independence. The Zanu-PF regime consolidated itself in the 1980s through the use of the gun that crushed the rival PF-Zapu and culminated in the forced Unity Accord of 22 December 1987. In each successive election since independence, the gun has been the “security officer”, the “guarantor” of the votes for Mugabe and Zanu-PF who have not hesitated to use it. Zanu-PF’s commitment to the use of the gun has increased as its popularity has decreased, particularly since the party was defeated in the referendum held in February 2000 and the advent of a formidable opposition party in the MDC.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see the late great Masipula Sithole’s The fight for democracy needs commitment to democracy, Financial Gazette, 6 January 2002.

M Nicholson, The conceptual bases of the war trap, Journal of Conflict Resolution 13(2), June 1987. The earlier description of expected-utility analysis is taken from J von Neumann & O Morgenstern, Theory of games and economic behavior, Princeton University Press, 1944.

Ex parte Pinochet Ugarte (No 3) (1999).

A P Reeler, Crimes against humanity and the Zimbabwe transition, Pretoria, 6 May 2003.