Trevor Ncube
Trevor Ncube

Opportunity knocks for Zimbabwe

While the Zimbabwean crisis is deepening, the continued focus on the description of the crisis at the expense of finding solutions to it has been unhelpful. That the main protagonists in the crisis have dug themselves into entrenched positions from which they are unwilling or incapable of extricating themselves also is unhelpful.

In an effort to deal with President Robert Mugabe’s misrule the West has opted for a policy of containment and isolation aimed at delivering regime change. The strategy has focused mainly on sanctions, demonising Mugabe and condemning his misrule at every opportunity. But clearly, in the past seven years, this has failed to achieve the goal of regime change.

I believe it’s time for those concerned about Zimbabwe to take a leaf from the Chinese language, which depicts the word “crisis” with two characters: one denotes danger and the other opportunity. Much as the Zimbabwe situation is replete with dangers arising from the political and economic meltdown, the same meltdown is creating opportunities for change. Sadly, while the dangers are common cause, the opportunities remain unexamined.

First opportunity
Since the beginning of the year Mugabe has made it clear he wants to seek re-election when his presidential term expires in March 2008. He will be 84. He has been mobilising Zanu-PF affiliated groups — especially youth, women and liberation war veterans — to endorse his controversial candidacy.

But how is Mugabe’s determination to seek re-election an opportunity for change? His determination to seek re-election, it seems, is a ploy to find what his supporters have defined a “dignified exit” — an exit guaranteeing Mugabe immunity when he leaves.

So far those opposed to him have responded merely by condemning him as being power hungry and clinging to power to remain in office for life. While Mugabe’s determination to remain in office for life, and the brutality associated with that determination, is central to the crisis, it is not enough merely to make this observation without also critically examining the reasons behind his determination.

After 27 years of misrule, 10 of which were under the extended Rhodesian state of emergency that institutionalised brutality and unaccountability in governance between 1980 and 1990, Mugabe has accumulated too many human rights skeletons in his political cupboard.

These relate mainly, but not only, to the skeletons arising from four tragedies that have stood out over the years: Gukurahundi; the violent land seizures between 2000 and 2005; murder and disappearance of opposition and civic society activists since 1985; and Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.

There is no doubt these tragedies have left Mugabe vulnerable and liable to prosecution on allegations of crimes against humanity. As such it is obvious that a driving force behind Mugabe’s determination to cling to power is his fear of losing immunity of and from the office. His fear has been made more real by the experiences of former Liberian president Charles Taylor and former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba, both of whom face prosecutions related to alleged abuses when they were in office.

Without condoning his abuses, I believe Mugabe’s fears provide an opportunity to structure and facilitate his exit in a creative way to minimise, if not eliminate, resistance from him and his supporters in the security forces.

A possibility, an immense opportunity for reform, would be to persuade Mugabe to drop his re-election bid and to accept a constitutionally backed guarantee of immunity. Except for extremists on the fringes of the opposition and civil society, few Zimbabweans are interested in pursuing vengeance against Mugabe, the founding president, and many would happily forgive him in exchange for political and economic freedom.

Second opportunity
The second opportunity could come in less than three months at the Zanu-PF special congress in December.

After sustained opposition from the ruling party faction led by retired Major General Solomon Mujuru, Mugabe has been renewing his relationship with his former minister for national security, and now minister of rural housing and social amenities, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who leads a competing faction.

Although he was humiliated and sidelined ahead of the last Zanu-PF congress in 2004, losing the party’s vice-presidency to Joice Mujuru — wife to Solomon Mujuru Mnangagwa has been re-emerging as a power base, this time by lending his faction’s support to Mugabe’s re-election bid. Mugabe has been encouraging Mnangagwa by indicating he is his chosen successor. A reason for this is the presumption that, because he was security minister during the Gukurahundi massacres, Mnangagwa has common prosecution fears over allegations of crimes against humanity and would protect Mugabe as a matter of self-interest.

Growing talk within the Mnangagwa camp — and from intelligence sources –is that Mugabe called the special congress in December to anoint Mnangagwa publicly as his successor. The next congress was not due until 2009.

What remains unclear is whether Mugabe would allow Mnangagwa to take over party leadership in December and move on to be the Zanu-PF presidential candidate should elections be held in 2008 or if Mugabe would still insist on running for re-election with a promise that Mnangagwa would take over a year or two after next year’s elections, should Mugabe win.

However, what is clear is that Mnangagwa’s camp prefers the former, not least because it does not trust Mugabe to give up power after the elections, should he win. The fact that the Mnangagwa camp does not trust Mugabe means he will go to the congress without assured political support.

This creates an opportunity for change through a “soft surprise” at the special congress, as happened in December 2006 when delegates “surprisingly” rejected Mugabe’s bid to postpone presidential elections to 2010 hoping to remain in office as president until then, elected by Parliament without facing the electorate.

This means that in December Mugabe will be opposed manifestly by the Mujuru faction and latently by the Mnangagwa faction. Such a political climate could pave the way for a dark horse to emerge as a compromise candidate. It is hard to say who that candidate might be, although Simba Makoni’s name keeps coming up. Alternatively, the same political scenario engendered by manifest opposition to Mugabe from the Mujuru camp and latent opposition from the Mnangagwa faction could cause Mugabe to accept the first opportunity.

But the possibility of a “soft surprise” development at the congress would need to be socially engineered to take advantage of the political dynamics on the ground ahead of the congress. I think that progressive forces in and outside Zimbabwe could play a pivotal role to encourage, if not engineer, that development by working with strategic Zanu-PF elements. That would be far better than simply mourning the deteriorating situation and denouncing Mugabe for wanting to remain in office for life.

Third opportunity
A third opportunity might come in the form of a “hard surprise” through a palace coup, led by the Mujuru camp, which recently has been making it clear to anyone who cares to listen that it wants Mugabe out.

Earlier this year, when the Zanu-PF central committee was reported to have endorsed Mugabe’s re-election bid, the Mujuru camp started calling openly for a special congress at year-end to settle the leadership question.

The fact that Mugabe himself called for the special congress can be seen as a victory for the Mujuru camp because it has wanted this since March.

The Mujuru camp is busy on the ground organising the 10 Zanu-PF provinces and asking them to identify individuals they think could be presidential candidates to replace Mugabe.

The plan appears to be to use the special congress to achieve two objectives:

  • To challenge and even humiliate Mugabe by making it clear he is not the sole Zanu-PF presidential candidate as several provinces would come up with competing names; and
  • To force a nomination election by secret or even open ballot, which the Mujuru camp believes would be won either by Mujuru or Makoni.
  • Strategists in Mujuru’s camp believe that, should it become clear that such a nomination election is imminent, Mugabe would not want to be part of it because the writing would then be on the wall about his assured defeat.

Fourth opportunity
The above three opportunities are available to and dependent on the ruling party. However, the Zimbabwean crisis is national in scope and options to its resolution are not limited to developments within the ruling part.

Zanu-PF’s continued failure to resolve the crisis creates an opportunity for the opposition. Unfortunately, it has not been able to exploit that opportunity because of a range of structural and leadership weaknesses.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), paralysed by the suffocating and uneven political playing field, has abandoned its strategy of mass actions and decided to engage in negotiations with its nemesis. For now negotiations appear to be the only tool for political self-preservation for the divided MDC. Confrontation as a strategy to dislodge the Zanu-PF government simply has not worked, largely because of repressive legislation and a politically immature leadership. In fact, now more than ever, I am convinced an MDC government would be a disaster for Zimbabwe.

What is notable is that the opportunities available within Zanu-PF are potent material for a new, progressive opposition with nationalist and democratic roots. I believe progressive forces in Zimbabwe have a historic opportunity to forge a third way to bring together elements from the ruling party, the two MDC formations, other opposition groups, civic society organisations, churches, labour unions, student movements and the business community to form a broad-based party to dislodge Zanu-PF.

Mugabe and Zanu-PF continue to define the opposition as the MDC. A major — if not the only — reason Mugabe is so determined to stand for re-election against all odds is that he believes he cannot lose to the MDC.

He has not factored in the possibility of facing a united front of progressive forces against which he and Zanu-PF cannot win. Based on the unfolding developments in Zimbabwe, a united front could emerge overnight and take off like an unstoppable train.

The major barriers to the actualisation of a united front include:

  • The challenge of identifying a unifying candidate with leadership gravitas and mass appeal across the political divide;
  • Continued support of factions within the MDC by sections of the international community that appear to be committed to particular individual leaders in the opposition; and
  • Sweeping, indiscriminate and counterproductive application of sanctions against Zanu-PF politburo and central committee members, as well as parliamentarians.

Another opportunity depends on Mugabe’s willingness to take charge of the transition process and manage it to ensure there is no anarchy post his rule. This would require putting national interests ahead of everything else and managing the succession issue in a way that allows a capable and visionary person to serve Zimbabwe as soon as he steps down.

This could necessitate a constitutional amendment to allow him to move to a ceremonial role and appoint a prime minister to run the government on a day-to-day basis. This would also protect him from prosecution for human rights abuses and it could be accommodated within the dialogue taking place between Zanu-PF and MDC.

To ensure the best skills are in place to help turn around the economy and build a new society, the prime minister would not have to be an active member of any party and he or she should have access to skills outside the two main political parties to serve in his government. Names that come to mind are Strive Masiyiwa, Gideon Gono, Nkosana Moyo and Makoni.

Sanctions unwise
The Zimbabwean government has maintained that targeted sanctions imposed by some Western countries since Mugabe’s disputed victory in the 2002 presidential elections are illegal because they do not have the authority of the United Nations.

While it is true the UN has not sanctioned the sanctions, that alone does not mean they are illegal. The countries that have imposed the sanctions have done so in accordance with their relevant laws and there is no international law, statute, convention or practice that has been violated by the sanctions.

Therefore the illegality or legality of sanctions is a non-issue.

I believe the sanctions are not wise and have not achieved any meaningful objective given the crisis. They are not wise mainly because they have led to the diminishing capacity of the countries implementing them to influence events in Zimbabwe towards the much-needed resolution of the crisis. Western countries that have imposed declared or undeclared sanctions on Zimbabwe have done so less to deal with the deteriorating situation and more to appease political constituencies at home.

Almost all countries that imposed sanctions have experienced a dramatic erosion of their diplomatic influence in and on Zimbabwe since 2002. Within the country diplomats of these countries have lost access to ruling party and government officials, who have boycotted diplomatic contact. Outside Zimbabwe the countries that imposed sanctions are seen as having vested interests and therefore are not impartial when it comes to resolving the crisis.

At worst, many on the African continent regard the sanctions as a white racist response to land reform in Zimbabwe. These considerations demonstrate that the sanctions are not wise and have been counterproductive.

Despite denials by the countries that have imposed them, the sanctions have affected ordinary people more than those they were meant to target. For example, the United States Zimbabwe Democracy Recovery Act specifically bars US representatives to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Africa Development Bank and other multilateral institutions from supporting any loan, grant or concession to Zimbabwe.

This has exacerbated Zimbabwe’s sovereign risk status and negatively affected a range of bilateral lending to Zimbabwe, including from the private sector. Zimbabwe has gone without balance of payment support for years. The consequence is felt by ordinary people across the economy.

As a result Mugabe and Zanu-PF routinely present the sanctions as the root cause of the biting economic meltdown when, in fact, the ruling party’s policies are largely to blame for the implosion and political paralysis. Opposition and civic society groups have found this propaganda difficult, if not impossible, to rebut.

Outside bodies such as the Southern African Development Community and the African Union have found it difficult to criticise Mugabe and the government’s policies openly or publicly, because they fear being seen as supporting the Western sanctions that are undeniably affecting ordinary people or as puppets of the West.

The effect of these sanctions has been to draw progressive Zanu-PF politicians and officials closer to Mugabe and away from reform politics.

Role for Western governments
An impression has been created that the only desirable or available options for the West involve taking tough action against Mugabe and his cronies through targeted sanctions.

This strategy appears to be about isolating Mugabe and his regime from the international community. But, as the experiences of Libya, North Korea and Iran show, isolationist policies have limited, if any, success. Ultimately the best way to deal with rogue regimes is to confront them through diplomatic engagement. There is a world of difference between engagement and support.

I believe the best the West can do now is to re-engage the Zimbabwean government. While the content of the diplomatic engagement I propose would vary from country to country, a leaf can be taken from the much-maligned, so-called quiet diplomacy pursued by South Africa.

I don’t think there is any discerning observer who can argue that South Africa supports the policies of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF government uncritically. Far from it.

In 1979 when the UK abandoned its aloofness and decided to engage the frontline states, the liberation movement and the Rhodesian government, the result was the Lancaster agreement. This crisis calls for a similar spirit of engagement.

Unknown factors
Failure to influence events towards the achievement of one of the opportunities mentioned means that we are resigned to fate.

I have two recurring nightmares in this regard: a spontaneous uprising by the long-suffering Zimbabwean public or anarchy following the sudden death of Mugabe while in office.

The first relates to the fact that Zimbabwe is fertile now for a revolution. Life is unbearable in Zimbabwe. I have no doubt the groundswell of anger could burst into open revolt for the smallest reason. This could result in unimaginable consequences.

The danger is that once it starts a spontaneous uprising would be difficult to contain. There is no knowing what the underpaid and disgruntled police and military would do in such circumstances.

The second relates to Mugabe’s health and age. In the absence of a managed transition I have nightmares about what the effect of Mugabe’s sudden death in office, without a clear successor in place, would be. While this might sound alarmist, it is a possibility. Mugabe is not a spring chicken and intelligence sources indicate he is not well.

The two factions within Zanu-PF would go for each other hammer and tongs, following Mugabe’s sudden death, with a high possibility of a shooting war. The factionalism within Zanu-PF has reproduced itself in the police, army and the national intelligence. Factionalism is dangerous and emphasises the urgency for bold political leadership internally and for the international community to help bring about a peaceful transition.

Zimbabwe is pregnant with opportunities for change. For these to be realised, politicians in Zimbabwe and the West need to jettison their entrenched positions. There is a need to recognise that leadership is about courage, boldness and taking calculated risks to achieve a breakthrough.

Instead of megaphone diplomacy and a fixation on Mugabe, the international community should work with Zanu-PF moderates and all progressive forces to influence change that is rooted in the historical imperatives of the country’s liberation struggle.