Zimbabwe's Continuing Self-Destruction
Africa Briefing N°38
6 Jun 2006
With scheduled presidential elections less than eighteen months away, Zimbabwe faces the prospect of greater insecurity and violence. The economy’s free fall has deepened public anger, and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party wants to avoid a popular vote by using the legislature it controls to establish a “transitional presidency” and appoint a successor to Robert Mugabe, who has said he will retire. By engineering a transition, Mugabe also intends to secure a dignified personal exit that includes a retirement package and security guarantees. However, such plans may come unglued due to wrangling within ZANU-PF. Through all this the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been weakened by a major leadership split.
Low voter turnout in November 2005 deprived the newly created senate of any legitimacy, but the exercise further tightened ZANU-PF’s grip on political power and patronage. Creation of the senate gave an initial head start to the ZANU-PF faction aligned to Vice President Joyce Mujuru in the presidential succession race, although the fortunes of the competing ZANU-PF faction led by the Minister of Rural Housing and Social Amenities, Emmerson Mnangagwa, have recently improved.
ZANU-PF’s policies, corruption and repressive governance are directly responsible for the severe economic slide, growing public discontent and international isolation. In April 2006, inflation officially topped 1,000 per cent, helped by the decision to print $230 million worth of Zimbabwean currency to pay international debts and sustain operations. Unemployment is over 85 per cent, poverty over 90 per cent, and foreign reserves are almost depleted. Over four million persons are in desperate need of food. HIV/AIDS and malnutrition kill thousands every month. Agriculture, the major source of foreign currency earnings, has been particularly hard hit. There are severe shortages of basic consumer items, and the prices of fuel and food are beyond the reach of many. The 2005 “Operation Murambatsvina” to clear urban slums forcibly deprived more than 18 per cent of the population of homes or livelihoods and badly damaged the informal sector, the lifeline for many urban poor.
Fearing street protests to mark Murambatsvina’s anniversary in May, the government has moved increasingly close to martial law. It has banned rallies, marches and prayer meetings during the period surrounding the anniversary and put security forces on high alert. Growing numbers of students, religious activists and members of other civil society groups have been detained.
The rising influence of the military leadership in the succession struggle is troubling. Zimbabwe’s armed forces have always been a pillar of the ruling party’s power but recent months have seen increasing military involvement in the party machinery and policy formulation. The crumbling economy has meant a loss of government revenues, and the military rank and file are being paid less and at irregular intervals, leading them into criminality, allegedly including cross-border armed robbery. Government difficulties in paying the troops raise a question of whether the security forces can still be relied on to put down protests.
The current division within the main opposition party MDC began over differences in strategy regarding the November 2005 senate elections. While both factions agree on constitutional reform, elections in 2008 and a blueprint for economic recovery, they are divided over participating in government and elections while ZANU-PF can dictate events in the legislative and tilt the electoral field. Unless the opposition can put aside its feuds and coalesce around a unified position, it will be difficult to maximise domestic pressure on ZANU-PF to change its approach. The faction led by party president Morgan Tsvangirai – which commands a larger following than that led by Welshman Ncube and newcomer Arthur Mutambara – has unveiled a program of “democratic resistance” and intends to pursue a non-violent campaign to compel the government to agree to a democratic constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2008. It is backed by important parts of civil society including the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Early rallies have attracted large crowds, reasserting the greater relative strength of the Tsvangirai group in comparison to its MDC rival.
The fissures within both ZANU-PF and the MDC are unfortunate in light of the fact that confidential 2004 talks, facilitated by South Africa and recently made public by President Thabo Mbeki, nearly produced a deal on a new constitution that could still serve as a starting point for a transitional roadmap. South Africa has tried to use financial leverage, in the form of a credit line, to press for new inter-party constitutional talks, repeal of repressive laws and an economic recovery plan. Mugabe sidestepped the initiative by printing enough currency to repay debts to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in February 2006.
The July 2006 summit of African heads of state and government offers an opportunity to mobilise continental leaders behind a call for urgent action to protect human rights in Zimbabwe and regional stability. While tactical engagement by non-African governments with those very few more reform-oriented figures within ZANU-PF may have merit, there should be no relaxation of travel bans or financial sanctions in place against key members of the regime or any developmental assistance until there is real change on the ground. Unfortunately, the best the international community may be able to do at this stage is maintain pressure and plan carefully how to support a transition when opportunities finally arise for reengagement. Tentative steps by the UN Secretary-General to become more involved in facilitating such a transition are welcome but seem unlikely to gain traction.
Pretoria/Brussels, 6 June 2006