Negotiating Zimbabwe's Transition
Africa Briefing N°51
21 May 2008
The 29 March 2008 elections have dramatically changed Zimbabwe’s political landscape. For the first time since independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe ran second in the presidential voting, and the opposition – the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – won control of parliament. The MDC went to the polls deeply divided, but Morgan Tsvangirai and his party regained their authority by winning despite an uneven playing field. Instead of allowing democracy to run its course, Mugabe has fought back by withholding the presidential results for five weeks and launching a countrywide crackdown. Zimbabwe is in constitutional limbo: it has no elected president or legally constituted cabinet, parliament has not been convened, and ZANU-PF and the MDC are challenging half the parliamentary results in court. African leaders, with support from the wider international community, must step in to stop the violence and resolve the deepening political crisis, ideally by facilitating an agreement establishing an MDC-led transitional government that avoids the need for the run-off now scheduled for 27 June.
While there is wide agreement in ZANU-PF that its survival now depends on Mugabe’s immediate exit, influential hardliners in the party and military will not simply hand over power to the MDC. They and Mugabe likely manipulated the presidential results to show a run-off was necessary and have put in place a strategy to retain power through force. Since the elections, there has been a sharp increase in state-sponsored violence, as the security services and ZANU-PF militia have unleashed a campaign of intimidation, torture and murder against opposition activists, journalists, polling agents, public servants, civic leaders and ordinary citizens suspected of voting for the MDC. The opposition says that at least 43 of its members have been killed and thousands displaced in the violence. Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy is being held hostage.
If Mugabe manages to cling to the presidency through political repression and manipulation, he will face a hostile parliament, growing public discontent, mounting international pressure and increased isolation. The consequences of his staying in office would be catastrophic, not least that the economic decline would intensify, with more Zimbabweans fleeing across borders, while inflation, unemployment and the resulting massive suffering increase.
There has been a chorus of condemnation from Western leaders and international and African civil society over the withholding of the results and the rising violence. The UN Security Council discussed Zimbabwe, while the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) called for release of the results and criticised the violence. However, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki has continued to shield Mugabe, not backing away from his 12 April statement that there was no crisis in the country. Other African leaders, led by SADC Chairman Levy Mwanawasa and AU Chairman Jikaya Kikwete, seem prepared to take a more robust line. Since the impact of outspoken, Western-driven diplomacy is likely to be limited, African-led mediation, with concerted, wider international backing, gives the best chance for a peaceful and definitive resolution to the crisis.
President Mbeki negotiated SADC-backed talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC through January 2008, and he remains the regionally appointed mediator. But his reluctance to criticise Mugabe or condemn the escalating violence has badly undermined his credibility, particularly in the eyes of the opposition. Further, his inability to turn a ZANU-PF/MDC agreement in September 2007 into a lasting accord to resolve the crisis casts doubts upon his effectiveness in the current environment. Nonetheless, South Africa cannot simply be sidelined. A formula is needed that broadens the South African-led SADC mediation, adding strong accountability and oversight measures.
That broadened mediation, supported by additional international actors, should focus on two immediate objectives, which are not mutually exclusive, as the end objective of each should be some form of government of national unity, under MDC leadership:
A negotiated settlement on a Tsvangirai-led transitional government. The current levels of violence and intimidation preclude the possibility of holding a credible run-off. The holding of a run-off by the Mugabe camp is a ploy to stay in power, and it is highly unlikely that Mugabe would accept the conditions for a free and fair run-off in which he would be humiliatingly defeated. As ZANU-PF prepares for a second election, violence is likely to escalate, prolonging the suffering of Zimbabwe’s people. For this reason, the first objective of the mediation should be to secure a political agreement between the MDC and ZANU-PF that avoids the need for a run-off and the accompanying risks of even greater violence. A negotiated settlement could establish a Tsvangirai-led transitional government with substantial participation by ZANU-PF stalwarts to implement agreed upon constitutional reforms and hold free and fair elections under an agreed timeframe.
Senior military commanders strongly opposed to the MDC have been instrumental in preventing a democratic transition following the 29 March election, and there is growing risk of a coup either before a run-off (in a pre-emptive move to deny Tsvangirai victory) or after a Tsvangirai win. Indeed, this is one reason why priority should be given to a negotiated settlement ahead of a run-off. The mediation must accordingly address the loyalty of the security services as a priority, including the handover of military power in a transitional government arrangement.
Zimbabwe will need a transitional justice mechanism at some stage to come to terms fully with and move beyond its long nightmare. Both national reconciliation and the practical necessities of pulling the country out of its immediate crisis require, however, that the agreement on a transitional government contain guarantees for present political leaders and the security forces. These would extend to Mugabe himself, but it is difficult to see him having any formal role in the new political dispensation. The agreement will need to be complemented by the regional and wider international community’s strong commitment to provide resources for reconstruction and recovery.
A credible run-off. Even as it works to facilitate a negotiated settlement on a transitional government, SADC mediators must work with ZANU-PF and the MDC to delineate the basic requirements for a credible run-off in the event the effort fails. Urgent steps would be needed to guarantee a free and fair vote – even one in conditions as imperfect as for the 29 March election. These include immediate cessation of violence and intimidation; strong monitoring and organisational roles for SADC, the AU and the UN; and massive deployment no later than roughly a month before the poll of independent national and international observers, who must remain on the ground until the results are announced. As with negotiations for a transitional government, the mediation would need to address the modalities for ensuring military loyalty to a new civilian government. Failure to do so would risk a Tsvangirai victory leading to a military coup or martial law, and the security services splitting along factional lines.
On 16 May, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced that the run-off will take place on 27 June. This means that the AU and SADC must start preparing immediately to dispatch large election observation missions by no later than 1 June.
In the event that a run-off is held and Tsvangirai wins, he should assume the presidency but move to form a unity government for at least the initial period of his term. While his party controls parliament, ZANU-PF has a near stranglehold over the security sector and state institutions and has a strong influence over economic and social life. Tsvangirai and the MDC will need to include ZANU-PF in their government if they are to govern effectively.
In short, with or without a run-off, third-party African-led negotiations are essential to help gain acceptance from the military for a handover of power and establish the parameters for a transitional or unity government. Some MDC supporters may consider the compromises involved an affront to democracy, but they are necessary if the country’s democracy is to be stable and secure.
If Mugabe succeeds in retaining power by winning an election through fraud and/or intimidation, appropriate regional and other international action must be taken to deal with what would be a rogue regime. Examples of such action would be declaring his government illegitimate; tightening existing targeted sanctions on known hardliners; and establishing a Security Council commission of inquiry to investigate reports of torture, murder and widespread violations of human rights and to recommend appropriate accountability mechanisms, perhaps including referral to international legal authorities.
Pretoria/Brussels, 21 May 2008