Don't let Zimbabwe implode
Don't let Zimbabwe implode
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Don't let Zimbabwe implode

Since the deeply flawed March 2002 presidential election, Zimbabwe has dropped off the radar screen of the media and most policymakers, but its crisis is deepening in three main ways. The government and the governing ZANU-PF party are systematically using violence to intimidate the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and civil society in order to compel them to accept the results. The economy is further deteriorating as foreign investment and food both become scarce: With regional drought compounding the land seizure crisis, United Nations agencies are warning of possible famine. And as the opposition considers mass protests, the prospect of serious internal conflict is becoming imminent, with grave implications for the stability of the wider southern African region.

The international response has been mixed and inadequate. South Africa and Nigeria, who made possible the Commonwealth's suspension of Zimbabwe in the immediate aftermath of the election, have attempted throughout the spring to facilitate party-to-party talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC. But many African governments have given barely qualified, albeit slightly embarrassed, approval to President Robert Mugabe's re-election - while at the same time talking down Zimbabwe's relevance to their efforts to construct new economic relationships with the developed countries.

Most Western states have done little except repeat their rhetorical condemnations. These appear, counterproductively, to have persuaded Mugabe that their policies are "all bark, no bite" and to have increased sympathy for him in much of Africa.

The European Union and the United States have expanded neither the target list of affected individuals nor the scope for the sanctions - primarily travel restrictions - they imposed on senior ZANU-PF figures before the election. Key Group of Eight countries have signaled in advance of their June 26-27 summit meeting that they may be prepared to relax the requirement that African states apply serious peer pressure on Zimbabwe as a precondition for advancing the New Program for Africa's Development initiative, or NEPAD, on which the continent pins its hopes for integration into the world economy.

The party-to-party talks initially made progress. An agenda was agreed, and the facilitators had begun to explore ideas, built around a transitional power-sharing arrangement, to pursue constitutional reform and restructure the presidency to require new elections. But the talks collapsed in May when ZANU-PF withdrew, demanding that the MDC drop its court challenge to the election result.

The substantive gap is considerable, and ZANU-PF is carrying out repressive actions around the country that heighten tension and damage the environment for any negotiation. The MDC entered talks despite skepticism at its grass roots that the governing party intends anything except to destroy or co-opt it.

Serious internal fissures and pressures now threaten to radicalize the MDC's strategy. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has begun to speak of switching to mass public protests within weeks if there is no movement toward new elections. Every indication is that this would produce a sharp ZANU-PF response and set off a cycle of much more serious domestic conflict, refugees across borders, and further economic decline.

In these circumstances, it is vital for the international community to focus its efforts with renewed urgency on defusing the immediate crisis. The most promising avenue is presented by the party-to-party talks. South Africa and Nigeria need to be much more assertive in encouraging ZANU-PF to return to the negotiating table and both sides to pursue genuine compromises.

Other African states should give full support and make clear that Mugabe will be isolated if he does not negotiate in good faith.

South Africa and Nigeria have most of the real leverage that can influence Mugabe. However, the EU, United States and other friends of Zimbabwe can play important roles by focusing on helping the facilitators get the party-to-party talks back on track within the next several weeks. They should mute the rhetoric, but toughen and extend targeted sanctions; make clear there will be no progress on NEPAD at the G-8 summit meeting unless Africans put more pressure on ZANU-PF; and - especially Britain - pledge anew to contribute significantly, in the context of an overall settlement, to land reform in Zimbabwe.

The international community should also offer assistance that strengthens civil society and helps provide unemployed young people with economic alternatives to joining the governing party militias.

Zimbabwe is not a lost cause. Conflict prevention based on democracy, the rule of law and a functioning economy can succeed, but only if the key international actors, led by the Africans themselves, throw their full weight behind a genuine negotiating process before the grievances are taken into the streets.

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