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The Politics of Reform — Much Ado About Nothing
The Politics of Reform — Much Ado About Nothing
Three Critical African Elections
Three Critical African Elections
Op-Ed / Africa

The Politics of Reform — Much Ado About Nothing

Originally published in Zimbabwe Independent

The call for political and economic reform in Zimbabwe has been a constant refrain for almost two decades.

For Zanu PF, reform necessitates the reconfiguration of the economy and ownership, centred on its controversial land reform and, more recently, indigenisation policies. It is a selective agenda wrapped in revolutionary rhetoric intended to correct discriminatory historical legacies, but that in practice has been employed to buttress Zanu PF’s political hegemony against growing opposition to misrule and to feed political patronage and self-enrichment.

Opposition formations and many civil society groups seek the removal of Zanu PF, calling for reforms that would strengthen governance and the rule of law and tackle the array of democratic deficits that underwrite Zanu PF’s incumbency. For the most part, Zanu PF has rebuffed these calls, accusing its proponents of pursuing a regime change agenda directed by external interests and has employed an array of repressive measures to undermine its opponents, culminating in a terror campaign, the illegitimate June 2008 elections and regional intervention.

The negotiated 2008 Global Political Agreement provided a framework for comprehensive reform, although this was largely avoided; many aspects of this reform were “parked” in the new constitution adopted in February 2013 and remain subject to a contested terrain of constitutional alignment. This includes the reworking of over 400 pieces of legislation and the introduction and/or reconstitution of new democracy-supporting bodies. In addition, several high-profile cases challenging existing statutes have been brought before the Constitutional Court, although numerous issues remain unattended.

The momentum for political reform receded in the face of diminished opposition representation and debilitating internal rivalries.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), opposition and civil society groupings pointed to an array of reforms that should have been addressed before the 2013 polls, but Zanu PF’s victory enabled these to be pushed aside, instead elevating its own transformation agenda under the policy prescripts of the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) economic blue-print.

The momentum for political reform receded in the face of diminished opposition representation and debilitating internal rivalries; funded civil society has also recalibrated as the realities of the resuscitated Zanu PF incumbency prompted a move towards constructive engagement, encouraged by donors keen to re-engage. Consequently, robust critique of civil and political concerns has been stifled on multiple fronts, as economic and financial sector reforms have moved centre-stage.

Deteriorating economic conditions have exposed the limitations of Zanu PF’s campaign promises that ZimAsset and/or that government’s “Look East” policy provide realistic options to kick-start recovery. Conditions on every front have in fact worsened. Desperate for new credit lines, the government focused more on reconnecting with international creditors; it introduced a Staff-Monitored Programme (SMP) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), intended to demonstrate a commitment to repair relations severed by payment defaults and to correct its financial delinquency.

In this regard there has been some progress, although this only lays the foundation for more fundamental reforms that are now required. Indeed, the SMP was not politically taxing, yet provided space for those promoting an incremental engagement agenda to demonstrate that the government was committed to mending its ways, albeit through this narrow lens of reform.

Zanu PF, it was argued, had no choice as economic conditions forced a reality check on its limited available options. President Robert Mugabe’s own broad endorsements for reform, outlined in a 10-point plan in his state of the nation and opening of parliament speeches in August and September 2015, were a tacit admission of his government’s policy failures.

Significantly, he delivered these speeches without his stock allegations that sanctions and Western powers were responsible for Zimbabwe’s impoverishment. His support enabled Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor John Mangudya to present government’s reform strategy to development partners and creditors in October 2015. The plan set out an incremental agenda that would secure funds to pay debt arrears (estimated at almost US$2 billion) by mid-2016, which would enhance prospects for accessing new lines of credit. It was well received but, curiously, not shared with ordinary Zimbabweans, until it was leaked four months later.

The timeline for arrears repayment has already shifted and is contingent on accessing new loans that creditors must have confidence will be honoured. This process must also be complemented by “bold policy reform measures aimed at debt sustainability and improving the socioeconomic environment”. The IMF acknowledges progress in some of these areas, but continues to highlight key issues that require urgent government attention. These include:

  • Reducing the civil service wage bill and re-orienting spending priorities;
  • Improving debt management and administration of revenue administration;
  • Improving the business environment, including clarity on indigenisation provisions and land reform (including a framework for compensation) and improved transparency in the mining sector;
  • Reform of state owned enterprises; and Tackling corruption.

Reform in these areas is hampered by acute resource constraints, and as economic growth slows, the government is being squeezed on every front. While trying to raise funds to underwrite payments for its debt arrears, it has been forced to borrow heavily elsewhere, simply to keep the state functioning and to finance its ballooning budget deficit, exacerbated by a worsening balance of payments crisis and an unsustainable wage bill for public servants.

Limited success in reducing expenditure in some areas belies the fact that over US$2 billion of Treasury Bills have been issued to keep the wheels in motion. This means government must now find an additional US$250 million annually to service this new debt. This deficit is also at the heart of a crippling liquidity crunch that has further undermined confidence in Zimbabwe’s shaky banking system.

Even if financing to cover debt arrears is secured — by no means straightforward or at this stage guaranteed — progress in these reform areas will determine prospects for the approval of new loans. The IMF executive board meeting with the World Bank and African Development Bank last month was expected to assess progress, but conditions are not in place to secure new lines of credit at this juncture. Unlike the SMP, there must now be substantial headway around issues such as civil service cuts that have thus far been avoided. Although technically not engaged on a political platform, progress around sensitive law and order, governance and human rights issues will be required to secure US buy-in.

But headway in these areas is patchy at best, and unlikely to be pursued with any vigour in the run-up to elections, which explains why many are sceptical and believe it is premature to discuss new funding. Government is trying to tick the requisite boxes by meeting with civil society and business groupings, but this has not arrested depreciating levels of confidence. Indeed, there is a strong feeling that the “theatre of reform” belies a political agenda to retain political hegemony.

An assessment of progress therefore requires a more robust assessment of major implementation challenges.

Limited success in reducing expenditure in some areas belies the fact that over US$2 billion of Treasury Bills have been issued to keep the wheels in motion.

Civil Service Wage Bill

The wage bill for civil servants, including those attached to the security and intelligence sectors, has grown dramatically, in turn preventing much-needed expenditure on public investments and social services. There is still considerable ambiguity about the size and make-up of the civil service and where cuts will be made.

How government addresses this challenge will be a primary indicator of its intent. But progress, even of an incremental nature, appears to have been made only glacially since the promises by the finance minister in December 2014.

In mid-April 2016, Chinamasa told the IMF that the government would retrench workers and freeze salaries as part of its strategy to reduce the wage bill to 50% of total expenditure by 2019. What this means in practice remains unclear and has already been contradicted; at Independence Day celebrations, Mugabe promised civil service salaries would be increased to match the poverty datum line. And Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister Prisca Mupfumira told a gathering on Workers Day that there will be no job cuts.

It is difficult to see how government will cut public spending, lay off civil servants and privatise state-owned enterprises (with accompanying job losses) ahead of the elections, leading some to suggest that progress on this front may be delayed until after the polls. But the wage expenditure, now estimated at 83% of government expenditure, continues to tighten the noose around government, as evidenced by its increasing difficulties in honouring due payments timeously. This has exacerbated tensions with what remains the country’s last bastion of formal employment.


The implementation of Zimbabwe’s indigenisation and economic empowerment legislation and its regulatory framework remains a litmus test for government reform. Introduced in 2008, the controversial legislation, designed to promote and impose indigenous Zimbabwean ownership of foreign firms, has been central to Zanu PF’s economic transformation agenda and an important tool in its populist posturing. But there has been a consistent and “wide disjuncture between the law (as it is), government pronouncements of the law (as they would like the public to believe it to be) and the policy in practice”. This confusion was identified as a central obstacle by donors and international financial institutions, who have consistently called for “clarification” on key aspects of the law.

A commitment to “simplify and streamline the investment process” was included in the government’s Lima strategy for clearing debt arrears and carrying out supportive economic reform. But following his appointment in September 2015, Youth and Indigenisation minister Patrick Zhuwao who is also Mugabe’s nephew, vehemently contradicted efforts by Chinamasa to provide this clarification, at one point threatening to expel companies and seize their assets if they did not comply.

Mugabe allowed the confusion to prevail until mid-April 2016, finally reining Zhuwao in, acknowledging the confusion must be resolved and that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to indigenisation would not be adopted. He promised the confusion would be remedied, but another verbal commitment brought neither clarity nor certainty, instead highlighting “deep policy flaws and inherent confusion in government”.

How the legislation and its accompanying regulations are amended will be watched closely. Thus far, Zhuwao has sat on his hands in what several local economists have described as wilful resistance, an approach Mugabe either tolerates, endorses or is unable to control. In the current economic quagmire, repealing the indigenisation law and replacing it with a coherent framework would significantly strengthen the reform agenda, but such a move is unlikely to pass political muster.

Land Reform and Compensation

How issues of property rights, compensation, unresolved issues of legal and illegal occupation and clarity on beneficiaries of the fast-track land reform programme are dealt with remain key indicators of the government’s commitment to strengthening the rule of law. The government acknowledges that resolving these matters is central to prospects of boosting productivity on the land.

In mid-March 2016, Chinamasa tabled a memorandum in parliament establishing a special fund responsible for raising and administering compensation for seized land. This is an important symbolic attempt to demonstrate government’s commitment to compensate farmers evicted during the fast-track land reform programme. If successful, this could also help expedite unresolved tenure issues. The state points out it has never denied its responsibility to compensate, but for what and at what rate has never been clarified. The suggested compensation plan would entertain claims for land, improvements and equipment, signalling a major shift in government policy if adopted.

Protesters supporting opposition leader Raila Odinga, run away from police in the slum area of Mathare in the capital Nairobi, Kenya, on 26 October, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Commentary / Africa

Three Critical African Elections

Delayed elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the stalled transition risks provoking a major crisis, are one of three critical African polls: the DRC crisis, the recent vote in Kenya and Zimbabwe’s election next year all have important implications for democracy and stability on the continent.

Crisis Group’s recent publications on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), including our 4 December 2017 report, examine the crisis provoked by President Joseph Kabila’s determination to hold onto power and repeatedly delayed elections. The DRC is only one of three African countries we cover whose future course could depend in part on the holding of credible elections: one vote past, in Kenya; one future, Zimbabwe’s 2018 polls; and one deferred, in the DRC.

These polls have had – or will have – important implications for democracy and stability not only in the three countries themselves but for the region as a whole. Notwithstanding many positive trends on the continent, the serious flaws in Kenya’s vote, delays and risks of manipulation in the DRC and worrying signs in Zimbabwe could prove indicative of a troubling trend of backsliding in Africa.

The contexts for the Kenyan, Congolese and Zimbabwean polls vary: from Kenya’s competitive but flawed democracy, to DRC’s long transition out of civil war to Zimbabwe’s first post-Mugabe elections. Yet they face challenges common to democratic consolidation across the continent. Public office comes with vast power and access to resources; those who lose elections are left with little.

This raises the stakes for both government and opposition, meaning too many elections are fierce, all-or-nothing affairs or incumbents skew the playing field, manipulate polls to ensure they win, or both.

Institutions, particularly electoral authorities and courts, become battle grounds and face enormous political pressure, complicating their administration and adjudication of elections. The opposition rarely has good options: compete in unfair conditions and legitimise the vote; or boycott, a strategy that rarely serves its interests over time. Facing uphill battles, some struggle to remain united. Others adopt rejectionist tactics.

Kenya: Frayed Democracy

Kenya’s recent crisis was all the more troubling because of the progress the country has made since the 2007-2008 post-election violence. Its 2010 constitution diluted presidential power, created new checks and balances, introduced more inclusive procedures for the appointment of election officials, devolved resources to newly-created counties and set up institutions to monitor and call out hate speech. These reforms should have served to lower the temperature of high stakes elections. Yet Kenyan leaders largely reverted to the old playbook. Ethnic politics dominated. The campaign was driven mostly by identity and money.

Both sides played hardball ahead of the vote. President Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party drew from the public purse to campaign and the police responded with brutal force to opposition protests. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, in what looked likely to be his last shot at the presidency, repeatedly asserted before the polls that he would win if procedures were fair and would reject a vote he lost. Delays in the procurement of election equipment and the murder of the official responsible for overseeing the IT results systems did little to instil confidence.

To Odinga’s credit, after official results showed him losing, he called for restraint and took his grievances to the courts. The Supreme Court ruling revealed serious failures in complying with electoral laws and regulations, in particular during the crucial phase of transmitting results, further eroding trust in electoral officials.

Crisis Group argued that the ruling should have given both sides reason to compromise: for Kenyatta, the scale of the problems it identified might have led him to seek a clearer mandate through a fresh vote with improved procedures; for Odinga, it vindicated his complaints about electoral integrity but did not find evidence that irregularities changed the outcome.

Instead, both doubled down and threatened the election commission, which itself was beset by infighting. Kenyatta, feeling betrayed by the judges, adopted increasingly harsh rhetoric, including against the judiciary. Jubilee sowed distrust by pushing through electoral legislation without due consultation with their opponents, complicating efforts to reach consensus on reforms. For his part, Odinga’s demands were mostly reasonable but not all implementable before the rerun. His subsequent boycott meant that the vote proceeded without the participation of a candidate who had won some 45 per cent of the votes in the annulled election and still commanded the support of almost half of Kenyans, casting a shadow over Kenyatta’s mandate.

Kenya’s election once again laid bare the ethnic cleavages in society that elites are all too quick to manipulate.

Kenya’s election once again laid bare the ethnic cleavages in society that elites are all too quick to manipulate. It would be hard to portray it as anything but a disaster for Kenyan democracy. Six weeks after the rerun, leaders need to start bridging those divides. President Kenyatta should reach out to Odinga; restoring the official security detail he is due as a former prime minister, but which was withdrawn in mid-August, could be an initial gesture. A public display of talks between the two men would help dial down tensions.

Western diplomats in Nairobi, who played a useful role during the election, should push both sides to rein in hardliners. The creation of a position of official opposition leader with a budget and perks, which has been proposed by religious leaders and could be implemented through legislation, would be one way to recognise the support Odinga commands. The opposition also should focus on supporting its members who did win office and building support within communities that voted for Kenyatta’s party.

Left to fester, the wounds of the 2017 vote are likely to bode ill both for Kenyan democracy and the country’s stability over time. In a sign of deepening frustration after the flawed elections, leaders in regions of the country where Odinga draws most support – Western areas and the Coast – are calling for secession.

DRC: A Dangerous Delay

The consequences of the DRC’s stalled transition could be graver still. In December 2016, President Kabila’s ruling coalition and the opposition signed the Saint Sylvester agreement – stipulating that elections should take place at the end of 2017 after which Kabila should leave power – which appeared to offer a way forward. Since then, however, President Kabila, profiting from a divided opposition and a lack of international engagement, backtracked, asserting control over government, the oversight mechanism and electoral authorities in direct contravention of Saint Sylvester. In November 2017, the election commission announced an electoral calendar leading to a vote at the end of 2018.

The Congolese opposition is considerably weaker than its Kenyan counterpart. The death in February of its veteran leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, arguably the only figure able to inspire large public support and who should have led the Saint Sylvester agreement oversight committee, has not helped. Other leaders, including former Governor Moïse Katumbi (who could yet emerge as a serious challenger to Kabila), face prosecution and stay outside the country rather than return and risk jail; their absence is understandable but leaves the opposition rudderless.

Others have broken ranks and joined Kabila’s government. Those remaining refuse to engage in talks, call for a transitional government without Kabila to be set up after the agreement’s election deadline passes this year – a demand with no hope of success – but do not develop or publicise their own policies on social and economic issues critical to a restive citizenry.

As the political impasse deepens, violence is escalating in several provinces. The political settlement that ended the 2002 civil war, which explicitly included a presidential term limit to guarantee the rotation of power, is fraying. Local insurgencies, ethnic clashes, massive jail breaks and crackdowns by security forces are all on the rise.

The DRC’s humanitarian crisis, already one of the world’s most severe, looks set to deepen.

The DRC’s humanitarian crisis, already one of the world’s most severe, looks set to deepen. Gradually worsening instability appears the likeliest course – in fact in some cases the regime appears to stoke instability as a pretext for election delays. But a sudden implosion cannot be ruled out and would destabilise the region. Already Angola and the Republic of Congo fret about possible refugee surges across their borders.

While a more engaged opposition is essential to a transition, only concerted international and regional pressure can push President Kabila toward a credible election. But both African and Western positions have been mostly reactive. They have also diverged: Western powers are increasingly critical and have sanctioned some of Kabila’s entourage; while many African leaders recognise the dangers behind closed doors, they have been reluctant to criticise him openly and question the value of sanctions. Support from African powers for Kabila buys him breathing space.

As Crisis Group’s report today argues, both Western and African powers need to redouble efforts to build consensus. Even united, nudging Kabila toward elections would be hard; divided, prospects are close to zero. The Saint Sylvester principles – the organisation of credible elections, no constitutional amendment to allow a third term for Kabila and an opening of political space and respect for human rights – still offer the best route out of the crisis.

The new elections calendar, which is feasible and gives the opposition time to organise, offers an entry point for engagement. But this engagement must be based on a shared Western and African understanding that President Kabila’s delays and attempts to hold onto power by indefinitely postponing the vote and eventually challenge the constitution pose the gravest threat to DRC’s and regional stability. International actors involved in electoral preparations, including the UN, regional groups and the EU, should monitor adherence to the calendar, warn against unjustified slippage and guard as best possible the credibility of the electoral process, including voter registration.

Zimbabwe: Democracy’s New Dawn?

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s ouster presents a historic opportunity to turn the page on four decades of divisive and enormously destructive one-party rule. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new president, struck a conciliatory tone in public statements, pledging to reach across political and ethnic lines. He also reportedly floated forming an inclusive transitional government until general elections, scheduled for mid-2018.

Over the past few days, however, he appears to have backtracked. His new cabinet reflects a consolidation of the old guard, including senior military officers and war veterans. The stalwarts of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, that now hold power are implicated in many of Mugabe’s worst excesses, including the rigging of the 2008 presidential vote and crackdowns before the run-off that robbed the Zimbabwean opposition of victory.

The security elites that orchestrated the “military assisted transition” did so largely to protect their own interests; prospects for reforms that threaten those interests appear slim, although Mnangagwa promised to improve governance and clean up corruption. But he has not said much about changes to the election system, security sector or devolution of power. To the ZANU-PF faithful his tone was also uncompromising: “ZANU-PF will continue ruling no matter what, while those who oppose it will continue barking”. The leader has gone, in other words, but, at least for now, the regime remains.

[Zimbabwe's opposition's] plight over the past decade illustrates challenges familiar across the continent.

Moreover, the opposition is weak and fragmented. Its plight over the past decade illustrates challenges familiar across the continent. It has repeatedly contested elections, but Mugabe’s crackdown in 2008 made clear that the regime had no intention of ceding control. Worried that security forces’ violence could spiral out of control, Western and regional powers pushed both sides to agree to a government of national unity, but sharing power arguably tainted the opposition’s leaders and weakened it further.

Boycotting by-elections since 2013 does not appear to have paid dividends, as ZANU-PF’s parliamentary majority grew. Years of repression complicate efforts to keep opposition ranks united. The latest attempt, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, launched in August 2017 and which unites different MDC factions under Zimbabwe’s long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has struggled to attract smaller factions and lacks funds. Whether Tsvangirai himself, who is in poor health, can campaign next year is unclear; but there is no obvious alternative. Indeed, a more serious threat might come from within the ranks of the ruling party, though whether factions sidelined by Mnangagwa’s takeover will have space to regroup remains unclear.

That said, Mugabe’s departure, the more moderate tone struck by Mnangagwa, at least in public, and the fact he needs to put on a good show does raise prospects, however slim, for a cleaner vote next year. Broad consensus exists among opposition politicians and civil society on necessary reforms. These include a credible voter registration process; an independent and capable election commission, with parliamentary oversight; a playing field free of intimidation and hate speech; and access for observers, all of which should be laid out in new legislation.

Despite the tight timeline, none of this would be difficult to roll out were the new government to choose to do so. The elections guidelines of the regional body, SADC (Southern African Development Community), provides a framework for assessing, both before and after elections, conditions for a credible vote. An indicator of Mnangagwa’s commitment will be his government’s willingness to allow space for such evaluations. Others leaders of SADC countries, whose track record in Harare is mixed but who still enjoy more influence there than other foreign powers, should push against any resistance; the African Union should also monitor closely long-term preparations for the vote. Ideally the opposition would focus on grassroots campaigning and attempt to build momentum behind a single candidate with a clear platform that sets it apart from ZANU-PF.

Reversing Worrying Continental Trends

Many African states have seen enormous advances over the past few decades. In West Africa in particular, democratic norms are more entrenched and a strong consensus exists against incumbents circumventing term limits, even when they try to do so. Overall, however, the continent still struggles with succession. While all countries hold regular, multiparty elections, peaceful transitions of power between one party or leader to another are still too rare. Over recent years, a spate of leaders extending their tenure past constitutional limits, political space narrowing in many countries and a series of election-related crises suggest the trend, at least in parts of Africa, is headed the wrong way.

This matters for stability on the continent. Not every disputed election or move toward authoritarian drift will provoke conflict; not all credible elections will avoid it; and a vote is not the answer to every problem. But a fair vote is invariably better than a rigged one. Even where flawed polls do not provoke bloodshed, superficial calm can obscure problems that will erupt later.

Fewer Kenyans were killed this year than during the 2007/2008 crisis, but still the gulf in society left by the vote and the deep sense of grievance harboured by opposition supporters could have profound implications over time. Already, violence across the DRC is escalating; Kabila’s repeated election delays risk driving the country off a cliff. In Zimbabwe, while a ZANU-PF romp to victory on a skewed playing field might provoke less violence than the upset MDC win in 2008, a prolongation of the stagnant Mugabe governance – particularly the dire prospects for many young people – would herald problems over time.

Taken together, Kenya’s election crisis, the DRC’s stalled transition and dashed hopes in Zimbabwe – should political space there remain closed – would not only conform to worrying authoritarian trends. They would do much to deepen it. Leaders learn from the experience of their neighbours, and the more they see fellow presidents manipulate and pervert democracy for their own ends, the more likely they are to pursue similar methods.