Zimbabwe: The Case for Engagement
Zimbabwe: The Case for Engagement
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Speech / Africa

Zimbabwe: The Case for Engagement

Testimony by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group, to U.S. Subcommittee on Africa, "Exploring U.S. Policy Options toward Zimbabwe's Transition", 30 September 2009.

Mr. Chairman. I would like to thank you and ranking member Senator Isakson for bringing us together today to explore policy options toward the transition in Zimbabwe, and for your continuing leadership on these issues.

As an international non-governmental organization committed to preventing and ending deadly conflict, International Crisis Group believes that Zimbabwe now has its best chance in a decade to put behind it the divisions, abuses, and self-implosion that has been the legacy of the abusive regime of Robert Mugabe. The combination of an inclusive government, a re-emerging and vibrant civil society, an educated population and work force, a once-rich manufacturing, agricultural and mining sector waiting for recovery; and the good will of countries in its region and beyond can open the door to a post-conflict recovery that would benefit both its long-suffering people and the broader southern African region.

But for all the hopeful possibilities inherent in this situation, a "wait-and-see" attitude from the international community, including the United States, risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a return to conflict and repression.

MDC's Entry into Government

When Morgan Tsvangirai led his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), into a unity government with Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF) in February 2009 under the terms of the Global Political Accord, sceptics gave the new formation little chance of success. Tsvangirai and the MDC were portrayed as neophytes who would soon become the latest victims of Mugabe's "divide, rule, co-opt and destroy" strategy. It was broadly understood that the MDC position was driven by a pragmatic assessment of their options. Mugabe and his hard-line allies and security forces held most of the cards: a monopoly on force, a willingness to repress and abuse its political opponents, and the obsequious support of South African President Thabo Mbeki, charged by the Southern African Development Community to negotiate a solution to the long-standing electoral and political crisis. The MDC calculated that its capacity to affect change would be greater within government than outside it.

Understandably repulsed by the autocratic actions, human rights abuses, and corrupt practices of Mugabe and his coterie, foreign donors - including the United States - have held back on support to the new government in which they maintain the upper hand. The original approach of providing only narrowly defined humanitarian assistance was eventually modified to a position described as "humanitarian-plus," and included support for not only life-saving emergency projects, but also for agricultural recovery, civil servants involved in relief exercises, and health and educational institutions. This approach was seen as balancing a desire to improve the lot of Zimbabwe's population with continuing pressure on the actors in the new government - especially Mugabe and ZANU-PF - to meet their commitments toward a transition to democracy governance.

Against long odds, the new government started out reasonably well. Many schools and hospitals re-opened. The Zimbabwe dollar, which had been turned into an international joke by multi-billion percent inflation, was shelved. Civil servants were paid a small stipend and returned to work; goods started to return to empty store shelves; a cholera epidemic was brought under control; and a bipartisan parliamentary committee was formed to reform the constitution. Human rights activists reported a significant drop in government abuses.

An ambitious reconstruction program - the Short-Term Economic Recovery Programme - identified the need for about $8.5 billion in resources, including foreign assistance and investment, and was generally well-received by foreign donors and the Bretton Woods institutions. Prime Minister Tsvangirai, Finance Minister Tendai Biti and their MDC party received much of the credit for these developments - even from the rank-and-file army - and a new sense of hope returned to Zimbabwe.

But Tsvangirai could see clearly that these changes were fragile and pleaded for foreign help to consolidate them. "Don't make us pay for working with Mugabe," he wrote in a powerful opinion piece in the London Times.

Indeed, from early on, there were ample signs of concern. Farm seizures have continued virtually unabated. While human rights abuses declined, ZANU-PF-led security forces have continued to arrest and detain activists and MDC parliamentarians. Hard-line partisans like the Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono and the Attorney General Johannes Tomana were unduly reappointed, top generals boycotted the new national security establishments and showed public disdain for Tsvangirai, and ZANU-PF has delayed or ignored key commitments under the Global Political Accord (GPA). The constitutional reform process has been thwarted by ZANU-PF's insistence that the secretly-authored Kariba draft serve as the basis for a new constitution.

Some old regime elements, especially hard-line generals and other Mugabe loyalists, are actively thwarting the new government, motivated by fear of a loss of power and its financial benefits; possible prosecution for their crimes; hatred of Tsvangirai and the MDC; and a belief that that they are the guardians of the country's liberation. These forces continue to work flat out to undermine the inclusive government by stalling processes that should lead to the fulfilment of the GPA and refusing to implement government decisions. True to form, Mugabe is giving them backing, calling into grave question his commitment to make the inclusive government work.

The Risks of International Disengagement

During his visit to the United States and Europe this summer, Tsvangirai was met with luke-warm encouragement, much skepticism, and very little cash. In addition to the revulsion over supporting a government including Mugabe, Zimbabwe's timing was awful. It was seeking massive foreign aid and private investment at a time when donors were cutting aid budgets and foreign investors were seeking safe havens in the stormy global economy. Tellingly, no one has called for a "Marshall Plan for Zimbabwe."

In fact, this stance risks thwarting the very changes the international community is seeking, both by weakening the hand of the MDC and moderates in ZANU-PF, and by undercutting popular support for the reform process. The humanitarian situation remains dire, with reluctant donors pledging less than half of the $718 million required to ward off disease and hunger. The United Nations and non-governmental organizations have warned of a potential new cholera outbreak ahead of the rainy season. Moreover, doctors and teachers have gone on strike to demand better pay. The government is unable to buy grain from farmers because the Grain Marketing Board has no money. The constitutional reform process is stalled in part over the failure of the government to finance outreach and consultation programs.

Already, there are disturbing warnings that the MDC is losing contact with its popular base, including in the context of the constitutional reform process. Civil society activists are increasingly complaining that this process is being driven by political elites for their own purposes. Similar arguments are emerging with regard to efforts to develop mechanisms to hold the perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable for their actions. Within the MDC itself, some question the wisdom of remaining in the unity government.

Further, despite succession battles within ZANU-PF between the rival factions of the hard-line Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and the more moderate General Solomon Mujuru and his wife, Vice President Joice Mujuru, the forces committed to Mugabe seem to be firmly in control.

Maintain Targeted Sanctions; Enhance Targeted Assistance

Mr. Chairman, the United States must stand firmly against those who are thwarting the democratic transformation in Zimbabwe. Tough targeted sanctions - including trade and travel bans and assets freezes - against such individuals and the companies they control under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the National Emergencies Act, and section 301 of title 3 of the U.S. Code should remain in place to secure the commitment of the recalcitrant parties to their commitments under the GPA.

But at the same time, targeted reconstruction and development assistance - channeled through fully transparent, credible and accountable mechanisms and institutions - is essential now. Such mechanisms do exist: the International Monetary Fund, for example, has ensured responsible use of the one-time expansion of special drawing rights to Zimbabwe equivalent to a $500 million loan for the purpose of building and repairing

schools, hospitals, roads, railways and communication networks.

The United States, other donors, and international financial institutions should:

  • Expand assistance to support revival of the education, agriculture, water, health and water sanitation, including support for the soon-to-be-announced Government Works Program. Particular attention should be given to programs to assist women, including reproductive health care and girls' education.
  • Help empower a functioning civil service and legislature, and support reform of politicized government institutions, including the judiciary.
  • Strengthen civil society - groups of women, academics, journalists, lawyers, farmers, and others - fractured and polarized in recent years by Mugabe's divide-and-rule tactics.
  • Adopt innovative programs to encourage new trade and foreign investment in Zimbabwe to address the country's massive unemployment rate and promote the return of four million Zimbabwean migrants who are increasingly the target of xenophobic attacks in South Africa and elsewhere in the region.

America's Interests in Zimbabwe's Recovery

Mr. Chairman. At a time when crises in Afghanistan, Burma, Congo, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan fill the in-boxes of American policy-makers, it would be easy to move the slow-simmering crisis to the back-burner. Neither the MDC nor ZANU-PF consorts with global terrorists, and collapse of the unity government will not lead to jihadi training camps in rural areas. Zimbabwe is neither a supplier nor a major trafficker in illegal drugs, arms or persons. Its refugees are not flooding into the United States. Zimbabwe has no oil, and most of its minerals face free-falling global demand. No exotic diseases threaten pandemic: it suffers from "just" cholera, malaria and HIV/AIDS. The country straddles no sea lanes and has no pirates.

But there are strong motivations for broad American engagement. Just because the global effects of Zimbabwe's implosion have so far been modest, this could change rapidly. Transnational threats incubate in unexpected ways in the hothouse of instability and weak governance. What if the H1N1 virus had emerged in Harare and swept through a country where the health infrastructure had been ravaged?

Zimbabwe's recovery is of major regional importance. If Zimbabwe is a smallish country of 12 million people, the southern African region - with a market of 200 million, growing oil production, peacekeepers throughout Africa, and a location along key shipping lanes - is by contrast of great strategic, commercial and political importance to the United States. A prosperous Zimbabwe could be an engine of growth for the region, providing key links to regional communications, transport and electricity grids. Zimbabwe has long been considered a potential breadbasket for the region, based on what used to be efficient agriculture, albeit needing serious and responsible land reform.

By contrast, instability in Zimbabwe is profoundly destabilizing to its neighbors. An estimated four million Zimbabweans fleeing economic hardship and political abuses have flooded across borders, overwhelming the social services and the good will of South Africa, Botswana, and other neighbors. Botswana, Africa's shining star of stability and human rights, has built an electrified fence and resorted to detention and expulsions to keep desperate Zimbabweans out.

This regional importance has been one reason why the SADC has been advocating greater international support for the unity government. South Africa itself has put up about $75 million to support the process of democratic transformation. During his visit to Harare in late August and a subsequent meeting Secretary of State Clinton, South African President Jacob Zuma gave welcome indications that he will press a tougher stance vis-à-vis Mugabe on outstanding GPA obligations, respect for rule of law, and cessation of repressive actions by the security forces under his control.

But regrettably, the international community cannot rely solely on Zimbabwe's neighbors to promote this process. As shown again in their September 7-8 meeting in Kinshasa, many SADC leaders continue to kowtow to Mugabe. Following a presentation in which he told these leaders that the unity government is doing well, SADC unproductively called for the lifting of targeted international sanctions on Zimbabwe and cancelled an extraordinary summit on Zimbabwe to review the weak implementation of the GPA.

Working with regional actors, the broader international community and, of course, the Zimbabwean people themselves, the United States has a unique opportunity to promote democratic transformation and socio-economic recovery in Zimbabwe.

I know that some worry that such a strategy would prematurely reward Mugabe and his hard-line supporters, or somehow reduce the pressure on them to cooperate with the reform process.

In truth, a policy of engagement and targeted assistance through credible and transparent channels would strengthen the hands of moderates and make it more difficult for the extremists to again seize power, which would result in even greater repression and isolation for Zimbabwe's people and greater instability throughout South African and beyond. Put simply: we believe that if you want to sideline Mugabe and his hard-liners, you should support the people of Zimbabwe by embracing the unity government now.

Thank you.

Angry protesters barricade the main route to Zimbabwe's capital Harare from Epworth township after the government announced a hike in fuel prices, on 14 January 2019. AFP/Jekesai Njikizana
Q&A / Africa

Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwean government’s decision to hike fuel prices has sparked fierce opposition. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Consultant Piers Pigou explains how economic hardship is driving ordinary citizens to unprecedented acts of resistance.

What triggered this explosion of unrest?

On 12 January, in response to persistent fuel shortages compounded by manipulation and mismanagement of a currency crisis, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a fuel price hike of over 200 per cent to $3.31 per litre – making the country’s petrol price the highest in the world. It is unclear how this move would address the shortages, outside of pricing fuel out of the reach of many; already, the knock-on effects of transport and commodity price increases are adding evident stress to ordinary Zimbabweans’ lives.

The massive rise sparked a general strike, along with widespread protests, which in many areas was characterised by violence and considerable destruction of property. Those behind the strike did not call for demonstrations, but thousands, especially young people, took to the streets, with many looting shops and burning cars or buildings. Protests were concentrated in and around the main opposition strongholds, the capital Harare and Bulawayo, but also appeared in cities elsewhere across the country. In turn the government ordered a vicious clampdown – deploying soldiers as well as police.

At the end of the second day of protests on 15 January, Zimbabwe’s Doctors for Human Rights released a statement saying “hundreds shot, tens estimated dead in rampant rights violations across Zimbabwe”. Their assessment included reports of 107 patients treated for gunshot and blunt trauma wounds. For days after that, it was hard to obtain updated casualty figures. The government blocked internet services, both at the outset of the unrest and again on 18 January, severely disrupting the flow of information and contributing to widespread confusion.

The scale of violence is the worst the country has witnessed in some time.

On 18 January, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum was able to publish consolidated statistics counting 844 human rights violations during the general strike. These numbers include: at least twelve killings; at least 78 gunshot injuries; at least 242 cases of assault, torture or inhumane and degrading treatment, including dog bites; 466 arbitrary arrests and detentions; and many displacements (with the number being verified). Other violations are invasion of privacy, obstruction of movement, and limitation of media freedoms and access to information. 

Protesters have also engaged in intimidation, violence, vandalism and looting. The government confirmed that they stoned one police officer to death; there are several unconfirmed reports of fatalities and injuries among the security forces. The extent of the property damage has yet to be determined, though human rights groups have documented at least 46 instances. The country’s main cities are at a standstill.

The government and media have accused the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), trade unions and civil society groups backed by foreign funders (the U.S. and Germany were named) of orchestrating the protests as part of a campaign to undermine the government and elevate the MDC’s leader, Nelson Chamisa, into office. Such accusations are par for the course when the government faces protests; based on past experience, it seems unlikely it will supply compelling evidence to support these claims.

Did the unrest come out of the blue?

Anger at the government has been building for some time. On my last visit to the capital Harare in December 2018, the country’s economic woes were plain to see. Prices in shops were soaring, retailers were closing down and queues for petrol were lengthening as the country struggled to juggle payments for competing import priorities. Control over the country’s fuel supply is in the hands of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the huge financial benefits that come with it are reportedly causing factional rivalry. There is widespread public speculation that the shortages are caused by inter-elite squabbles or even deliberately engineered.

People in Harare complain that the administration is akin to a new driver in an old taxi.

The price hike thus ignited the already dry tinder on the ground. On 13 January, one day after the announcement, civil society groups backed a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions for a three-day “stayaway”, or general strike.

Underlying the skyrocketing prices of fuel, food and other goods is a currency crisis that has been worsening through much of 2018. In 2009, facing similar hyper-inflation, the government abandoned the national currency, and switched the economy over completely to the U.S. dollar. After an election in 2013 in which it ran on a platform of job creation and economic recovery, the ZANU-PF government demonstrated astonishing levels of financial delinquency. It “financed” its own systematic over-expenditure with massive borrowing. Domestic debt, which stood at just $442 million in 2013, surged to $10.5 billion by February 2018 and has climbed further over the last year. In 2016, as more and more dollars drained out of the economy, the government introduced a new “bond note” currency, nominally at parity with the dollar, in an attempt to make up for cash shortages, as well as direct electronic payments into bank accounts for goods and services. These payments included the salaries of civil servants, the last bastion of formal employment. It was the equivalent of printing money over and above the value of the reserves in the central bank.

The government continues to claim parity between the bond note, electronic balances and the dollar. With most financial transactions being cashless, this mythology of official parity was maintained, although the bond notes and electronic reserves were trading at a lower rate. But both the latter quasi-currencies have rapidly depreciated since the government introduced fiscal and monetary reforms in October, leading prices for goods and services to spike across the board. The runaway inflation in turn has prompted panic buying and widespread shortages of critical goods such as medicines. It has cut the value of ordinary citizens’ earnings and savings by more than half, further impoverishing an already struggling populace.

In the weeks following the fiscal reforms, as purchasing power evaporated, the entire public-sector work force began organising to confront the government. Since early December, Zimbabwean doctors have been at loggerheads with the government, crippling central parts of an already degraded health care system. On 8 January, the Apex Council, an umbrella body representing civil servants, issued the government the statutory two-week notice that it would call a general strike to protest the government’s refusal to pay civil servants in hard currency, namely U.S. dollars.

Is there precedent for this level of violence accompanying protests in Zimbabwe?

The scale of violence is the worst the country has witnessed in some time. Before 1 August 2018, when the military shot dead six civilians in Harare, Zimbabwe’s security forces did not use live ammunition in crowd control. Now they seem to rely on it.

In another escalation, the government has deployed the military to suppress protests and make arrests, highlighting the ineffectiveness of the police or, as some believe, that the government does not trust the police to crack down on protests with sufficient fervour. The response also reflects an embedded military influence in government decision making and could usher in a new phase of repression in Zimbabwe.

Nor has the country seen a comparable level of violence, looting and destruction by ordinary Zimbabweans. Some of it is undoubtedly orchestrated, but most appears to be spontaneous. More than ever, young people are willing to confront the government in the streets, reflecting desperation and their deep-seated frustration. Anecdotes are surfacing of huge sections of road being shut down and railway carriages being dragged off the rails and into the streets, signaling new levels of revolt. Such actions suggest a growing number of Zimbabweans are less risk averse in terms of a confrontational approach, adding a highly dangerous new element into the mix.

Just fifteen months ago, a coup forced strongman Robert Mugabe from office. Wasn’t Zimbabwe full of hope then?

The optimism that accompanied the ouster of long-time President Robert Mugabe in November 2017 has evaporated. For a time, many Zimbabweans thought his replacement, Mnangagwa, might be a reformer, though he had long been a ruling-party stalwart who was Mugabe’s vice president. The international community, including a number of critics, were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, however, cynicism is growing in many quarters, albeit for diverse reasons. There are signs of discontent even among ZANU-PF loyalists and members of the security forces, who are also bearing the brunt of economic decay.

Controversy blighted Zimbabwe’s much anticipated elections on 30 July 2018, even though the courts endorsed the outcome. Many believe that the use of state resources in Mnangagwa’s favour pushed him over the finish line in the presidential contest. Unprecedented spending by the government ahead of the elections contradicted promises of financial prudence. The MDC refuses to recognise Mnangagwa’s government as legitimate, while the government accuses the opposition of being unpatriotic and promoting a nefarious regime change agenda. The country is polarised, attitudes on both sides have hardened and prospects for bridge-building have withered.

Since the elections, the new government has managed to deliver few tangible results. People in Harare complain that the administration is akin to a new driver in an old taxi. Many see the government simply as a reconfiguration of the ZANU-PF, now freed from Mugabe but dominated by security-sector interests and factions aligned to the new president.

Questions are also surfacing over President Mnangagwa’s judgment. He left the country immediately after announcing the fuel price hike, ostensibly to search for trade deals in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But such deals are unlikely to resolve the immediate economic issues facing Zimbabwe: while he may drum up some foreign investment in the country, those governments will not provide much needed budgetary support. Nobody believes that Mnangagwa will enjoy anything like the enthusiastic reception he got last year if he goes, as planned, to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

Already in December, one of Zimbabwe’s leading political scientists was telling me that “the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out”. He meant that Mnangagwa’s government, while consolidating its authority politically, would be unable to deliver a sustainable, broad-based economic recovery.

[F]urther unrest in the coming days, weeks or months is a question of when, rather than if.

What could happen next?

For almost two decades, observers of Zimbabwe have warned of pending economic collapse, mass hunger and social implosion. Conditions steadily worsened, but Zimbabweans employed an impressive array of survival strategies, from emigration producing diaspora remittances to work in the informal sector, where “making a plan”, as per a common expression, has become something of an art form. The apparent stability has fed complacency, a sense that Zimbabwe can keep on bumping along the bottom. But evidence on the streets now suggests that may no longer be true.

The security clampdown is continuing. Notwithstanding its chilling effect on some potential protesters, further unrest in the coming days, weeks or months is a question of when, rather than if. Another initiative for a general strike is already in motion; calls for a “Stayaway 2” on 23-25 January are circulating on social media. Key questions are how organised it will be, given the likelihood that many organisers of the initial street actions are detained, and how the state will respond. Already, there is a de facto nationwide shutdown as towns and city centres remain empty. People cannot move freely because transport is too expensive. Many cannot afford to go to work.

Zimbabwe desperately needs reform if the government is to keep the country reasonably stable and preserve its re-engagement with international donors

At the same time, the information gap makes it difficult to judge what is happening. Amid endemic misinformation and fake news, some exaggeration of the country’s disarray is likely in play. But in any case, it is unlikely that the mood of confrontation will dissipate quickly. The government may be able to put a lid on unrest and take activists off the streets, but that will not address the conditions that have brought people out. More confrontational protests seem inevitable even if the crackdown curbs protests for now.

What should outside powers do about Zimbabwe’s crisis?

The biggest challenge at this juncture is to get the government to do something about the unrest besides shoot and arrest protesters. Zimbabwe desperately needs reform if the government is to keep the country reasonably stable and preserve its re-engagement with international donors, a process that started with Mugabe’s ouster. To pull off that reform, it needs broad political consensus, including within both the ruling party and the opposition, but also within other social constituencies. The country is polarised on multiple fronts – ideally the government would commit to supporting the development and implementation of some form of national reconciliation strategy to at least start to heal these divisions. For now, however, such a strategy is not even part of political discourse.

It is unclear, however, who has the leverage to nudge the government from repression to reform – or if anyone wants to do so. In the neighbourhood, the Southern African Development Community did not immediately respond to the unrest. Wider international reaction has been muted. Civil society groups have expressed concern and diaspora groups have marched in Johannesburg. But the South African government, traditionally engaged in Zimbabwean politics, has downplayed the situation. With the prospect of more bloodshed and large-scale refugee flight, the region, and indeed the world, cannot afford to ignore the crisis.

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