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Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
Three Critical African Elections
Three Critical African Elections
A man holds a placard as he marches through the streets of Bulawayo during a protest against police brutality, corruption and state of the economy on 26 July 2016. AFP/Zinyange Auntony
Commentary / Africa

Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform

Zimbabweans are slowly rediscovering the courage to speak out as Zimbabwe’s much-vaunted reform process is consumed by insincerity, slow-burn crisis, and infighting over the succession to 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe.

Complementing growing opposition activity, recent weeks have seen a rash of spirited and well organised protest campaigns, most notably #Tajamuka and #ThisFlag, and a widely observed “stay-away” from work, adding further pressure on a bankrupt government, whose efforts to pilot a much needed recovery look increasingly artificial due to political infighting within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

A recent public attack on Mugabe and ZANU-PF from his former main allies in the leadership of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), and the bellicose response from Mugabe and other government leaders, signal a further fragmentation and heightening of tensions.

The security services are reportedly on high alert, and some fear the state will employ its customary iron fist if confronted. But loyalties are being tested; many senior ranking officers retain sympathy for the war veterans. The government has tried to keep the security services onside, prioritising their pay packets, promoting some officers and privileging specialist units. But it is struggling to do the same for the rank and file, delaying civil service and armed forces salaries in June and July.

In February, Crisis Group’s report “Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasiscalled for international and regional actors to seek common ground and action that address the sensitive political climate. They should support the government’s reform and re-engagement process with international financial institutions and bilateral creditors, but on condition Harare demonstrates a genuine commitment to an inclusive, transparent and accountable process. This is essential to build the necessary confidence required for underwriting Zimbabwe’s recovery.

An Economic Precipice

Zimbabwe’s economy rebounded after 2009, when the Zimbabwe dollar was replaced by multiple foreign currencies, but GDP growth has fallen sharply since 2012. Government expenditure now far outstrips revenue. This is due largely to a massive wage bill (over 80 per cent of the budget) that reflects unchecked recruitment after the 2013 elections, up from 315,000 to 554,000 civil servants. To finance this, Harare ran up deficits that have now led to insolvency. The ensuing liquidity crisis has been exacerbated by a wide trade deficit and shrinking financial sector. The government has been trying to drum up foreign investment, new loans and fresh lines of credit. It has won some significant Chinese investments, but it has been unable to reverse the decline in confidence or revive the economy.

A bankrupt, corrupt and increasingly predatory state is now squeezing what’s left of productive pockets in both the formal and informal sectors. This compounds social and political challenges that feed back into and reinforce the deterioration. Official corruption is rampant. In March, President Mugabe revealed that the government lost billions in diamond-mining revenue since 2008 because of “looting” and corruption. Most surface-mined diamond fields are now depleted. To make matters worse, depressed commodity prices show little sign of significant recovery and the worst drought in two decades has left one third of the country in need of food aid.

The resulting liquidity crisis is coupled with a growing crisis of confidence in the country’s economic management. In early May, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe announced that the government would introduce bond notes to help ease liquidity and give incentives to exporters. Normally, such measures might bring relief, but it was a public relations disaster since the Reserve Bank leadership had apparently not consulted anyone, including the International Monetary Fund, which two days prior had given Zimbabwe a positive report on its reform program progress. The government subsequently announced bond notes will be introduced in late 2016, but this will not have a significant impact on the broader structural challenges facing the economy.

All this has forced ZANU-PF to re-engage with its traditional multilateral and bilateral funders. The government is seeking balance of payments support and investment from Western partners, the same parties it publicly blames for the genesis of its economic and financial crisis when they cut lines of credit as the government reneged on most of its debt payments in the early 2000s. In fact, Zimbabwe would have to repay $1.8 billion in debt arrears to have a chance of new funding, without knowing if credit is available or what its economic and political conditions might be.

Until God Calls

It is unlikely the government and ruling party will enthusiastically embrace austerity reforms that would block their current populist policies. Any meaningful economic reform process is further hampered by internal factionalism within ZANU-PF over who will succeed President  Mugabe.

Fault lines are hardening fast; in early June, Mugabe signalled to ZANU-PF’s Central Committee that he is siding with opponents of his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This boosted the faction referred to as the Generation 40 (G40), which dominates the party’s youth and women’s structures and importantly has First Lady Grace Mugabe’s support. It was the G40 that put as many as 200,000 people on Harare’s streets for ZANU-PF’s Million Man March in May, a major display of the party’s organisational capacity, despite severe resource constraints.

G40 leaders are now calling for an extraordinary ZANU-PF congress, which they would use to isolate Mnangagwa further, even remove him from the vice presidency, as well as reaffirm Mugabe as party candidate for the 2018 polls. Although it is not physiologically feasible for Mugabe to carry on much longer – in February he said he will stay on “until God calls” – the mythology of his candidacy buys time and cover for the G40 to consolidate is position. It’s a high risk strategy that gives little attention to the challenges of the economic and political reform agenda.

President Mugabe’s penchant for playing one faction off against the other continues, but his dexterity and options are waning. Over the last six months, he has been increasingly critical of war veterans and the security forces, who are more closely aligned with Mnangagwa. War veterans clashed with police in a showdown earlier this year that forced Mugabe to convene an unprecedented meeting with them in early April. They vented their anger about economic and political developments, voiced their support for the July strike and stay-away.

The expulsion on 6 July from ZANU-PF of Chris Mutsvangwa (the recently dismissed minister for war veterans, who remains chairman of the ZNLWVA), and other allies of Mnangagwa, is the latest development in what senior political analyst Eldred Masungure describes as Zimbabwe’s “pendulum politics”. Mnangagwa’s albeit tempered public criticism of his own allies  for taking these steps has reinforced perceptions that he has been outmanoeuvred, and may be pushed out without much of a fight, as Joice Mujuru was in December 2014.

Mugabe still needs Mnangagwa and the security services; they remain central guarantors of ZANU-PF’s continued hegemony. But his ability to manage this relationship presents an ever-greater challenge.

A widening credibility gap

A well-rehearsed yet selective narrative about progress toward clearing debt arrears and economic revival was first presented to international creditors in Lima, Peru in October 2015. Reform and re-engagement is championed by key Mnangagwa ally, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, supported by Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya. Both were in Berlin and London in July to make the case that Zimbabwe was politically stable and open for investment. ZANU-PF does not speak in one resolute voice about the reform program it is ostensibly trying to promote.

The overall strategy theoretically has the full support of President Mugabe and senior party members. But ZANU-PF feels humiliation at putting its hand back out so publicly for help from those outside powers it still describes as its enemies. In practice, Mugabe has been unenthusiastic and has allowed sharp criticism to emerge from ZANU-PF. Blaming “the West” for burgeoning dissent undermines those seeking genuine re-engagement, and emboldens those who seek political capital from opposing the broader reform agenda.

For critical Zimbabweans, the efforts look increasingly bogus. Claims from the government that it has clarified its position around controversial issues such as its indigenisation policy, property rights and compensation for land seizures are not supported by objective realities on the ground.

To date, the reform and re-engagement process has also been a largely exclusive, even secretive, affair; the “Lima Strategy Document”, the government’s primary plan for clearing its arrears, was only officially made public after it was leaked in February 2016. It set out a broad roadmap, but with little detail. It is unclear what, if anything, was subsequently agreed with creditors.

The government avoids or denies challenges that it has lost public trust. But most opposition parties, and a host of civil society actors representing important constituencies, have little or no confidence in the economic reform process or the government’s commitment to honouring the new constitution. They want more detail on the overall reform plan’s promises of better governance, transparency, institutional accountability, and human rights. These all remain key benchmarks of tangible progress: for now, the government appears to be backsliding, only selectively amending old laws to align them with the reformed 2013 constitution. This has provoked growing calls from civil society and opposition political parties for Mugabe to be replaced by a National Transitional Authority, a demand ZANU-PF is likely to dismiss with contempt at this juncture.

International actors promoting a more robust re-engagement with Zimbabwe are caught in an invidious position. They seek to encourage reform, and recognise that incremental progress requires compromises, especially in a context of challenging economic headwinds. But they also know that the reform plan tends to address only the symptoms of the economic malaise, not its core structural and systemic causes, like politicised state institutions and systematic corruption and patronage.

External actors understandably want to help Zimbabwe; a failed state serves nobody’s interests. But to do so without enabling continued authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and outright theft of public resources presents a significant challenge. They also have to explain their positions and policies to Zimbabweans better. ZANU-PF can react badly to criticism; Finance Minister Chinamasa warned a recent gathering at Chatham House in London that a harder line would push his party “back into the trenches”. 

Politicking and brinkmanship are likely to characterise any move ZANU-PF makes; notwithstanding competing priorities, the international community, and in particular regional actors, such as the Southern African Development Community must retain vigilance and can play a greater role in assisting Zimbabwe in this situation. But they should do so within the context of a clearer engagement framework, which must promote an inclusive approach that is structured around building confidence with local and foreign actors.


Zimbabwe still has the potential and technical capacity to chart its economic recovery; but serious reservations remain that ZANU-PF is able to implement a credible plan. This is compounded by a narrative that routinely seeks to shift responsibility for the economic crisis on others, including the central myth that sanctions are the primary reason for the country’s current quandary.

While external factors like depressed commodity prices, the dominance of an appreciated U.S. dollar in its multicurrency regime undoubtedly constrict Zimbabwe’s economic options, the country’s financial delinquency is legendary. The new reform policy implicitly recognises the need for more rigour, but implementing it will never be popular. If Zimbabwe’s government is to move beyond the theatre of reform, and avert further worsening of the political, social and economic crisis, it must “walk the talk” toward a more inclusive, transparent and accountable process.

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.