Zimbabwe's Unity Government at One Year: Much to Celebrate, Much to Do
Zimbabwe's Unity Government at One Year: Much to Celebrate, Much to Do
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Zimbabwe's Unity Government at One Year: Much to Celebrate, Much to Do

To sideline those blocking democratic change in Zimbabwe, the world should embrace the unity government.

One year ago, Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) allies took the political risk of their lives and joined a unity government with president Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. At the time, most analysts predicted Tsvangirai would become the latest victim of Mugabe's "divide, rule and destroy" tactics. And although there have been many fits and starts over the past year, the people of Zimbabwe are better off for the MDC's decision.

In February 2009, Zimbabwe was an international pariah, wracked with multitrillion per cent inflation, and facing a devastating cholera epidemic. Hospitals and schools were closed, security forces ran amok, and civil society activists were terrorised. The global political agreement (GPA) negotiated by the Southern African leaders and signed by Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and MDC faction leader Arthur Mutambara in September 2008 seemed designed simply to entrench and prolong Mugabe's rule.

Fast forward to today. The unity government is functioning, after a fashion, and civil servants are back at work, being paid a small stipend. The Zimbabwe dollar has been shelved in favour of stable foreign currencies, and goods have returned to shops. Human rights activists report a dramatic decline in abuses, especially in urban settings. An ambitious yet pragmatic reconstruction programme was generally well-received by foreign donors and the Bretton Woods institutions.

After an initial "wait-and-see" period, donors are starting to provide reconstruction assistance through transparent mechanisms. Better still, reformers and moderates on all sides are getting credit for the changes, isolating the hardliners and extremists.

But the path to democratic governance in Zimbabwe has been difficult, and the road ahead is going to be rougher still. Major threats could still derail the process, including resistance of senior security officials; fractious political in-fighting, especially within Zanu-PF; a growing gap between the political class and civil society; a battered economy unable to address 90% unemployment and meet expectations of a peace dividend; continuing seizures of farms; and the capricious and ever-dangerous Mugabe.

Four key challenges lie ahead.

First, the parties must complete the remaining GPA steps, including appointing MDC governors, conducting a land audit, ensuring the functioning of a new national security agency, and reforming repressive public security regulations. Zanu-PF in particular has been resisting movement.

Second, the constitution must be reformed, ending absolute executive power and strengthening the legislature and judiciary. The committee preparing the draft will need to ensure a transparent consultation process to secure broad support for the new constitution.

Third, there must be preparations for new elections. Discussions are underway to delay them perhaps until 2013, taking politics out of the equation for now. Most MDC leaders want more time to build a record in government, and they are concerned over the military reaction to a potential MDC victory. Most in Zanu-PF worry that their party would be swept aside in new elections, with support now in the teens in recent polls.

Finally, the top securocrats, whose power and sinecures are threatened by change, must be brought to heel. Many Zimbabweans, including human rights activists who have suffered their wrath, believe these generals and their allies have a veto power over the transition and must be eased out through soft landings.

Zimbabwe has a long tradition of granting amnesties to turn the page on difficult periods, but any amnesty should be as limited as possible and revocable should recidivist behaviour emerge.

While the primary tasks rest with Zimbabweans themselves, the outside world has a vital part to play. Southern Africa must take its role as guarantor of the GPA seriously. The activist posture of South African president Jacob Zuma is welcome, conveying the message that the region will abide no alternative to the current process. He must continue to press Mugabe on outstanding GPA obligations, respect for rule of law, and an end to repression and farm seizures.

The broader international community should support these moves through carefully calibrated assistance and sanctions. This should include new support for health, education, rural development, women's empowerment, and good governance through transparent mechanisms, and new engagement from the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank.

While targeted sanctions should remain against hardliners, the international community should recognise and encourage positive steps. For example, the EU and US should lift sanctions on selected entities, such as Zimbabwe's agricultural bank, that help revitalise key sectors without overly benefitting the hardliners. Restoring Zimbabwe's voting rights at the IMF would also be an important sign.

Some worry that a strategy of engagement would prematurely reward Mugabe and his cronies or reduce pressure on them. In truth, a policy of targeted aid and targeted sanctions would strengthen the moderates and make it more difficult for the extremists to again seize power. To sideline those who are thwarting the democratic transformation in Zimbabwe, the world should embrace the unity government now.

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