Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Report 78 / Africa

Zimbabwe: In Search of a New Strategy

For all the sound and fury of international condemnation and domestic opposition, octogenarian President Robert Mugabe maintains the upper hand in Zimbabwe. He has bludgeoned opposition parties and neutralised mass action strategies, minimised African criticism, maintained South Africa's friendship, and withstood sporadic pressure from the wider international community.

Executive Summary

For all the sound and fury of international condemnation and domestic opposition, octogenarian President Robert Mugabe maintains the upper hand in Zimbabwe. He has bludgeoned opposition parties and neutralised mass action strategies, minimised African criticism, maintained South Africa’s friendship, and withstood sporadic pressure from the wider international community. It has been a masterful performance. It is also one that has done massive damage to Zimbabwe’s economy, which is shrinking at world record speed. It is time to acknowledge the collective failure to date, re-evaluate strategies for resolving the crisis, and concentrate on the opportunity presented by the March 2005 parliamentary elections.

Though it retains some of the trappings of a multi-party democracy, Zimbabwe is de facto a one-party state controlled by a narrow group of ZANU-PF and military officials who have used its resources and institutions for personal enrichment. The ruling party gives its key supporters in the security services, the army and a large patronage network a piece of the action to ensure their commitment to the status quo. So little is left for social requirements that Zimbabwe, which exported food until recently, has the highest percentage in Africa of people being fed by international aid.

Preoccupied as it is with looting the state and with the politics of presidential succession, it is almost inconceivable that ZANU-PF would now negotiate seriously with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Its strategy appears to be to delay any formal process, while South African President Thabo Mbeki talks about talks. Meanwhile, the regime has become more proficient at forestalling resistance to its rule. Demonstrations are usually thwarted before they begin or broken up early. Youth militias terrorise opposition supporters. Detain-and-release cycles are applied to opposition and civic leaders, combined with endless court actions to wear down stamina and resources. At the core is violence, used in both targeted and indiscriminate ways.

There are two possibilities for the parliamentary elections that the government has indicated will be held in less than a year’s time. One is that a negotiated inter-party settlement or greatly intensified international pressure -- or both -- will produce the conditions for a free and fair electoral process; the other is that the ruling party will continue to stall on talks, rig the electoral process, increase state violence, and win a non-credible vote. If the latter happens, Zimbabwe will probably be at the point of no return. Elements of the opposition and civil society, disaffected war veterans and youth militia, and losers in the ZANU-PF factional battle might well fight one another or the state. Democracy promotion in Zimbabwe today is a conflict prevention strategy.

The response to Zimbabwe’s tragedy has been inadequate and ineffectual at all levels. The U.S. and EU feed the majority of Zimbabweans, but their policies do not begin to address the roots of the crisis. South Africa and other neighbours have not made the kind of concerted effort to resolve the crisis that states in East Africa and West Africa have attempted when confronted with their own regional problems. On the contrary, their policies have amounted to covering for the regime. The opposition and civil society have made shows of good faith by participating in governing institutions and electoral processes, but that has only given a veneer of legitimacy to a system that is suppressing political freedom and destroying what had been one of Africa’s more dynamic economies. All these actors need to change course.

The March 2005 elections are the vital target. Since a broad ZANU-PF/MDC agreement on the country’s problems now seems unattainable, the focus of international engagement should be on crafting specific benchmarks and timelines for a free and fair electoral process. The U.S., EU and UN should work closely with each other, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU), and the Commonwealth and consult with key stakeholders in Zimbabwe to craft these benchmarks and accompanying timelines. The benchmarks should be based on the SADC Norms and Standards for Free and Fair Elections. There should be an agreed procedure for determining quickly whether the process -- not the voting day itself -- is conducted properly, and to the greatest extent possible agreement on the specific consequences that would flow from violations. The EU and U.S. should start the urgent task of building consensus around this plan of action by appointing envoys to consult throughout the region.

Nairobi/Brussels, 19 April 2004

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