Report 47 / Africa 4 minutes

Zimbabwe: What Next?

In the aftermath of the deeply flawed March 2002 presidential election, Zimbabwe has dropped off the radar screen of most policy-makers and media but its crisis is deepening.

Executive Summary

In the aftermath of the deeply flawed March 2002 presidential election, Zimbabwe has dropped off the radar screen of most policy-makers and media but its crisis is deepening:

  • the ruling ZANU-PF party and the government are systematically using violence to intimidate the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and civil society  in order to punish and compel them to accept the results;
  • the economy is further deteriorating as foreign investment and food both become scarce commodities; with  regional drought compounding the land seizure crisis, UN agencies warn of possible famine; and
  • as the opposition considers mass protests, the prospect of serious internal conflict is becoming imminent, with grave implications for the stability of the wider Southern African region. 

The international response has been mixed and inadequate. South Africa and Nigeria, who made possible the Commonwealth’s suspension of Zimbabwe in the immediate aftermath of the election, have attempted throughout the spring to facilitate party-to-party talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC. Many African governments, however, have given barely qualified if slightly embarrassed approval to President Mugabe’s re-election while trying to minimise Zimbabwe’s relevance to their efforts to construct new economic relationships between the continent and the rest of the world.

Most Western countries have done little except repeat rhetorical condemnations that appear, counter-productively, to have persuaded Mugabe that their policies are “all bark, no bite” and to have increased sympathy for him in much of Africa. The European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.) have meaningfully expanded neither the target list of affected individuals nor the scope for the sanctions (primarily travel restrictions) they imposed on senior ZANU-PF figures before the election. Key G-8 countries have signalled in advance of their 26-27 June 2002 summit that they may be prepared to relax the requirement that African states apply serious peer pressure on Zimbabwe as a precondition for advancing the New Program for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) initiative on which the continent pins its hopes for integration into the world economy.

The party-to-party talks initially made progress. An agenda was agreed, and the facilitators had begun to explore ideas, built around a transitional power sharing arrangement, to pursue constitutional reform and restructure the presidency to require new elections while finessing the MDC’s requirement for a rerun of the March poll and ZANU-PF’s insistence Mugabe’s victory be accepted. However, the talks collapsed in May when ZANU-PF withdrew, demanding that the MDC drop its court challenge to that result.

The substantive gap is considerable, and ZANU-PF is carrying out repressive actions around the country that heighten tension and damage the environment for any negotiation. The MDC entered talks despite considerable scepticism at its grassroots – based on those actions and earlier history – that the governing party intends anything except to destroy or co-opt it. Serious internal fissures and pressures now threaten to radicalise the MDC’s strategy. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has begun to speak of switching to mass public protests within weeks if there is no movement toward new elections. Every indication is that this would produce a sharp ZANU-PF response that would set off a cycle of much more serious domestic conflict, refugees across borders, and further economic decline.

In these circumstances, it is vital for the international community to focus its efforts with renewed urgency on defusing the immediate crisis.  The most promising avenue, if only for lack of any realistic alternative, is presented by the party-to-party talks. South Africa and Nigeria need to become much more assertive in encouraging ZANU-PF to return to the negotiating table and both sides to pursue genuine compromises. In particular, they need to use more of their considerable political leverage to push the governing party to improve the negotiating environment by ending the widespread violence for which it is responsible. By so doing they will also gain credibility with the MDC that can be used at a later stage to broker agreements. 

Other African states should give full support and make clear that President Mugabe will be isolated if he does not end the political violence and negotiate in good faith. The Africans should also use Qadhafi’s desire to be accepted as a statesman to encourage Libya to cut off material support that encourages Mugabe’s intransigence. 

His fellow African leaders, especially Presidents Mbeki of South Africa and Obasanjo of Nigeria, have most of the real leverage that can influence Mugabe. However, the EU, U.S. and other friends of Zimbabwe can play important roles by focusing on helping the facilitators get the party-to-party talks back on track within the next several weeks. They should mute the rhetoric but toughen and extend targeted sanctions; make clear there will be no progress on NEPAD at the G-8 Summit unless Africans put more pressure on ZANU-PF; and (especially the British) pledge anew to contribute significantly, in the context of an overall settlement, to land reform in Zimbabwe – which is a genuine issue though one cynically abused by the ruling party.

They should also offer assistance that strengthens civil society and helps provide unemployed young people with economic alternatives to joining the ruling party’s militias. These middle and longer term objectives, however, must be subordinated to the immediate priority of heading off an increasingly dangerous confrontation this summer.

Zimbabwe is not a lost cause. Conflict prevention based on democracy, rule-of-law, and a functioning economy can succeed, but only if the key international actors, led by the Africans themselves, throw their full weight behind a genuine negotiating process before the grievances are taken into the streets.

Johannesburg/Brussels, 14 June 2002

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