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Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point?
Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Zimbabwe: An Opportunity for Reform?
Zimbabwe: An Opportunity for Reform?
Report 97 / Africa

Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point?

Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) cost some 700,000 Zimbabweans their homes or livelihoods or both and otherwise affected nearly a fifth of the troubled country's population. Its impact, as documented in a scathing UN report, has produced a political shock that has returned Zimbabwe to the international spotlight and made the quality of its governance almost impossible for its regional neighbours to ignore, however difficult they find it to be overtly critical.

Executive Summary

Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) cost some 700,000 Zimbabweans their homes or livelihoods or both and otherwise affected nearly a fifth of the troubled country's population. Its impact, as documented in a scathing UN report, has produced a political shock that has returned Zimbabwe to the international spotlight and made the quality of its governance almost impossible for its regional neighbours to ignore, however difficult they find it to be overtly critical. While an immediate requirement is to reverse as thoroughly as possible the disastrous humanitarian effects of the operation, action is urgently needed to address Zimbabwe's larger governance problem. This will require efforts on three parallel tracks -- the maintenance of overt international pressure, support for building internal political capacity and, above all, active regional diplomacy to facilitate political transition.

Kofi Annan's initiative to send Anna Tibaijuka, the Tanzanian director of UN Habitat, as his Special Envoy to report on the two-month military style campaign, has explicitly confronted the international community, in Africa and beyond, with its responsibility to help protect the people of Zimbabwe. Her findings show that the Zimbabwe government collectively mounted a brutal, ill-managed campaign against its own citizens. Whatever its intent -- the urban clean-up claimed by authorities, or more sinister efforts to punish and break up the political opposition lest resentment explode into revolution -- that campaign has exacerbated a desperate situation in a country already sliding downhill for a half-decade.

That much is clear, as is Zimbabwe's need for outside engagement, both for the sake of its own people and because the implosion that Murambatsvina has brought dramatically nearer would shatter the stability of southern Africa. The government lacks the resources, and has yet to prove it has the genuine will, to repair the immediate humanitarian damage. While this is not the time to be offering it any concessions, and certainly no development aid should flow until there is significant political and economic reform, traditional humanitarian relief principles require that donors offer assistance to those needing it. But they should take care that any such assistance is not diverted to serve ZANU-PF's political purposes.

Zimbabwe's own political forces are increasingly stalemated. The ZANU-PF party, already discredited in the eyes of many inside and outside the country for what the UN report starkly described as a decline in the rule of law as well as egregious economic mismanagement and human rights abuse, is deep into a fight for succession to Robert Mugabe, and playing an internal blame game on Murambatsvina as part of that internecine struggle.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is preoccupied with leadership controversies of its own and existential strategy debates in the wake of defeat in March in yet another rigged election. Inability to influence Murambatsvina has cost it much confidence in itself and among its supporters, and the party badly needs to refocus and reform. Some important backers in Zimbabwe's business community are showing interest in exploring a new "third force" party, but there is little sign of that gathering momentum.

Non-Africans, whether the U.S., the European Union and its Member States, or members of the Commonwealth, lack leverage to do much about this immediate situation. They can and should maintain international pressure for change by the mostly symbolic means at their disposal, including tougher targeted sanctions against key ZANU-PF figures, and rigorous monitoring of human rights abuses with a view to pursuing remedial measures in the appropriate international forums: such efforts force the ZANU-PF government to pay at least some cost for misdeeds and help keep Africa committed to genuine resolution of the problem. They should also seek ways, in consultation with local and regional players, to build up the long-term political capacities of Zimbabwean civil society.

But the heavy lifting -- if it is to be done -- must come from African states and institutions. They should receive understanding and support from the wider international community to conduct regional diplomacy in their own preferred quiet way -- provided that diplomacy is real and not just an excuse for allowing a dangerous situation to drift. Pretoria and other key African capitals should work, preferably under African Union auspices, to put together a team of distinguished former presidents to mediate a genuine and generous compromise that could start Zimbabwe toward new governance and new elections.

Pretoria/Brussels, 17 August 2005

Commentary / Africa

Zimbabwe: An Opportunity for Reform?

A new presidential administration in Zimbabwe offers an opportunity for much-needed democratic and economic reform after years of stagnation. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group proposes four key areas on which the EU and its member states should focus its support: the security sector, elections, the economy and national reconciliation.

This commentary on the oppurtunity for reform in Zimbabwe is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Amid a rise in authoritarian tendencies across parts of the continent, Robert Mugabe’s resignation and the November 2017 appointment of his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as president make Zimbabwe a potential exception, carrying fresh prospects for reform and economic recovery. Mnangagwa and his administration have set a different tone, promising to clean up government, reach across political, ethnic and racial lines, strengthen Zimbabwe’s democracy and reform its moribund economy. Re-engaging with Western partners and financial institutions is an integral component of his strategy. Questions remain, however, as to whether Mnangagwa’s administration represents a genuine change or simply a reconfiguration of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), now dominated by security sector interests and factions aligned to the new president. International actors will have an important role in encouraging the reforms that will determine whether the country can recover economically and steer a more open and democratic course.

African and non-African governments alike agree that Zimbabwe’s continued isolation would be counterproductive. Following the lead of the AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC), actors including Western governments and China – most of which were happy to see the back of Mugabe – stopped short of calling the “military-assisted transition” a coup d’état, thus ensuring they could maintain diplomatic relations with and provide assistance to the government. Most also agree that the new government should be given an opportunity to demonstrate it is serious about its commitments. But while encouragement and incentives are important, Zimbabwe’s partners, including the EU, should calibrate support to maintain pressure on the government to enact both political and economic reforms, particularly given ZANU-PF’s long track record of backtracking on its promises.

So far, Mnangagwa has set an encouraging tone, focusing on the need to resuscitate the economy and open the political system. But doubts remain. Questions surround in particular the government’s willingness to address structural economic issues through fiscal discipline, transparency and accountability. They also surround its commitment to a genuinely inclusive political system; in response, the opposition and civil society – although weak and fragmented – have united in calling for a level electoral playing field, enhanced participation, and strengthened institutional checks and balances.

A calibrated framework for EU engagement in Zimbabwe

Although relations have long been strained, the EU resumed direct development cooperation with Harare in November 2014. Since then, with member states, it has engaged in limited senior-level political dialogue. The EU set out a framework for engagement in the National Indicative Program for Zimbabwe 2014-2020, focusing on three sectors: health, agriculture-based economic development, and governance as well as institution-building.

While this framework remains relevant, Mugabe’s ouster provides the EU an opportunity to adjust its approach and offer Zimbabwe the promise of a deeper relationship should certain conditions be met (a promise which is explicit in the 22 January 2018 Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on Zimbabwe). This would require determining levels of support based on realistic deliverables and deadlines, based partly on timelines set by the new president and government themselves (such as in Mnangagwa’s December presentation to ZANU-PF’s extraordinary Congress, his State of the Nation address and the government’s commitments to deliverables within the first 100 days in office). Specifically, the EU could link its support to reforms in four key areas:

  • Security sector, including initiatives to professionalise the police forces and provide for civilian supervision, improve parliamentary oversight of the defence sector and repeal legislation inconsistent with the 2013 constitution, such as the Public Order and Security Act (which curtails rights such as freedom of assembly) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (which allows the state to severely control the work of the media and limit free speech).
  • Elections, including guaranteeing greater independence for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and credible voter rolls for Zimbabweans at home and abroad. The EU also should follow up on the president’s recent offer to allow EU observers to monitor the 2018 elections.
  • Economic sector, including organisation of a broad dialogue on the government’s economic reform strategy to be led by an independent committee, including representatives from the opposition, civil society, the churches and important commercial sectors.
  • National reconciliation, notably by bolstering the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission and extending its mandate so as to form a truly independent body able to deal with past government abuses.

In parallel, the EU should step up support for institutions such as the Auditor General, Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission and Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission while continuing to engage civil society organisations, and support their efforts to track government reforms, particularly those related to security, governance, fiscal accountability and anti-corruption.