The Threat of “Normalising” Authoritarian Rule in Zimbabwe

By Brian Raftopoulos

Since the end of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in 2013, a SADC facilitated settlement that sought to move Zimbabwe out of the legitimacy crisis of the widely discredited elections of 2008, Mugabe’s Zanu PF has been battling to find ways to re-engage Western Governments and the international financial institutions based on limited economic and political reforms. After some early indications in the post-GPA period that the Government of Zimbabwe was keen to cooperate on reform measures set by the international financial institutions, Zanu PF has persistently displayed its determination to avoid any serious reforms.

Apart from a more pragmatic if still unclear enunciation of the indigenisation programme, based on the 2007 Act which established the requirement of 51% ownership by ‘indigenous Zimbabweans’ of all foreign owned companies, and small changes to improve the business environment and facilitate business dealings, there remains a major reluctance to engage in more substantive reforms demanded by donors and the MDC formations. These include the reduction of the civil service and providing more transparent structures to account for public sector expenditure and income from the mineral sector. There is even greater resistance to reforms in the political arena, such as electoral reform and greater adherence to the rule of law. These issues have long blocked the possibility of peaceful electoral change in the country, and been at the centre of opposition demands since the 1990’s. It is of course ironic that the opposition parties are supporting the position of the international financial institutions given the major damage done to the Zimbabwean economy in the 1990’s by the neo-liberal Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP). However, as elsewhere on the African continent, it is a symptom of the weakened state of the opposition that they are looking to such external agencies to impose a discipline on states, whose authoritarian politics will not allow for domestic accountability.

Since 2013, the EU has recalibrated its engagement strategy with the Mugabe regime. From the early 2000’s until 2009 the EU imposed ‘targeted sanctions’ on the Zanu PF government. These measures were imposed on the basis of massive human rights and property rights violations. This changed once the Government of National Unity, made up of Zanu PF and the two MDC opposition formations, was established in 2009 under the GPA, with the EU steadily moving away from the sanctions measures and towards a re-engagement with the Government. This re-engagement was constituted by carefully directed financial assistance through the UNDP but not via direct support for the Government.

This form of assistance continued after the 2013 elections. Moreover as the EU moved away from its sanctions position it moved increasingly towards exerting pressure through the international financial institution conditionalities that had faced the Zimbabwe government since the default on its loans in the late 1990’s. In October 2016 Zimbabwe cleared its old debt of US$108 million using its allocation of the Special Drawing Rights allocated to all IMF member states in 2009 as part of a global rescue package. However it still owes the World Bank US$1.5 billion and the African Development Bank US$600 million. Until these debts are cleared it is unlikely that Zimbabwe will receive any new loans from the IMF.   These conditions of the IMF include both economic and political reforms. The EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Phillipe van Damme, confirmed this in a recent statement:

“Poor regulations, lack of rule of law and contempt of court are fuelling corruption in Zimbabwe. Address that and we are willing to help the government in implementing reforms in Zimbabwe.”

For the UK specifically, which has a particular colonial history with Zimbabwe, it has had to tread a difficult path between, on the one hand, moving away from the language of ‘regime change,’ and on the other moving too quickly towards re-engagement on the basis of window dressing reforms. Nevertheless it is clear that in the event of a post Mugabe transition, both the UK and the EU will be very keen to develop a close relationship with Zimbabwe. This assessment has also been made on the basis of a loss of faith by both the EU and the UK in the strength and potential of the opposition parties.

The US for its part has continued with the ‘targeted sanctions’ programme imposed in 2003 under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Reform Act. At this stage, apart from the recent removal of a few names and entities from the sanctions list, the US position is unlikely to change. Zimbabwe is of little geo-political strategic importance to the US, and any changes in its position will hinge on the larger framework of its relations with South Africa. However the US has continued to try to influence change through continued, though reduced funding, to civil society and also through pressure for political change through economic reform. Moreover the US may in the future view Zimbabwe as an alternative option for maintaining a strategic position in Southern Africa if the political and economic instability in South Africa escalates into a deeper crisis. We have yet to see if this trajectory will change under a Trump Presidency. However the chances are that Africa will become even less of a priority for the new US administration accept in terms of particular areas of security, a feature which was already apparent during the Obama period.

Given the current explosive character of South African politics, with President Zuma under increasing pressure to resign in a highly factionalised ANC, Zimbabwe is very low on the list of priorities of the ANC government. Moreover Zuma has moved towards increasingly friendly relations with Mugabe, within the framework of solidarity between the liberation movements in Southern Africa and the South African Government’s determination since the Mbeki period, to ensure its adherence to multilateral diplomatic interventions through regional bodies like SADC.

South Africa’s recent announcement of its intention to withdraw from the ICC represents another move towards establishing closer relations with other African governments who have felt unfairly treated by this body.  Moreover the decision is also aimed at correcting the perception of South African exceptionalism on the continent. Whatever pressure the South African government places on the Zimbabwe government is more likely to come through the negotiations on trade relations between the two countries. Currently South Africa is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partners with large investments in the mineral, retail and finance sectors, and has significant leverage in these areas. This may soon become apparent in the possible choice of the rand over bond notes as a currency alternative.

As the country moves towards the 2018 elections, there is little sign of the demands for political and electoral reform being met by the Mugabe government. A series of demonstrations by the opposition parties in 2016 for electoral reforms has met with stubborn resistance from Zanu PF. This is notwithstanding the vicious factional battles that currently dominate the politics of the ruling party. This is a clear indication that whatever the issues that currently divide them, as Zanu PF moves closer to the 2018 election the factions are likely to once again find common ground, to protect their control of the state, their accumulated wealth, and guard them against the dangers of accountability for the massive human rights violations they have been responsible for since the 1980’s.

The ruling party’s election strategy is likely to involve several components. Firstly, an unreformed electoral process that will ensure little possibility of electoral success for the opposition. Secondly, the ruling party will inflict its long honed strategy of selective violence and harassment that may well taper off as the election gets closer. Thirdly, the hope that the mega deals on public sector investment signed with the Chinese government will begin to bear fruit combined with increased support for small scale farmers who were the beneficiaries of the fast track land reform process. The increased, if still fragile livelihoods developing in the small towns, such as the expansion of more diverse sites of production, the deepening of local markets as a result of the growth of small mining concerns, and the opening up of more grazing land and opportunities for marketing, as the work of Ian Scoones and his colleagues has shown, could also be integrated into Zanu PF’s support network..

Fourthly the giving out of land to urban youth in the context of a restructuring of urban constituencies to overlap with the rural populations could further erode the dominant support of the opposition in the urban areas. This is a process that has been going on for the last decade at least, and is designed to ensure voting outcomes for the ruling party. This outcome is made more likely by the increasing informalisation of the formal sector and the loss of traction of the once powerful labour movement that was so central to the support base of the opposition MDC. The recent hashtag demonstrations in the informal sector driven mainly through social media, however novel their forms of organisation and refreshing their non-party political complexion, at least in their initial phases, have already tapered off. They are unlikely to be a substitute for more sustainable actions from formal opposition structures.

In its current form the opposition remains divided and fractured with little sign that they are moving towards a more coordinated coalition. As in the past there are ongoing disputes about leadership positions and regional representation. Moreover it is unclear whether the different formations even share a common enough vision and political agenda in order to unite the groups and their supporters. At this stage even though one section of the war veteran’s movement, a key part of Mugabe’s support base, has turned its back on him, there is no certainty that this defection will translate into support for an opposition coalition.

In July an important component of the veteran’s movement made an astonishing attack on Mugabe:

“We note with concern, shock and dismay the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies personified by the President and his cohorts which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle in utter disregard of the constitution.”

The language of constitutionalism deployed by the veterans as well as Joyce Mujuru, Mugabe’s former Vice President, after she was expelled from Zanu PF and formed her own party, clearly resembles the discourse of the opposition MDC since its formation in the late 1990’s. However it remains to be seen whether both Mujuru and the veterans will throw in their lot with the dominant MDC formation under Morgan Tsvangirai. There is a strong likelihood that these dissenting groupings from Zanu PF could be fighting to ‘take back’ the party from a particular faction rather than to remove it completely from power.

With such uncertainties hanging over the heads of the different parties in opposition so close to the 2018 election, the prospects for defeating Zanu PF look bleak. The real danger is that if Zanu PF wins the election in the context of no significant electoral reform, the Western Governments and the international financial institutions will move to a more substantive re-engagement on the basis of minimal reforms. The rationale for such a move will be that it provides the most stabilised political ‘solution’ for the country. This will not be the first time these countries have made such a calculation and certainly will not be the last especially in the contemporary period of populist politics.  As David Moore has recently observed in an astute analysis:

“Trump style demagogues take on the practices of dictators everywhere moulding the language of disenfranchisement and resentment into authoritarian populism. Mugabe politics are becoming a global phenomenon.”

It seems likely that even without serious electoral reforms the major opposition parties will take part in the 2018 elections, unless they have an alternative strategy that will force Zanu PF to institute such changes. At present there is little evidence of such an alternative. The call for a National Transitional Authority to guide the country on an interim basis towards a free and fair election presents a very interesting possibility. However the political forces needed to bring such a process into play are currently very weak, and will need to be built up very soon in order to make this a viable alternative.

Under these conditions the best way forward for the opposition would be to move more swiftly towards a coalition, particularly on the Presidential candidate, and to build up popular momentum, including a major roll out on voter registration. Such a process could push Mugabe’s party into strategic political mistakes and provide new openings to build up new pressure, both inside and outside the country, on the Zanu PF government. Such mobilisation must include work not only in the major urban centres but also in the areas resettled under the fast track land reform programme and the small towns, all of which have particular characteristics and sites of contestation. This is an enormous task in which civil society organisations could play a very important role.

Faced with such great challenges at this point in Zimbabwe’s political history it is very easy to forget the enormous strides that the political opposition has made against the authoritarian politics of Zanu PF. From the late 1990’s to the present both the civic and political party opposition engaged in several forms of protest including: demonstrations; trade union strikes in the formal sector and more recently organised protests in the informal sector; continuous legal challenges against state abuses; the detailed reporting on state violence and the violation of the bodily rights of citizens; and lobbying for political reforms at national, regional and international levels.

In the process a substantive opposition was built up which despite its many failings and defeats, fought elections on a peaceful basis and arguably won many of the major elections but were denied victory by state violence. Constitutional reform would not have advanced without the pressures of civil society. Activists have been imprisoned, intimidated, killed, and disappeared, while large numbers of citizens have been displaced by the political and economic policies of the state.

These opposition interventions have not only changed the dynamics of Zimbabwean politics generally but also contributed to the disruptions in Zanu PF itself. As Zimbabweans assess their prospects for the near future and think about the legacy of these various interventions it would be more productive to think critically not only about what has yet to be achieved but also about the areas of progress in the battle against an authoritarian state. Writing from a position of defeat can often occlude such a broad and longer-term perspective and slip into political amnesia and defensive dismissiveness that speaks to a loss of historical insight. In moving forward understanding these insights will be as important as winning elections.

Brian Raftopoulos is Director of Research and Advocacy, Solidarity Peace Trust, and Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape.

Sun, November 13 2016 » Global Political Agreement, Human rights, Zimbabwe Review

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