The Zimbabwe Question in 2009

The year 2009 will start the way 2008 ended; with the Zimbabwe question unresolved. Foreign military intervention is unlikely to take place, and in the present situation a neighbouring country will find it difficult to justify invading Zimbabwe. If the MDC wish to give force to their ultimatum, they should not allow themselves to be steamrollered into joining a Government of National Unity.

By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, RUSI

Photograph by Gregor Rohrig

As Zimbabwe limps agonisingly into 2009, there is one immediate question which the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has to answer; will they join the still notional government of national unity or not? Leader Morgan Tsvangirai has stated that unless well-known activists Jestina Mukoko and other civil society and opposition figures are released, he will ask the MDC’s national council to suspend negotiations.

After the tumultuous silence following their abductions, Mukoko and her co-accused were suddenly produced, rabbit–style, out of the police hat. Allegedly, the accused were involved in the recruitment and training of saboteurs to overthrow Robert Mugabe from bases in Botswana. Even if this were true – and there is as yet no wisp of evidence to support the state’s case – the inhuman treatment of the activists is utterly unconstitutional and goes far beyond any crimes they have supposedly committed.

If the MDC wish to give force to their ultimatum, they should not allow themselves to be steamrollered by Zanu-PF, South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) into joining a Government of National Unity (GNU) just so they can all feed from the same trough.

‘Operation Chimumumu’ – the late 2009 assault on opposition and civil society activists by the Police and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) – is part of the carrot and stick strategy; the carrot is the shiny new passport for Tsvangirai (and the promise of a seat at the edge of the high table as Prime Minister if he plays ball). The stick is the inevitable arrests, abductions and torture of opposition and civil society activists and the threat of worse to come if the MDC does not co-operate.

Oddly enough, Zanu-PF may have given the opposition succour in making their choice. High court judge Yunus Omerjee ordered the immediate release of most of the accused. He also ordered that they be given access to proper medical treatment (many of them bear the signs of torture), full access to lawyers, and normal visitation rights. Instead, the state has placed them in the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison – a facility originally designed for the most violent criminal offenders.

There are other issues which need to be resolved – the ministerial posts, the governorships and the question of who will control the finances. But both MDC groups should insist on an unconditional end to political violence as a precursor to a GNU. Zanu-PF has alleged that the MDC is training military recruits in Botswana. If this is the case, then indeed the MDC has a case to answer; but Zanu-PF has not yet produced any proof. There is currently a SADC investigation into these claims. The MDC should insist that the findings be published before any GNU is formed, otherwise it will simply be yet another stick that they will be beaten with.

The state is also making a distinction between humanitarian politics and human rights politics. Humanitarian aid organisations have been allowed ingress into Zimbabwe’s blighted communities; human rights activists, in contrast, have not been spared the rod. The MDC then, if it were to join a GNU, would need to be aware of what it was getting into. It can hardly be part of a coalition government while civilians are being abducted and killed. There is no ‘acceptable’ level of political violence, and the GNU cannot be Zimbabwe’s redemption if the drums are beaten on human skin.

And what of military intervention? I don’t see it happening. The most common suggestion is a military invasion of Zimbabwe from, or by, a neighbouring country (possibly Botswana). Idi Amin’s removal by Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere in 1979 is cited as a useful precedent. There are many similarities between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Amin’s Uganda; a brutal leadership, a broken economy, the flight of millions, and a restive military.

But there are some vital discrepancies – Amin provoked Tanzania and sent Ugandan forces into his neighbour’s country in a hunt for Ugandan ‘dissidents’. Mugabe has been very careful not to overstep the mark in his war of words with Botswana, and it would be difficult for the Botswana Defence Forces or other neighbouring country to justify invading Zimbabwe, other than in self-defence.

That leaves the UK and the United States to mull the challenge of direct intervention. This won’t happen; UK and US forces are at full stretch in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Caucasus and Middle East will always be considered more important than Africa; there is also little public or state appetite further military adventures in far away places. It would be a huge operation and there is little indication that anyone is willing to pay the costs. In addition, humanitarian military intervention is best applied when civilians are clustered in readily identifiable camps or zones which can be cordoned off and protected by an international mission.

This is not the case in Zimbabwe at the moment – although there has been tremendous dislocation, most people are still in their rural or urban homes, and this makes it difficult to imagine how an operation such as this would work. More importantly, at the first intimation of a major military offensive against it, the security sector in Zimbabwe would target the opposition leadership for elimination or for use as hostages.

This is not to say that Zanu-PF will not face a military threat. Growing dissatisfaction within the rank and file of the security establishment, increasing indiscipline and possible small-scale mutinies might be complemented by a possible ‘third force’ of anti-state military operatives beginning a campaign of violence if the politics remain unresolved. This third force, if it comes into being, would be a threat to both Zanu-PF and the MDC.

It would not be an MDC organisation, but its existence would be used by Zanu-PF to justify further repression. For Zanu-PF, an open military challenge would bind supporters together, but it would also widen the fissures in the security sector periphery and lead to overstretch.

The year 2009 will start the way 2008 ended; with the Zimbabwe question unresolved.

Zimbabwe will be on the SADC agenda in its January meeting, and it will also feature at the UN Security Council meeting early in 2009. Although the regime versus opposition polemic will continue, for ordinary people what really matters is how their daily lives can be transformed for the better. In this regard, it is local and international aid workers and non-political social activists who will likely be the real agents of change in Zimbabwe in 2009.

This article was originally published on The Guardian website

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Knox Chitiyo

Associate Fellow

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