Zimbabwe’s Silo-breaker: the Memorandum of Understanding

The current talks between bitter rivals Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe offer the best, perhaps the only chance, for a peaceful resolution to Zimbabwe’s crisis, but success is by no means guaranteed.

Dr Knox Chitiyo
Head, Africa Programme

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which was signed on 21 July 2008 in Harare between ZANU-PF, and the MDC (Tsvangirai) and MDC (Mutambara) is historic, both in terms of symbolism and substance. The MOU binds the three parties to an intensive two-week negotiating process whose ultimate goal is a power-sharing agreement between the key internal stakeholders. Although it is a preliminary, rather than final document, the MOU sets out a vital framework under which substantive negotiations will take place.

Mugabe Tsvangerai

Key Points of the MOU

The terse, four page document stipulates that the formal negotiating period or ‘dialogue’ of two weeks will discuss a variety of issues, including: the political framework of Zimbabwe – the constitution, rule of law, unity, and state organs and institutions; the economy, covering sanctions, restoration of economic stability, and the land question; and security – specifically, human security. Other items on the dialogue agenda include the framework for a new government, implementation mechanisms, and global political agreement for a new government. The MOU preamble states that the signatories are ‘determined to build a society free of violence, fear, intimidation, hate, patronage, corruption and founded on justice, fairness, openness, transparency, dignity and equality.’ The preamble also makes a point of ‘recognising the centrality and importance of African institutions in dealing with African problems, and agreeing to seek solutions to our differences, challenges and problems through dialogue under the auspices of the SADC [South African Development Community] mediation, supported and endorsed by the African Union’. The MOU further stipulates that ‘the Parties shall refrain from abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance, and ethnic hatred or undermine each other.’

Significance of the MOU

The MOU is a meaningful first step on the road to a negotiated political solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis. The Memorandum is important for a number of reasons. First, in purely symbolic terms, the mere fact that Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai have formally met for face-to-face talks for the first time in a decade is highly significant; it is a recognition by both leaders that unilateral solutions cannot succeed. The handshake between Tsvangirai and Mugabe, although clearly staged as a photo-opportunity, is laden with resonance for Zimbabweans, who remember the similar handshakes between bitter rivals Ian Smith, Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and Abel Muzorewa in 1979 which led to the Lancaster House Agreement. A key accord, it paved the way for an armistice in Zimbabwe in 1980 after fourteen years of an increasingly vicious and bloody war of liberation, interwoven with civil war. In 1987, a similar handshake between nationalist rivals Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo put a symbolic seal on the inter-party ZANU-PF/ZAPU Unity Accord, which formally ended the notoriously brutal ‘Gukurahundi’ campaign in Matabeleland, a war that had led to the slaughter of thousands of unarmed civilians by the special forces 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army. The Unity Accord was controversial at the time, and has been criticised by many, but that it did save the Ndebele peoples in Zimbabwe from certain genocide, and ushered in a decade of peace.

The MOU is deliberately general and uses broad brushstrokes with regard to the issues which the ‘dialogue’ will address. Indeed, all sides recognised from the outset that the starting point for talks had to be a willingness to negotiate; squabbling over nuts and bolts issues at this stage would have fatally undermined any chance of the talks proceeding. Most importantly, the MOU’s significance lies in the fact that it shows that Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF have realised that their ‘total strategy’, which essentially replaces the rule of law with the rule of war, is failing, and that power-sharing with the opposition is inevitable.

A further important detail of the MOU is that there is no reference to Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe. Instead, he is referred to as ‘the President and First Secretary of ZANU-PF, Robert Gabriel Mugabe’. Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara are similarly referred to as the Presidents of their respective parties. The MOU has thus established two major parameters of legitimacy for the purposes of the dialogue; the first is the principle of parity, which recognises the three party leaders as equals. The second, coded principle is that of non-recognition of Robert Mugabe as the Head of State of Zimbabwe – this also applies to Morgan Tsvangirai, who has also claimed the national presidency following the March elections. For Mugabe, however, this represents a major and unexpected climb-down, and must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

There is also a section on the ‘Security of Persons’; this pledges all three parties to a permanent cessation of political violence, allowing the work of humanitarian organisations. A crucial one-line phrase refers to ‘hate speech’, and states that ‘the Parties shall refrain from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred or undermine each other'. This may well be the single most important line in the MOU, because it lays the psychological and conceptual framework which will, in time, begin the dismantling of the militarist liberation war ‘theology’ which has been crucial to ZANU-PF’s success. The lexicon of hate, and the creation of a hate state have been central to Zimbabwe’s post-2000 history, particularly for ZANU-PF and Mugabe. Committing the parties to ending the rhetoric of war removes a major conceptual tool from the state’s toolbox. There is also a subtle irony in the MOU, the language in this brief document, and the intentions expressed within, are penned using the aspirational tones of global human rights/democratic discourse, but implicitly the tone of the Understanding is oddly, Westminsterian.


Zimbabweans and the world at large are hopeful that a negotiated settlement can be reached; and fearful that either a ‘fake’ agreement will be concluded, or that there will be no agreement at all, with the dialogue instead collapsing amid bitter recriminations and acrimony. There is good reason to be wary; during the 1960s there were protracted and unsuccessful talks between the government of Ian Smith and the British government. This was followed by incessant ‘settlement’ talks during the 1970s, with final agreement only being reached at Lancaster House in 1979. The burden of ‘negotiations history’ could weigh against a successful outcome.

The second problem is the question of good faith; there is a deep and very personal animosity between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, and between their parties. At the signing ceremony, the body language of the two key signatories did not bode well for the future. The handshake between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was perfunctory, with neither man looking comfortable in the presence of the other. There is a long history of mutual mistrust, the MDC believes that ZANU-PF is only consistent in breaking its promises, and is wedded to the culture of violence. ZANU-PF has criticised the MDC’s habitual flip-flopping on policy, internal schisms, and status as a lynchpin of Western puppetry, which they deem makes it an unreliable negotiating partner. This lack of trust makes it difficult to engender goodwill and confidence in a successful outcome.

There is also a fundamental question on what exactly is being negotiated. The MOU states that the aim is to establish a ‘framework of working together in an inclusive government.’ This can mean all things to all men. ZANU-PF has stated that its goal is to create a Government of National Unity (GNU). This coalition government would essentially be the political endpoint in which to begin the economic reconstruction. The Tsvangirai MDC, on the other hand, envisages a transitional authority, including members from both the MDC and Zanu-PF, as the starting point for Political Sector Reform (PSR) process, which would culminate in internationally monitored, credible elections contested by all parties, within a period of less than two years. As the three parties engage in the dialogue, the ‘vision-gap’ will certainly be a major issue, and one which could be complicated by the agendas of the internal and external hard-line constituencies of both the major parties.

Another vexatious question is likely to be over who will be the main leader of Zimbabwe, and who will have effective power during whatever transition is agreed upon. Mugabe will almost certainly remain as president, and Tsvangirai will be pressured to accept either a re-minted prime ministership, or a vice-presidential position. This in itself is not the real problem, the key issue is who will control the institutions of the state, and whether Tsvangirai will have real power to effect change and enforce policy. ZANU-PF would like Tsvangirai to envisage a settlement in terms of a peace deal modelled on the 1987 Unity Accord which ended the war in Matebeleland, but which also led to the incorporation of ZAPU into ZANU-PF. Such a solution would be anathema to the MDC rank and file, who would regard it as a ‘betrayal’ to trade progress for peace. Robert Mugabe is also under pressure from ZANU-PF hardliners and the security sector elites not to negotiate away ZANU-PF’s grip on power, and thus ‘betray’ the revolution.

The timeline is in itself a cause for concern to many. The negotiators are pledged to have a final Agreement within two weeks – Zimbabwe’s dire predicament explains the abbreviated timeframe – but there are fears that the short time period and pressure to get a results may result in a quick fix, ‘cattle-prod’ agreement which fails to address the key issues, and which presents a series of temporary measures rather than a sustainable solution. It is unlikely that an agreement will be reached in two weeks, and this increases the risk of there being no agreement at all.


Although there are myriad reasons why the negotiations could fail, there are compelling reasons for it to succeed. The presence of a committed mediation team to assist President Mbeki is a major breakthrough. Although still the key mediator, Mbeki is no longer the sole mediator, and this move away from unilateral mediation is significant. After facing mounting pressure from the G8, UN and AU, Mbeki has increasingly used a ‘hard talk’ approach towards Mugabe to pressure the latter to negotiate. Mbeki’s personal prestige, and possibly the fortunes of the ANC in South African elections in 2009 depend to a great extent on a resolution of the Zimbabwe crisis. Zimbabwe’s crisis has also eroded some of the global credibility of both SADC and the AU, and has also proved divisive for both organisations. Zimbabwe has also divided the United Nations and has polarised AU/EU relations. Zimbabwe’s crisis, is, in short, destabilising the global security alliance architecture, and all stakeholders, regardless of which ‘side’ they support, need a successful outcome.

An optimistic reading of Zimbabwe’s negotiations’ history shows that the internal disputants in long running conflicts have, in extremis, negotiated successful outcomes. The Lancaster House Agreement in 1979 and the 1987 Unity Accord are key examples. The negotiators at the current talks are aware that Zimbabwe does have a rich tradition of serious negotiations between professionals, which have led to successful – if imperfect – outcomes.

The most compelling reason for the negotiations to succeed is the fact the failure will mean the death of a country. Abortive talks will lead to the complete collapse of the economy, mass starvation on an epic scale, the resurgence of violence and the continued flight of millions of Zimbabweans. Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF would retain power, but they would become exiles in their own land, as they become the caretakers of a geographical expression, rather than a real country. Zimbabwe’s crisis is already having a ‘butterfly effect’ as its troubles ripple out into the global stream, causing major, and often unforeseen, disturbances to regional and continental systems. Zimbabweans will view the talks with a wary optimism – but with optimism nonetheless. They have no choice. Despair and resilience have been their constant companions for the past decade. No-one doubts that the process will be long and arduous, but as has often been said, 2008 is a year which marks the start of a transition. The pessimists insist that this is a transition to apocalypse; optimists believe that the MOU is the first moment in a future that will see Zimbabwe dragging itself from the abyss. Failure is not an option.

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

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