Zimbabwe’s Crisis: What Next?

Zimbabwe is in the throes of a major political and economic crisis. The focal point of this crisis is the question of President Mugabe’s future. As events in the urban areas threaten to spiral out of control, the ZANU–PF Politburo (the supreme decision–making organ of the Party) is meeting later this week (week starting 26 March 2007). Although Zimbabwe’s problems are attributable to a multiplicity of internal and external factors, the reality is that, for both Mugabe’s supporters and his opponents, the real issue – the nexus around which debate on Zimbabwe’s future will revolve – is the question of whether or not President Mugabe should step down; and if so, when?

The Politburo will be debating the question of whether the Presidential elections, which were due to be held in 2008, should be held on time (President Mugabe had suggested that they should be postponed to 2010); and whether the Party should back Mugabe as their Presidential candidate for these elections, or urge him to stand down in 2008.  In addition, the Politburo will be debating whether to ‘harmonize’ the elections by bringing forward the 2010 parliamentary elections to 2008. It is these deliberations of the Politburo’s ‘grandees’, and not the activities of the opposition, which will decide Zimbabwe’s immediate future.

Although much of the discourse on, and in, Zimbabwe, has revolved around the economy, politics is the real centre of the crisis’s gravity; and the political question has now been formalized around the question of the Presidency. Until recently, the Presidency was politically ‘taboo’ as a topic of debate – but such has been the speed of events in recent weeks, that this issue is now the central discourse. The future of Zimbabwe is, for better or worse, enfolded within the future of the nation’s President. There can be little doubt that a transition of sorts has already begun; there remain considerable doubts about where the transition will lead, and what sorts of political – and possibly military – processes will occur within the transition. The key questions are whether this is a ‘false’ transition in which President Mugabe – or ‘Mugabeism’ rides out the storm and actually entrenches power. Or is this a ‘genuine’ transition to a negotiated, post–Mugabe future within the near future? And will the nation’s current medley of economic and political problems and violence crescendo into urban civil war? Or can the transition be managed with a minimum of bloodshed?

Who are the Stakeholders?
The core stakeholders are the people of Zimbabwe, but there are various power–brokers around an increasingly fractious – and fractured – political landscape. Within the ruling party, the political ‘grandees’ are ensconced within the Politburo. In the Politburo internal negotiations, Mugabe loyalists who might wish for him to be given a mandate at least until 2010, and possibly beyond, are likely to be challenged by the ‘progressives’, who would want Mugabe to stand down in 2008. Both sides will vigorously canvass the support of ‘neutrals’ within the Party and Politiburo.

The real power–brokers in Zimbabwe, are, however the security sector – the Army, Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), the Police, and War Veterans and various state militia.  The CIO and the Army are the most powerful of these groups. There are fissures within and between these organizations (particularly the police) but it is the soldiers and CIO who are the power behind the throne, and no decisions on Zimbabwe’s future can effectively be implemented without the involvement and co–operation of the security sector, which has the keys to the armoury of violence.

Other internal stakeholders include the informal civil–society groupings which have coalesced under the ‘Save Zimbabwe’ banner. These groups include the formal political opposition, as well as consumer rights, gender rights, and health rights groups. The opposition has also been divided but the violence meted out to them by the state, has, paradoxically, raised the opposition’s  profile and encouraged rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leaders Tsvangirayi and Mutambara to reconcile their differences. 

External Stakeholders
Zimbabwe’s crisis is of grave concern to her neighbours. An apocalyptic collapse and/or critical escalation in violence could send a flood of Zimbabwean refugees streaming across the borders in an unprecedented exodus, thus distorting neighbouring economies.

Zimbabwe’s internal divisions are mirrored regionally. South Africa has adopted a controversial ‘quiet diplomacy’ policy. The South Africans are mindful of their apartheid–era policy of regional ‘destructive engagement’ and are not keen to be seen as ‘overthrowing’ a former ally. In addition, Mugabe’s policy of confrontation with Britain and the US, the IMF and the World Bank, has been popular within Africa and abroad. Within South Africa, the discourse on democracy is embedded within the discourse on race. Many within the ANC are deeply suspicious of a democracy agenda which they feel may be driven by a conservative white business and political lobby in South Africa and internationally. President Mbeki is also reluctant to use South Africa’s economic power to precipitate change, saying that it is Zimbabwe’s poor who would suffer the most. But there is growing criticism of South Africa’s stance. There have also been signs of a change of policy; South Africa is keen to have the Zimbabwean crisis resolved by 2010, when South Africa will be hosting the football World Cup. There is little doubt that the South African initiative of putting a time limit to the resolution of the crisis has influenced the Politburo decision to discuss harmonizing the Presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008. 

Regionally, Zambia, which is the new chair of the South African Development Community (SADC), has been increasingly critical of Mugabe and has censured the South Africans for not doing more. Namibia and Mozambique have been long–term allies of Mugabe, but Botswana, which like Zambia, supported Joshua Nkomo during the Liberation War, has been sparing with its support for Mugabe.

Outside of Africa, opinion remains polarized. The British and American administrations are implacably opposed to Mugabe. But their credibility in the discourse on governance and human rights has been critically eroded by their interventions in Iraq, which have led to civil war in that country, and creeping authoritarianism in the US and UK themselves. Thus, the moral debates on Zimbabwe are inextricably linked to the polarization of global opinion on the War on Terror. Mugabe has been criticized by much of the global community; but there has also been a renaissance of global anti–Americanism, and Mugabe has found moral and financial support from such countries as China and Iran – countries which are challenging the US ideological and financial hegemony.

South Africa and the UN Security Council
South Africa has for the past three months been a non–permanent member of the UN Security Council. This month (March 2007), South Africa is President of the Council.

For Britain and the US, the hope was that South Africa would be an ally, helping them to corral the votes of recalcitrant members on issues such as North Korea, Iran’s missile programme and Zimbabwe. So far, this has not proved to be the case, with the South Africans muting discussions on sanctions on Iran, and not putting Zimbabwe on the agenda. The South Africans are deeply concerned that putting Zimbabwe on the UN agenda would give the perception to Africans and others that they are proxies for US and UK foreign policy. They want to promote an ‘African’ and/or developing world agenda.

In addition, Russia and China are emerging as major investors in South Africa, and the South Africans wish to retain good relations with these two past and future superpowers, both of whom are on good terms with Mugabe’s government. The ANC also has historic links with both countries, as well as with Zimbabwe, which was an ally during the Liberation struggle. The South Africans are thus unlikely to initiate any radical motions on Zimbabwe at the UN anytime soon.

Future Scenarios
With growing internal unrest, international pressure, mounting violence and political negotiations dominating Zimbabwe’s landscape, for Zimbabwe, the future is now. Anything could happen – but possible scenarios include:

Politburo meeting (28 March) – Mugabe loyalists outflank their rivals and pass a resolution providing for Mugabe to contest Presidential elections in 2008 as Party leader. Parliamentary elections are brought forward to 2008. The likely result would be an immediate upsurge of political violence against Mugabe’s opponents within the ruling Party and the MDC. There would also be a political alliance between anti–Mugabe factions within ZANU, and the MDC as they prepare to contest elections in 2008. There would be a huge increase in political violence nationwide, and a possible economic collapse later in the year, triggering an increasing exodus. South Africa could well be forced to enter the arena.

Politburo meeting (28 March) – After a contentious meeting, the Politburo agrees on Mugabe stepping down in 2008 as scheduled. The ruling party would then have protracted deliberations on who should be their Presidential candidate for 2008. (There are a plethora of contenders). The political landscape is now reconfigured with candidates from all sides emerging both for the Presidential and the parliamentary elections in 2008. There will be an increase in political violence with government and opposition militants attacking each other and bystanders. A major point of contention will be the question of whether the 2008 elections will be observed/supervised by international monitors/peacekeepers. The opposition will certainly want this, while the ruling Party may not. A compromise will be difficult; the ruling party may agree to regional election monitors/supervisors, but the opposition will certainly insist on African Union (AU) or Commonwealth or UN observers.

If Mugabe is encouraged to stand for the 2008 elections, the unrest will certainly continue, possibly peaking with the imposition of martial law over the entire country. As the economy continues to unravel, rural unrest could be ‘twinned’ with urban protest, especially now that the government is no longer subsidizing small scale farmers. The situation will entrench the power of the security sector.

If it is decided that the elections should be sequential rather than simultaneous (i.e., Presidential in 2008 and parliamentary in 2010), it is possible that Zimbabwe would be run by a transitional/‘caretaker’ government until 2010. This government will be under great pressure to reign in the violence, and begin a more democratic era; but they will also face internal pressure not to sell out the Liberation legacy, or to roll–back the land revolution of 2000. The security sector will also be reluctant to relinquish their control of the strategic sectors. Any new government must have a Plan for transforming civil–military relations without dangerously alienating the security sector in Zimbabwe. A ‘transitional’ government could be either entirely ruling party, or a coalition of government and the opposition. The greatest challenge for such a government would be to avoid fragmenting under the pressures of change.

Unlikely Scenarios
It is unlikely that the Politburo will vote to postpone the Presidential elections until 2010; simply put, the country and the international community cannot wait that long.

A formal military coup is unlikely provided the security sector is consulted in deliberations, are not made to feel threatened, and there are no threats of retribution against Mugabe, their patron. 

Opposition insurgency – there have been calls for the opposition to launch a war against the ruling party. This is unlikely to happen; the MDC do not command enough popular support to do so, and launching a war would result in swift and terrible retribution from government forces. Nevertheless, the MDC youth and general public are increasingly fighting back, and it is likely that their responses will become increasingly sophisticated. If MDC leaders cannot deliver a credible strategy for victory, then they may well be overtaken by a younger generation of opposition activists who are willing to fight violence with violence, thus challenging Tsvangirayi’s leadership. A postponement of the Presidential elections to 2010 would thus also leave Tsvangirayi open to challengers from his own party.

Zimbabwe has been here before: the Rhodesian declaration of UDI in the mid–1960’s precipitated a protracted insurgency and national crisis which lasted for nearly two decades. In 1979, and again in 1987, negotiations prevented a descent into anarchy. The doomsayers have gathered; but it is increasingly likely that, once again, negotiations will prevent Zimbabwe becoming the region’s first failed state. The stakes have never been higher.

Tapera Knox Chitiyo
Head, Africa Programme, RUSI

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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