Zimbabwe: The Shadow of Elections — by Brian Raftopoulos

This piece first appeared at Solidarity Peace Trust‘s Zimbabwe Update No. 4, 9 March 2012.


A great tragedy of the Mugabe regime has been the deconstruction of national institutions, which some analysts have mistaken for a ‘radicalised state.’ In effect Zimbabweans have witnessed a destructive form of vanguardist politics in which a particular party has claimed the right to speak for the majority and in so doing has turned its back on the establishment of stable, functioning national institutions, through which the generality of Zimbabwean citizens could hold those in power to account. In the process, on the one hand, the messaging from the most arrogant section of this elite has increasingly been couched in terms of a priestly imposition of a selective dogma, dressed in a nationalist cloth that provides precious little cover for most of the population. Additionally, through control over the centralised structures of coercion in the country, key members of the security sector have spawned informalised structures of violence that threaten once again to mar the prospects for a generally acceptable election outside of a fuller implementation of the GPA.

On the other hand the countries of the West, through an increasingly problematic sanctions regime, have added to the political gridlock in Zimbabwe in the guise of being the arbiters of global human rights. In the face of the inconsistencies in the application of the ‘right to protect’ by the Atlantic emporium in contemporary global politics, this potentially noble project is in danger of being cast as yet another form of imperial arrogance.

At present the rush to elections by a beleaguered party of liberation must be set against this broader context, and the dangers that a rapid descent into a plebiscite are likely to bring upon Zimbabwean citizens. In a useful article in the Zimbabwe Independent 17th February 2012 (‘Zimbabwe: Elections in 2012 or GPA/GNU 11’), Ibbo Mandaza clearly spelt out the current dangers in rushing to the polls, pointing in particular to the persistent economic problems that marked the debacle of 2008, and the narrow interests of sections of the securocratic elite. My concern in this discussion will focus more on the regional and international dimensions of the current political challenges.

Since late last year the SADC mediation lost some momentum as the facilitator, President Zuma and his team were caught up in the internal problems of the ANC, the centenary celebrations of the South African ruling party, and the machinations of the election over the new head of the African Union. Thus the momentum and promise built up by the more critical position taken towards Zanu PF at the SADC summit in Livingstone in March 2011, lost some of its force as the year wore on. The intended meeting between the facilitator and the GPA Principals to discuss outstanding issues of the agreement has yet to take place, and the lull in the mediation has spurred Mugabe and those in Zanu PF keen on an early election, into renewed pressure for such an event.

It is therefore imperative for SADC to maintain their current stand on the implementation of the GPA before elections, as the regional body remains the major force with the diplomatic muscle to block the destructive rush to an election that the country is not prepared for. A key part of the Mbeki mediation from 2007 was that the Zimbabwean political parties and SADC retain control of the mediation process. In this regards he proposed that the ‘principal task of the international community is to encourage and support the united effort of the people of Zimbabwe and leaders of Zimbabwe and to find a solution to their problems, at all costs avoiding any temptation to divide these people and leaders, regardless of the ways and means that might be used to foment such division.’

This basic proposition has continued to guide the Zuma mediation and the current SADC position. However it is imperative that the regional body ensures that the fight to protect the sovereignty of the region from destructive outside interference is matched by an equal determination to ensure the protection of the democratic and human rights in each of the countries in the region. This balance of imperatives was not always apparent in the Mbeki mediation, notwithstanding his important role in pushing the mediation through in Zimbabwe, and SADC has yet to ensure this dual mandate in the country. Pressure on SADC must be maintained to add new momentum to the facilitation process and ensure that the fatigue with the Zimbabwe problem inside the regional body does not lead to its willingness to accept minimal electoral conditions that do not meet the conditions set out in the GPA.

Another problematic factor in the Zimbabwe equation is the current role of the EU and the US. From the beginning of the mediation both these bodies were at best skeptical of the process and at worst cynical about its outcomes. Once the GPA was signed there was a largely luke warm response to the agreement, marked by a combination of humanitarian assistance and the continued use of the sanctions or targeted measures imposed in the early 2000’s, to influence the outcome of the process, contrary to the content of the agreement and the official positions of the signatories of the parties and guarantors of the agreement. What could have been a moment at which the sanctions were, at least suspended as the basis for a broader political re-engagement, provided the pretext for a persistent contestation, and the lack of consensus between African and Western countries on this issue. Thus unlike the Kenyan agreement, negotiated by Koffi Annan with the full support of the Western countries, the Zimbabwean GPA has been bogged down by the continuing dispute between SADC, and the West over the implementation of the GPA.

Recently two important initiatives have attempted to move the debate on sanctions forward. Firstly a report by the International Crisis Group on the 6 February 2012 broadly advocated, amongst other recommendations, for a combination of a comprehensive review of the targeted measures and greater flexibility in its implementation, with the continued use of sanctions as a strategy. Similarly on the 17th February the EU, in order to ‘encourage further progress in the implementation of the GPA,’ removed 51 individuals and 20 ‘entities’ from the visa ban and asset freeze list, while also keeping the rest of the sanctions in place. The central problem with the approach taken by both these initiatives is that while there is an implicit recognition that pressure from the sanctions has not produced the broader political changes they had intended, and become counter-productive in the context of the GPA, the use of the sanctions remains a central part of the diplomatic approach of the Western countries towards the continuing problems of the GPA. This approach has been at odds with both the GPA and the SADC position, and ensured a persistent dissonance in the position of the regional body and the West over the matter. The major benefactor of this disagreement has been Zanu PF which has since 2009 wielded the sanctions issue as another example of the West’s paternalist approach to African initiatives. In the broader context of the AU’s marginalization in Libya and the Ivory Coast, this message has resonated strongly in the region.

It is instructive to compare the current period in Zimbabwean politics with that leading up to the Lancaster House agreement. One of the major factors that determined the transition to independence in 1980 was the convergence of pressures on the national forces from regional and international players in the ‘Rhodesian Question’ in the late 1970’s. These included: the pressure from the South African Government on the Smith regime for a settlement in the context of the Apartheid regime’s reformulation of its strategic interests at this time; the influence of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka in August 1979 in pushing the Thatcher government into not accepting the Internal Settlement and instead agreeing to a constitutional conference of all the major parties; and the decisive position of Front Line States and the Cuban Government in persuading the Patriotic Front to attend the Lancaster House Conference.

In the present context there is a much weaker alignment of regional and international forces. In particular there is a lack of a strong consensus between SADC and the Western countries, while the Commonwealth is no longer a key factor in the Zimbabwe negotiations. This lack of aligned pressure has allowed greater space for the obstructive forces in Zanu PF to operate, and played an important role in Mugabe’s attempts to undermine the GPA and call for an early election. At this stage, notwithstanding the serious risks involved, it may prove a way forward for SADC, the EU and the US to agree to the following: Suspension of the sanctions on the basis of, and in recognition of, an agreed road map by the GPA partners, rather than waiting for a full implementation of the GPA; an agreement between the regional and international players that in the event of another failed election precipitated by the coercive forces in Zanu PF, the sanctions would be reintroduced with the support of SADC.

A continued stalemate over this issue is not likely to improve the prospects for a democratic transition in the country, and the growing concern on the continent over the West’s disregard for continental institutions is likely to strengthen Mugabe’s hand.

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

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