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Zimbabwe: Challenges of a democratic transition


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By Crisford Chogugudza

ZIMBABWE, once a promising ‘democracy’ and beacon of hope in sub-Saharan Africa, has pathetically slipped irretrievably into the troubled waters of an increasingly fierce brutal dictatorship reminiscent of the Mobutu, Amin and Ceausescu era.

The country is on the brink of an unprecedented economic collapse and its revival under the current administration is almost impossible to imagine. It would appear there are elements in the Mugabe establishment who are determined to bring the country further down to its knees at all costs and in defiance of the brave and incessant calls for a democratic transition in Zimbabwe.

The construction of personalism, manipulation of nationalism and abuse of pan-Africanism has become a key part of Zanu PF politics in recent times. Some have called it ruthless survival politics in the face of perceived adversity from the concerned West.

Zimbabweans continue to risk death and are being embarrassed daily at the country’s frontiers as they attempt to flee the country in search of survival in neighbouring countries. Unofficial statistics put the figure of Zimbabwean political and economic refugees at more than 3 million in the entire Diaspora with the majority being in South Africa.

The reality of life in Zimbabwe today is that of gloom and despair. The truth is that democratic transition through universal suffrage is increasingly becoming a distant reality and this painful reality would have been inconceivable if bonafide liberation heroes such as the late Joshua Nkomo, and Dr Edison Zvobgo were alive.

What we see in Zimbabwe today is a regime that is virtually on a war path with its own people. Unofficial rumours say that the number of people disappearing in the country under mysterious circumstances has increased sharply as the regime struggles to deal with rising political dissent.

Of significant concern is the status of civil liberties in Zimbabwe. Freedom of expression, the most crucial of all human rights, continues to be criminalised as President Mugabe recently signed another controversial piece of legislation aimed at further curtailing freedom of expression in Zimbabwe. Emails and telephone communication to and from Zimbabwe are now subject to gagging courtesy of technology received from China.

Threats, discrimination, detention, and violence continue to affect freedom of expression in the country. Freedom after speech, a concept originally coined by Norway-based Zimbabwean laureate Chengerai Hove, is becoming a luxury for many in Zimbabwe.

The most prominent members of the opposition and their sympathisers have become subjects of wanton arrest and harassment. Critics allege that the once revered judicial system in the country has either been infiltrated or staffed with Zanu PF ‘apologists’ whose judgements are either selective or questionable in most instances.

The Mugabe regime has by its brutal acts imposed a siege mentality amongst common people by creating a culture of fear resulting in people becoming afraid to speak, even though they may be no expressed laws against free expression. Criticising Mugabe and Zanu PF today is akin to criticising God and can be a dangerous act subject to lengthy detention or mysterious disappearance in some cases.

Since Mugabe’s loss of the constitutional referendum in 2000, there has been a systematic strangulation of all the means available for Zimbabweans to express themselves. Any newspaper or journalist who dares publish the slightest criticism of any hostile government policy is branded an enemy of the state and ends up in detention and his paper without a licence. The story of Daily News is a classic example.

The plain truth is that a democratic transition can never take place where there is severe curtailment of civil liberties. Tyranny and despotism have become very rampant and profoundly entrenched in Zimbabwe, allowing the establishment to easily deal with the few remaining brave intellectual critics.

Today, there is a lot being said about the possibility of free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. It is inconceivable how this can be achieved in a state where there is no press freedom or simple freedom of expression or association. The opposition and anti establishment civil organisations are only given national press coverage when they stage peaceful demonstrations and get beaten up for expressing their democratic rights. The idea here is being to portray them as law breakers.

The question to ask now is what options exist for a successful transition in Zimbabwe, democratic or otherwise?

A number of suggestions have been put forward but there is virtually nobody who has committed themselves to helping the people of Zimbabwe in the same manner as Sudan’s Darfour region and other troubles spots in Africa. China and Russia are not doing Africa and Zimbabwe in particular any favour by supporting and sustaining repressive autocratic regimes. Zimbabwe, like Dafour, meets all the criteria for a full UN Security Council discussion.

The number of people dying of hunger, HIV/Aids and political violence in Zimbabwe put together has reached catastrophic proportions, and if this does not constitute a disaster, l wonder what in this world should be described as such.

Bill Clinton, former US President has publicly admitted that the world let down the people of Rwanda during the genocide years believing that it was an African problem. If the current trend in the way things are deteriorating in Zimbabwe continues, Zimbabwe could be another Rwanda. It appears nobody is paying attention to Zimbabwe now. It’s discouraging to note that sections of civil society in the UK think that stripping Mugabe of his honorary doctorates is more important than pressuring the Brown government to initiate meaningful multilateral dialogue on the Zimbabwe crisis.

Some have invested immense hopes in South African President Thabo Mbeki, but all what Mbeki has managed to do is to raise Mugabe’s political ego and buy time for him. Critics have said that South Africa is actually benefiting more from the Zimbabwean crisis than otherwise. It is true that most of the foreign investment that would have been shared with Zimbabwe is going their way. Some have questioned whether South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki is unable or unwilling to help solve the Zimbabwe political mess. His failure to rein in Zanu PF in the failed inter-party talks raises more eyebrows about his integrity and suitability as a peace broker.

Given the economic leverage South Africa enjoys over Zimbabwe, people fail to understand why South Africa has allowed things to deteriorate to such desperate levels unprecedented in Africa outside war zones. Some question the wisdom of keeping quiet when a neighbour’s house in on fire. Such rhetoric as ‘quiet diplomacy’ will soon be consigned to the annals of history as the crisis in Zimbabwe continues unabated. The true nature of Thabo Mbeki’s actions is subject to further scrutiny and analysis by political pundits and historians.

The overly fancied SADC initiative spearheaded by Thabo Mbeki is doomed to fail as long as Mbeki shies away from the carrot and stick approach to Zimbabwe’s problem. Mugabe has very little respect for his fellow African leaders and these leaders have blindly supported his dangerous and expensive war of words against the West. SADC has neither the institutional capacity nor the political will to resolve Zimbabwe’s problems.

Mugabe sees SADC as a mirror image of the defunct Frontline States (Dictators Club) or a permanent ally that does not have the moral right to oppose him for what ever reason. SADC once again failed to stamp any authority on Mugabe and let alone acknowledge that the Zimbabwean crisis exists. It is high time the more powerful members of the International Community take the Zimbabwe crisis more seriously to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

It is too late to dwell on the origins of the crisis because there will never be agreement as to who is significantly to blame. Time has come to act on the political and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. It is now time to draw up a UN Security Council plan for Zimbabwe similar to Darfour, East Timor and Kosovo and the earlier this is done, the better.

If it is impossible to have consensus at the UN about how to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis, options for individual countries such as the US and UK to act do exist as long as their actions are proportionate to the scale of the problem. However, most Zimbabweans prefer a peaceful transition of power in Zimbabwe if that can be achieved.

The idea of democratic transition in Zimbabwe through elections is a mere academic expression. Elections do not work, have never worked and will not work in Zimbabwe for as long as they are run by the same individuals and institutions that have run previous ones. A new constitution for next year’s elections may not be conceivable now but major concessions can still be made in terms of repealing major aspects of electoral law i.e. Access to Information and Personal Privacy Act (AIPPA), Public Order and Security Act (POSA), constituency boundaries, voter registration and election observation by credible international observers including those from the UK, EU and US. Without the above considerations, elections will come and go as usual; Mugabe will still be there with a ‘disputed mandate’ and no ‘legitimacy’.

The state of the opposition in Zimbabwe is one of sadness, the opposition is unwittingly slowing the process of change instead of speeding it up. They lack powerful, strategic and charismatic leadership. This adds to the existing woes of despair as hopes for a new democratic dispensation fade everyday. A leadership renewal or re-branding in the opposition hierarchy is manifestly becoming a reality.

The era of ‘professional leadership’ is long gone, it’s either the current leaders radically change tactics or hand over to a new fresh pair of hands. In the West, UK in particular, opposition leaders are not sacred cows they come and go as the political pendulum changes. In Zimbabwe unfortunately the opposition continues to receive a media honeymoon from the independent papers even when it is clear they are blundering.

On a related issue Zimbabweans need to be reminded that heroes are not necessarily leaders and where there is a convergence of the two the better. The issue of leadership change in the opposition should be desensitised and looked at with a broad mind. Some will recall that heroes such as Joshua Nkomo, Herbert Chitepo, Edison Zvobgo, Ndabaningi Sithole and Parirenyatwa who pioneered the liberation struggle did not become presidents, but their respective roles were instrumental and central to the struggle for liberation.

The increasingly belligerent twin MDC opposition leadership should be complementing not decimating each other’s political integrity. Going to elections as divided will not earn them victory. If Morgan Tsvangirai lost 2002 elections by 400 000 votes short from the 2002 presidential ballot, simple arithmetic tells me that allowing Morgan Tsvangirai to go it alone will be a dangerous gamble which could erode his chances of winning elections. The man is inspired by huge attendances at political rallies which are essentially made up of potential supporters most of whom are not registered voters. It is unfortunate he is rapidly loosing the plot.

As things stand now, Morgan Tsvangirai may loose substantial Matabeleland and Midlands votes to the rival smaller MDC Mutambara faction thereby assuring Mugabe another controversial election victory. It appears Zimbabweans will be bracing for another painful defeat and long, unwinnable legal battles against Zanu PF. Some have predicted that mass demonstrations such as the ones which brought down dictators such as Nicholai Ceausescu, Suharto and the orange revolution in Ukraine will never happen in Zimbabwe because of the brutality of the uniformed forces among other factors.

Respected political analysts such as former Zanu PF and government chief propagandist Prof Jonathan Moyo, have predicted possibility of a coup detat in Zimbabwe as the political situation continues to deteriorate. This prediction is based on the assumption that the soldiers themselves are increasingly becoming despondent hence the mass defections recently witnessed. If Mugabe does not act fast enough to resolve the succession issue, then a coup detat may be inevitable as conditions for this eventuality are firming each day. On another issue, Mugabe would be making a grotesque mistake by paying attention to the lunacy of the life presidency mantra as demanded by his party worshipers and zealots. The era of personality cult and life presidency is long gone.

The question to ask is, will the people of Zimbabwe accept a coup detat, the answer is NO. Coups detats have the tendency to distort the process of democratisation. Above all, a coup detat would be a dangerous precedent for future democratically elected governments. The process of transition from militarisation to civilianisation of power could be a long and painful one as has happened in Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana and other ruthless African regimes where coup detats were fashionable until recently.

Lastly, cognisant of the failures of previous initiatives, and the likely failure of current initiatives to bring about change in Zimbabwe, the only option left is to bring in the UN to make a decision on the future of Zimbabwe before it’s too late. Elections have failed to change anything and Zanu PF has equally failed to use the contested mandate and legitimacy they have to save the country from collapsing.

A UN intervention strategy can start with forcing Zanu PF and the opposition to share power under supervision from a neutral figure pending the holding of elections. Alternatively, the UN and SADC in conjunction with local civil bodies could be allowed to organise and supervise the 2008 elections and hand over power to who ever wins. Zimbabwe is increasingly becoming a time bomb waiting to explode unless the international community shows real leadership to save the country.

There may not be any diamonds, oil and uranium in Zimbabwe to warrant the urgent intervention of the US, UK and EU but the reality is that the rot and collapse continues in front of their eyes. A resurgent Zimbabwe will undoubtedly be an asset to the West and beacon of stability and prosperity in Southern Africa.

The West cannot afford another Rwanda and Zimbabwe could as well be another Rwanda unfolding if they fail to act decisively.

Crisford Chogugudza is a Zimbabwean academic writing from London, UK. He can be contacted on

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