Zimbabweans on next steps in the electoral crisis

As the post-election crisis lurches on in Zimbabwe, the question on everyone’s mind is “What next?” The ZANU-PF government briefly signalled an interest in a “transitional government of national unity” – headed by President Mugabe, of course, but involving opposition MDC politicians as well. The Herald – a state-owned newspaper which floated that idea of national unity – has changed course and now runs an editorial titled “Unity govt not feasible“. Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga renounced the previous statements about unity and emphasized that ZANU-PF would challenge MDC in a run-off election.

Uncertainty over the future provides great fodder for discussion. At Harvard University in Cambridge MA this evening, a group of very smart Zimbabweans and Zimbabwe-watchers got together to discuss possible scenarios. Brian Chingono, a student at Harvard, offers a frame for the discussions which will be familiar to readers of this blog:
– It’s been almost a month, and no presidential election results have been released
– Robert Mugabe, in power for 28 years, has a history of political violence, dating back to violence against the Ndebele in the 1980s
– Thousands of Zimbabweans have been displaced by post-election violence
– Parlimentary results, which showed a victory for the opposition MDC, are now being “recounted”
– Chinese arms shipments to Zimbabwe raise fears that the denoument to the current situation may be a violent one.
He shows a video report from SkyNews – who have been doing excellent video journalism from within the country – showing violence against MDC supporters, and a system of reports on paper and by SMS that the MDC argues prove that they won the presidential election.

Chaz Maviyane-Davies, an award winning activist graphic designer, is a Zimbabwean exile. In the lead up to the 2002 Presidential election, he ran a series of striking ads, aimed at Zimbabwean voters. His aim, he tells us, was to “raise consciousness about the situation”. He spent 2-3 hours a day on the pieces and distributed them globally via email. While it might have been more effective to distribute the pieces on print, cost made it impossible for Maviyane-Davies – instead, he relied on sending them globally and hoping people would distribute, print and be moved by them. A later project, Portal of Truth, offered stark graphic commentary on the stolen 2002 Zimbabwe elections. His images are a tour of some of the darker moments in Zimbabwean political history, touching on the church’s unwillingness to enter into politics, Zimbabwe’s incursions into the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government’s willingness to print money to contest elections, voter intimidation by the military and efforts to prevent election observers from monitoring elections. Many feature Zimbabwean proverbs: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a small room with a mosquito.”

Maviyane-Davies didn’t create images for the 2005 or 2008 elections, but he’s been working on images in the last few weeks, including one for the poster that advertised today’s event, featured above.

My friend and colleage Tawanda Mutasah, the executive director of Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, is asked to address the thorny question, “How has Mugabe managed to stay in power?” He offers two answers – domestic repression, and a pretense of African legitimation. For decades, Mutasah tells us, Mugabe has terrorized voters throughout the country, with particularly severe cases in Midlands and the southwest of the country, to rig elections. While rigging efforts this decade have received more attention, it’s really a very old strategy.

A key date for Zimbabwe was March 2001, when SADC (a regional trade body) agreed to a new set of norms and standards for elections. (Tawanda clarified by email today that the 2001 agreement was by the parliamentary forum of SADC. An agreement in August 2004 by SADC heads of state cemented these changes.) The fact that Zimbabwe signed on to these standards “makes it easier to say the elections have been stolen without people complaining about UK and US influence,” as these are African norms and standards, agreed to by Zim’s neighors.

The real problem, Mutasah explains, is the “joint operations command”, a group of six generals who are functionally in control of the government. “They’ve told Mugabe he can’t reliquish power” because they’re afraid of what will happen when they are no longer in power. They’re (understandably) afraid of being prosecuted for political murders and crimes against humanity.

Mugabe has been a master at leveraging his revolutionary credentials, but Mutasah tells us that “we’re seeing cracks in this pretense. The chink is now clear in Mugabe’s armor.” For years, he’s claimed that all of Africa supports him against the rest of the world and that he’s leading an African revolution. But now the president of Zambia has declared that any country in SADC which allows the Chinese arms shipment to be delivered will be violating SADC election codes. The president of Tanzania, who is currently heading the AU, has described the situation in Zimbabwe as “unacceptable”. President Mbeki of South Africa is looking increasingly isolated.

That said, Mutasah gives us a quick history lesson: in 1971, the Byrd Amendment overturned a ban on US trade with Rhodesia, allowing the US to import minerals despite Ian Smith’s deeply repressive regime. “Mugabe has been aware from long back that the politics of the international community has tended to be fickle, and I dare say, unprincipled.” The hope, today, is that the international community is changing and that it’s not monolithic. There needs to be a movement around global human rights solidarity that marginalizes Mugabe in terms of supporting the rights of poor people in Zimbabwe.

Andrew Meldrum, a journalist for The Guardian and The Economist who lived for years in post-independence Zimbabwe before being imprisoned and deported, sees cause for hope in the current situation. His proximate cause for hope is the international community’s refusal to allow an arms shipment from China to be delivered to Zimbabwe.

The message of this refusal, he tells us, is that Mugabe can’t win at the ballot box – he needs guns. And African leaders are starting to step up and pressure China (against a backdrop of China’s problems with Tibet and Darfur), which appears to have led to China backing down from delivering arms. In the past, Meldrum tells us he advised the US and British government not to condemn the Zimbabwean government because it ends up reinforcing Mugabe’s argument that he’s at war against colonial powers. “But at this point, things are so desperate, all possible criticism should go on.” He suggests that criticism should focus on democracy, the rule of law and human rights – “Who can be against those things?”

He notes that the government’s latest plan (which already appears to be taken off the table) for a national unity government isn’t realistic. “A government of national unity governed by Robert Mugabe is a contradiction in terms.” Mugabe doesn’t behave democratically within his own party. There’s no chance that the opposition – or the international community – will accept that solution.

Dambudzo Muzenda, a blogger and a student at the Kennedy School of Government, sees the recent election as proof positive that the national mood has turned against Mugabe. She believes that the election was “a personal vote against Mugabe and ZANU-PF, and that “people won’t accept a government with Mugabe at the top of the ticket.” Asked about the possibility of a truth and reconcilliation committee, she wonders whether this process will make it harder to oust hardliners, who will be afraid of facing persecution. “If that means trading immunity against justice… I would rather see Mugabe go scott free than see him stay in power and cause so much damage.”

Any conversation about the future of Zimbabwe has to face issues of land distribution. Meldrum unpacks the history of the 1980 Lancaster Agreement, in which the UK agreed to provide fiscal assistance to Zimbabwe to allow for land distribution. “Zimbabwe needed land reform before the seizures. And now it needs it again. No one has benefitted from these seizures.” He believes it will take 15 years, a process that might involve inviting experienced white farmers to bid on large farms and coach black farmers to the point where they’re able to productively take over these farms. Mutasah points out that the UK honored part of the Lancaster agreement, putting up £44m to compensate farmers. Unfortunately, this money rarely made it into farmer’s hands, and farms were given to cronies, not to people who could productively farm them. “Those guys in the upper echelons of the government – each of them owns at least five farms.”

Many of the questions focused on what diaspora Zimbabweans might do to effectively help change. Muzenda points out that roughly a quarter of the nation’s population lives in South Africa. They’re afraid to come out into the streets and protest, as many are in South Africa illegally. But South Africa could negotiate an agreement to allow disaporans to vote, either in an official or an unofficial way. And some activists are organizing protests, like attempts to jam phone lines at ZANU-PF headquarters and at certain ministries and embassies. In a later question, Muzenda is less hopeful, noting that protests within Zimbabwe will likely lead to declaration of martial law. She ends with the hope that Mugabe’s age may become a factor, or that a Jacob Zuma presidency of South Africa would be less forgiving and flexible with Mugabe. Mutasah wonders whether a public statement from Nelson Mandela would help further undercut Mugabe’s anti-colonialist cred and suggests people contact Mandela’s foundation.

An audience member wonders how Mugabe and ZANU-PF managed to allow election results to be published at polling places, which appears to be the key factor in preventing the election from being rigged. Mutasah quotes section and verse: “Section 64-1E is the key provision.” It was added to Zimbabwe election law under pressure from opposition parties. That pressure resulted from international condemnation of violence on March 11, 2007, where government forces broke up a peaceful prayer meeting. The outrage over that violence forced dialog between the government and opposition, and it allowed for a key change in election law.

I asked the panelists how they felt about the issue of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Zimbabwe has an amazing history of forgiveness – Ian Smith, who led the apartheid government, was allowed to live out his days peacefully under the Mugabe government that fought for his ouster. How much forgiveness were panelists willing to offer in exchange for a change of government?

Chingono suggested that Zimbabweans were so desperate for basic human rights and food that they’d be willing to forgive many of the people involved with the government. Mutasah was far more cautious, warning of the dangers of “premature forgiveness”. “We are ready to go beyond the current impasse, but we see deep-seated anger,” connected to the massacre in Matabeleland, the 2000 killed between 2000 and 2002. The important lessons from the South Africa TRC, he tells us, is the importance of forcing people to confess their crimes in a serious, open, contrite way before being granted amnesty. He believes Zimbabwe will need a TRC, perhaps one in which lower-ranking functionaries are prosecuted while leaders are given amnesty, or perhaps vice versa. “In our experience with transitional justice, we’ve discovered that when anger is bottled up, it doesn’t always come up in a civilized way.” The challenge is not just to oust Mugabe – it’s to build a prosperous and stable country after the fact, which involves facing and moving through decades of frustration and anger.


Two bonus readings:

An amazing post from an anonymous documentary filmmaker in Zimbabwe, unpacking the economics of Zimbabwe under hyperinflation and the people who are benefitting from it.

– Chinese resentment over the China/Zimbabwe arms deal and international press attention to China’s role in Zimbabwe, translated by John Kennedy for Global Voices.

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