Zimbabwe: the prospects for democratic transition

The death of an autocratic leader does not necessarily entail the fulfilment of the long-cherished democratic transition. In the event of Mugabe’s demise, will the Government of National Unity be able to achieve transition to a separation of powers and more pluralist democracy? 

Kudzi Matereke
12 May 2012

Prior to the Government of National Unity (GNU), education, health and public transport systems in Zimbabwe had virtually collapsed, inflation had gone over the roof, and the future was bleak. Now the economy has stabilised, dollarization has controlled inflation levels, schools and hospitals have reopened and buses are back on the roads. Can ZANU-PF manage to break away from the GNU and go it alone now?

In attempting to answer this question, it should be remembered that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party went into the GNU not as a sign of virtue or magnanimity towards its foes, but because the election had delivered a resoundingly loud and clear rejection of the status quo. The ZANU-PF government had lost its political legitimacy and moral authority. To continue to stick its head in the sand like it had done in previous elections was not an option. Socially and economically, Zimbabwe had plunged into the throes of a political crisis which rendered governance untenable unless a deal was struck with their loathed enemies in the opposition. Although within ZANU-PF there was a faction of hardliners that believed the ruling party could continue alone, the events of the April 2008 elections revealed what Mugabe had for long been advised by some of the more moderate and reform-minded individuals within his party - that the impasse could only be broken by talking the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) factions into a GNU arrangement.

The events during and in the aftermath of the March 2008 election best explain what is happening now. The ballot count clearly spelled out ZANU-PF defeat but the machinations of the military brought a different result. Is it a surprise that the vote-counting process was suddenly halted and relocated to secret locations? Is it deniable that the relocation was meant to reverse the ruling party’s defeat by the opposition and deliver a stalemate to pave way for the re-run demanded by our constitutional provisions in those circumstances? This military coup by stealth marked the re-launch of a violent campaign between April and June 2008 in a presidential run-off election. Soldiers, security agents, ‘war veterans’ and the youth militias were deployed in all the provinces to guarantee ZANU-PF victory in what they termed a ‘corrective election’. Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from this sham election frustrated those who sought a coerced outright ZANU-PF victory. While it frustrated some elements within ZANU-PF, it opened a window of opportunity for moderates who embraced this as an honest moment for negotiating a post-Mugabe dispensation. However, the military take-over ensured that the transition was not to be. 

This goes a long way to showing that the military will wield control over any post-Mugabe political dispensation. But who really is the military, and what role does it play in contemporary Zimbabwe? It is misleading to treat ‘the military’ as a homogenous mass. However, the military’s composition, structure and ethos have to be taken into account if we are to assess the prospects for real change in Zimbabwe, with or without the ageing Mugabe. 

The Zimbabwean military service is a convoluted patronage system that has rewarded former liberation fighters by appointing them to senior military positions. It has evolved a command structure whose with Mugabe at its pinnacle. Senior members of the military structure have been either seconded or have themselves influenced decisions about who is promoted to other government positions and quasi-government organisations. In this way, the military has influence over not only the majority of the bureaucratic mechanism but also the ownership of economic production, through key departments such as: the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ), Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. These are all under retired military personnel. This also applies to state institutions which run police, state security, and prison services. 

Media and information authorities are also under the control of former military services personnel who still retain their military titles. With the involvement of Zimbabwe in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2003, with the land reform exercise which saw the majority of whites forced out of farms from 2000 to present, and also with the current hype over indigenisation of the mining sector, the military has assumed the role of a domestic bourgeoisie class that has managed to exercise mobility between the military, political and economic domains. These class members owe their continued existence to the survival of ZANU-PF as a party. In short, the dominant ethos of the military is characterised by a general unwillingness to disentangle the different arms of government or what may be termed separation of powers. 

The party, state, and government are envisaged as just one extensive entity over which Comrade Mugabe has ultimate control. In and through the party, business venture thrives, the laws of repression are assessed and business and government promotions are deliberated. There are of course some individuals within the military or with a military background who think that though military credentials are important for the pursuit of business ends they have to distinguish their business deals from party business. Such individuals are not averse to the renewal of the party and also to the genuine democratic reform of national politics. Solomon Mujuru represented this reform-minded group. The cause of the fire responsible for his death remains a mystery but may not be surprising if one looks at the internal dynamics within ZANU-PF. The question now is: Can the same military oversee a democratic transition?

Doesn’t a democratic transition threaten the military’s past and future economic gains? These factors are stronger than other factors which can separate or separate them. It is these bonds which ensure that Mugabe’s death or exit from active politics will not bring much change. In April 2010, Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Zimbabwe to officially open the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair. Recently, the current defence minister, Emmerson Munangagwa, touted as the man-in-waiting, made an official return visit to Iran in what many commentators consider to be a public declaration by Mugabe about who he wants to be the future leader of the party and government. It seems most likely that once Munangagwa lays his hands on the steering wheel, he will reward and sideline, if not silence, his critics and forge a consensus within his party. 

As for the possibility of a democratic transition, it depends, among other things, on how the opposition maintains its position as a credible alternative in the imagination of the people, and how current constitutional processes progress. There are problems with the way the constitutional process is being handled. ZANU-PF is threatening to go to elections irrespective of whether a new constitution is in place or not. MDC seeks to utilise the process of making a new constitution as a forum to debate the configurations of powers. The bottom line is that if the separation of powers is not addressed and clearly spelled out in the new constitution, then the forthcoming elections will be a mere revisiting of the previous ones which saw the military’s continued meddling in electoral processes and also violence and impunity in both the run-up to elections and the post-election period. All these ZANU-PF machinations are in place, regardless of Mugabe’s death or other exit from the political arena.

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