Zimbabwe: wrong way, right way

John Makumbe
2 February 2009

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) decided on 30 January 2009 to join a unity government for Zimbabwe in which power will ostensibly be shared between Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC. The long-delayed implementation of a compromise agreement brokered on 15 September 2008 and now reinforced by Zimbabwe's neighbours in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) may seem a plausible answer to the country's economic collapse. But the reality is that is has always been fatally flawed.

John Makumbe is professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe

Among openDemocracy's articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:

Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)

Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare's police cells" (5 December 2005)

Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)

Conor O'Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy birthday, Robert Mugabe" (21 February 2007)

Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)

Michael Holman, "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)

The Zimbabwean, "Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008)

Wilf Mbanga, "Zimbabwe's unfolding drama" (7 April 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

openDemocracy, ""Zimbabwe's elections: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)

Roger Southall, "The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe" (28 June 2008)

Roger Southall, "Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (30 September 2008)

Sophie Roberts, "Zimbabwe's war of disappearance" (15 December 2008)

The majority of Zimbabweans view with suspicion any political arrangement that leaves Mugabe snugly in power as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The fact that the deal has not been implemented since it was signed attests to its defective nature. Its limitations were further confirmed by the fiasco of the talks in Harare on 19 January 2009 between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, even if the SADC leaders - at their 26-27 January meeting in Pretoria -  recommended once again that it be enforced.

It is evident that the agreement is unfairly advantageous to the incumbent president, for it will enable Robert Mugabe  to retain virtually all the executive powers that he has wielded since coming to power in 1980 - even though he lost the presidential election on 29 March 2008. It thus denies Morgan Tsvangirai, the winner of that poll, the opportunity to lead Zimbabwe out of the social and economic quagmire that Mugabe has dragged it into through his iron-fist style of governance.

A journey from ruin

There is another and better way - one that is advocated by civil-society groups in Zimbabwe - including human-rights organisations, trade unions, student movements and others - and which offers a far better prospect than leaving Robert Mugabe in power.

This is to create a transitional authority that can manage national affairs for a set period of (for example) eighteen months. During this time, this authority would oversee the drafting and adoption of a democratic constitution, after which democratic and internationally monitored elections would be held. The transitional authority would then hand over power to the legitimate winner of that election.

The civil-society groups propose that the authority be as inclusive as possible; it would include representatives of civic groups, churches, businesses, selected professional bodies and political parties, and youth and women's groups. An important aspect is that it is to comprise individuals who had no intention of standing for the proposed elections after the adoption of the new constitution.

The SADC has resisted this proposal. Instead, it again backed the agreement between the arch-rivals Mugabe and Tsvangirai that had been facilitated by South Africa's then-president, Thabo Mbeki. It is reported on 1 February 2009 that the parliament in Harare is already considering key constitutional amendments that will be rushed through in order to allow a coalition government to be established. This would allow Tsvangirai to be appointed prime minister by 11 February (according to the SADC timetable), and an appeal to lift international sanctions on Zimbabwe to become irresistible.

In these circumstances, the rest of the international community should apply pressure on the SADC to abandon the ill-fated mid-September agreement and  embrace the option of the national transitional authority as soon as possible.

The eighteen months of transitional governance of Zimbabwe would provide a desperately needed window of opportunity through which regional and international assistance could alleviate the multifaceted humanitarian catastrophe in Zimbabwe. More and more people - 60,000 according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates - are infected with cholera; at least 3,100 have died of the disease during the outbreak that began in August 2008. Over 80% of the population is poor and most cannot afford three meals per day.

Almost all schools and hospitals have closed - due both to lack of money to pay the teachers, nurses and doctors, and to a lack of clean water, electricity and medicine. Six of the seven state universities have remained closed since the winter vacation in May 2008. In other words, there is a whole generation of young people whose future now lies in real danger, if not in ruins; and all because of Robert Mugabe.

The party in power

Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF will resist any move towards a transitional authority. They are fully aware that handing over power to anyone, even a transitional authority, would be tantamount to committing political suicide; and that they can never win a free and fair election in Zimbabwe. There will have to be political pressure on him to secure his consent to an initiative that so many Zimbabweans support; and the leaders of Zimbabwe's neighbours are among those who will have to exert it if it is to succeed (see Roger Southall, "The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe", 28 June 2008).

The recent abductions and illegal arrests of MDC activists by the notorious Central Intelligence Organisation agents, coupled with flimsy allegations that the MDC is operating militia training-bases in Botswana, are clear indications that Mugabe and Zanu-PF are not negotiating in good faith. But such repression is also effective in persuading the MDC leadership to come to the view  that a bad deal - such as the one they signed after being cajoled, if not coerced, by Thabo Mbeki - is worse than no deal.

The bottom line is that Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF have no intention of handing over power to the MDC, except under severe political pressure from both within and outside Zimbabwe. The activists gathering at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa on 26 January-3 February 2009 to highlight the "passive genocide" in their country are right; those who are prepared to consent to a political fix that will entrench its architects in power are wrong. The next few weeks will further demonstrate Zanu-PF's desperation to stay in office at all costs.

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