Opportunities out of Zim crisis

By Trevor Ncube

WHILE the Zimbabwean crisis is widening and deepening in every respect, the continued focus on its description instead of solutions is disheartening. Als

o depressing is the fact that the main protagonists have dug themselves into entrenched positions from which they can’t get out.

The current crisis precipitated by President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land seizures in 2000 has seen the government embarking on destructive policies ostensibly to punish Western governments and their perceived sympathisers in the country. Zimbabwe is on its knees largely due to self-inflicted wounds and yet Mugabe and his ruling party won’t change course. However, Zanu PF’s ability to remain in power has not been matched by its ability to resolve the crisis it has inflicted on Zimbabweans.

In an attempt to deal with President Mugabe’s misrule, the West has opted for a policy of containment and isolation aimed at delivering regime change. In the main, this strategy has focused on sanctions and denouncing Mugabe at every given opportunity. This has clearly failed to achieve the desired goal of regime change over the past seven years.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), paralysed by the suffocating political playing field, has since abandoned its strategy of mass action and decided to engage in negotiations with its enemy. This appears for the moment to be the only tool for self-preservation for the divided and weak MDC. Confrontation as a strategy to dislodge Zanu PF simply has not worked, largely because of repressive legislation and a politically immature leadership.

Apart from South Africa’s patient quiet diplomacy, all that has been tried so far to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis has not worked and the country continues to hurtle towards social destitution and anarchy. The enormity of the crisis and the human suffering evident everywhere in Zimbabwe calls for a fresh and urgent impetus in resolving the crisis. As the situation threatens to get out of hand, there is need for all Zimbabweans, the British and Americans to realise that it is time to change strategy.

Indeed it is time for Zanu PF to realise that it needs the help of the MDC, all patriotic Zimbabweans and the international community to untangle itself from the mess that it has created. For the sake of long suffering Zimbabweans, Western governments led by the UK and the US must acknowledge the failure of their strategies so far and change course. A stubborn refusal to admit failure by Zanu PF, the MDC and the West will prolong the crisis and risk anarchy.

South Africa’s policy of engagement or quiet diplomacy promises to deliver results. Is this not the strategy all those genuinely seeking an end to this crisis pinned their hopes on? While not fully supportive of President Mbeki’s strategy, I have long maintained that when we look back we might find that his policy of choosing to have influence on Zimbabwe by remaining engaged was the best option for dealing with President Mugabe.

It is time for those concerned about the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe to take a leaf from the Chinese whose language depicts the word crisis with two characters: one denoting danger and the other representing opportunity.

Much as the situation in Zimbabwe is replete with dangers arising from the political and economic meltdown, the same meltdown creates opportunities for change. Sadly,while the dangers have become common cause, the opportunities have remained unexamined.

The following opportunities to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis are now in the air and one of them is most likely if not certain to carry the day in the next six or nine months depending on the actions of those keen to bring the rot to an urgent end.

1. First opportunity

It is common cause that since the beginning of the year, President Mugabe has made it clear that he will seek re-election after his current term expires in March 2008 when he will be 84 years old. Indeed, he has thus far been mobilising various Zanu PF affiliated groups, especially the youth, women and liberation war veterans, to support his controversial candidacy.

But how is Mugabe’s determination to seek reelection an opportunity for change? It seems to me this is also a ploy by him to find what his supporters have defined as a “dignified exit” — short hand for an exit that would guarantee him immunity after his departure. An election could end up as a disaster for him should he be defeated and left without immunity.

So far, those opposed to Mugabe have responded by merely condemning him as being power hungry and determined to remain in office for life. However, it is not enough to merely make this observation without also critically examining the reasons behind his determination.

After 27 years of misrule, 10 of them under an extended Rhodesian state of emergency that institutionalised brutality and unaccountability in Zimbabwe’s governance between 1980 and 1990, Mugabe has accumulated too many human rights skeletons in his political cupboard. This relates in the main but not only to those skeletons arising from four tragedies that have stood out over the years, namely Gukurahundi, violent land seizures between 2000 and 2005, murder and disappearance of opposition and civic society activists and Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.

There is no doubt that these Zimbabwean tragedies, among others, have left Mugabe vulnerable and liable to prosecution on allegations of crimes against humanity. As such, it should be obvious that a driving force in his determination to remain in office for life is his fear of losing immunity. His fear has been made even more real by the experiences of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor and former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba, both facing various prosecutions related to alleged abuses while in office.

Without condoning his abuses, I believe Mugabe’s immunity fears provide us an opportunity to structure and facilitate his exit in a creative way that would minimise resistance from him and his supporters in the security forces.

One possibility in this regard would be to persuade Mugabe to drop his reelection bid and to accept a guarantee of immunity. Informing this proposal is the fact that, except for extremists on the fringes of the opposition and civil society, very few Zimbabweans are interested in taking vengeance against Mugabe. He is our founding president and many would be happy to forgive him in exchange for political and economic freedom. And unless Mugabe is prepared to play the role of a reformer himself, there is no purpose served by his standing in elections next year.

2. Second opportunity

I see a second opportunity coming in less than three months at the Zanu PF special congress in December. After facing sustained opposition from the ruling party faction led by Retired General Solomon Mujuru, Mugabe has over the last few months been renewing his relationship with his former National Security minister and now Rural Housing minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who leads a competing faction.

Although he was humiliated and sidelined ahead of the last Zanu PF congress in 2004 after losing the party’s vice-presidency to Joice Mujuru, Mnangagwa has been slowly reemerging as a power base, this time by lending his faction’s support to Mugabe’s reelection bid.

On his part, Mugabe has been encouraging Mnangagwa by once again making indications that he is his chosen successor. An obvious reason for this is the presumption that, because he was security minister during the Gukurahundi massacres, Mnangagwa has similar prosecution fears and would thus protect Mugabe as a matter of self-interest.

Growing talk in the Mnangagwa camp, and also from intelligence sources in Zimbabwe, is that Mugabe has called for a special congress of his party in December, which was not due until 2009, to publicly use it to anoint Mnangagwa as his successor.

What remains unclear is whether Mugabe would allow Mnangagwa to take over the party leadership in December and move on to be the Zanu PF presidential candidate should elections be held in 2008 or whether Mugabe would still insist on running for reelection with a promise that Mnangagwa would take over a year or two later should Mugabe win.

However, what is clear is that Mnangagwa’s camp prefers the former, not least because it does not trust Mugabe to give up power after the elections should he win.

The fact that the Mnangagwa camp does not trust Mugabe, who unceremoniously ditched it in 2004 in favour of Joice Mujuru, means that Mugabe will go to the special congress in December without assured political support.

This creates an opportunity for change through a “soft surprise” at the special congress as happened in December 2006 when delegates “surprisingly” rejected Mugabe’s bid to postpone presidential elections to 2010.

What this means is that at the December special congress, Mugabe will be manifestly opposed by the Mujuru faction and latently by the Mnangagwa faction. Such a political climate could pave way for a dark horse to emerge as a compromise candidate. It is hard to say who that candidate could be at the moment although Simba Makoni’s name keeps coming up. Alternatively, the same political scenario engendered by opposition from the Mujuru and Mnangagwa camps could cause Mugabe to accept the first opportunity described above.

But the possibility of a “soft surprise” development at the special Zanu PF congress would obviously need to be socially-engineered taking advantage of clear and present political dynamics ahead of the congress. Progressive forces in and outside Zimbabwe could play a pivotal role to encourage if not to engineer that development by working with strategic Zanu PF elements. That would be far better than simply mourning about the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe and denouncing Mugabe for wanting to remain in office for life.

3. Third opportunity

In addition to the possibility of a “soft surprise” at the special Zanu PF congress, there is a third opportunity that would be in the form of a “hard surprise” through a palace coup led by the Mujuru camp.

In recent months, the Mujuru camp has been making it clear that they want Mugabe out. Earlier this year when the Zanu PF central committee was reported to have endorsed Mugabe’s reelection bid, the Mujuru camp started openly calling for a special congress to settle the leadership question in the ruling party.

The fact that Mugabe has now called for that special congress can be seen as a victory for the Mujuru camp. Already, the Mujuru camp is very busy on the ground openly organising the 10 Zanu PF provinces and asking them to identify individuals they think could be presidential candidates to replace Mugabe.

It seems that the plan is to use the special congress in December to achieve two objectives: first to challenge and even humiliate Mugabe by making it clear that he is not the sole Zanu PF presidential candidate as several provinces would come up with competing names, and, second to force a nomination by secret or even open ballot which the Mujuru camp believes would be won by either Joice Mujuru or Makoni.

Strategists in Mujuru’s camp believe that, should it become clear that such a nomination election is imminent, Mugabe would not want to be part of it as the writing would then be on the wall about his assured defeat.

The above three opportunities are all available to the ruling party and thus dependent on what happens within it. Yet the Zimbabwean crisis is national in scope and options to its resolution are not limited to developments within the ruling party.

It should stand to reason that Zanu PF’s continued failure thus far to resolve the crisis creates an opportunity for the opposition. Unfortunately, the Zimbabwean opposition has not been able to exploit that opportunity due to a range of structural and leadership weaknesses that are now well known and do not need to be repeated, save to point out that as currently constituted, the opposition does not have a chance to move Zimbabwe forward. In fact, now more than ever before, I am convinced that an MDC government would be a complete disaster for Zimbabwe.

What is notable is that the three opportunities that are available within Zanu PF are potent material for a new progressive opposition with nationalist and democratic roots. Rather than standing by and watching events unfold in Zanu PF, progressive forces in Zimbabwe have an historic opportunity to forge a Third Way that would bring together elements from the ruling party, the two formations of the MDC, other opposition groups, civic society organisations, churches, labour unions, student movements and the business community to form a broad-based party to dislodge Zanu PF. The fallout between MDC and its civil society supporters over the 18th Constitutional Amendment has added impetus to the prospects of a Third Way.

Mugabe, and indeed Zanu PF, continue to define the opposition as the MDC. A major if not the only reason why Mugabe is determined to stand for reelection against all odds is that he believes he cannot lose to the MDC. He has not factored the possibility of facing a united front of progressive forces against which he and Zanu PF cannot win.

Based on the unfolding developments in Zimbabwe, a united front could emerge overnight and take off like an unstoppable wave.

The major barriers to the actualisation of a united front so far:

Identifying a unifying candidate with the leadership gravitas and mass appeal across the political divide;

Continued support for factions of the MDC by sections of the international community that appear to be committed to particular individual leaders; and,

Sweeping, indiscriminate and counterproductive application of sanctions against Zanu PF politburo and central committee members as well as parliamentarians. I will return to this issue in more detail later.

There is another opportunity which depends on President Mugabe’s willingness to take charge of the transitional process and manage it to ensure that there is no anarchy post his rule. This would require him putting the national interest ahead of everything else and managing the succession issue so as to allow a capable and visionary person to serve Zimbabwe soon after he steps down.

This could necessitate a constitutional amendment to allow him to move to a ceremonial role and appoint a prime minister to run the government. This would also give him protection from prosecution for human rights abuses. And this could be accommodated within the dialogue taking place between Zanu PF and the MDC.

To ensure the best available skills are in place to help with the daunting task of turning around the economy and building a new society, the prime minister does not have to be an active member of any party and he should have access to skills outside the two main political parties to serve in his government. The names that immediately come to mind are Strive Masiyiwa, Gideon Gono, Nkosana Moyo and Makoni.

Western sanctions unwise

The Zimbabwean government has maintained that the targeted sanctions imposed by some Western countries after Mugabe’s disputed victory in the 2002 elections are illegal because they do not have the authority of the United Nations.

While it is true that the sanctions in question are not approved by the UN, that alone does not mean they are illegal. The countries which have imposed them have done so in accordance with their relevant laws. Besides, there is no international law, statute, convention or practice that has been violated by the sanctions.

Therefore the illegality or legality of the sanctions is in fact a non-issue.

The real question is whether these sanctions are wise or whether they are achieving any meaningful objective. My own view is that the sanctions are not wise and that they have not achieved any meaningful objective given the Zimbabwean crisis.

I believe they are not wise mainly because they have led to the diminishing of the capacity of the countries implementing them to influence events in Zimbabwe towards the much needed resolution of the crisis.

Western countries that have imposed declared or undeclared sanctions on Zimbabwe have done so less to deal with the deteriorating situation in the country and more to appease political constituencies at home who want some demonstrable action being taken against Mugabe.

Virtually all of the countries that have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe have since 2002 experienced a dramatic erosion of their diplomatic influence in and on Zimbabwe. Within Zimbabwe, diplomats of these countries have lost access to senior ruling party and government officials who have responded by boycotting diplomatic contact.

Outside Zimbabwe, those countries are seen as having vested interests and therefore not impartial when it comes to understanding and resolving the Zimbabwean crisis. At worst, many on the African continent see the sanctions as a racist response to land reform in Zimbabwe.

This demonstrates that the sanctions are not wise and have been counterproductive.

Despite denials by the countries that have imposed them, these sanctions have in fact affected people beyond those they claim to target. For example, the United States Zimbabwe Democracy and Recovery Act (Zidera) specifically bars American representatives to the World Bank, the IMF, Africa Development Bank and other multilateral institutions from supporting any loan, grant or concession to Zimbabwe. This has exacerbated Zimbabwe’s sovereign risk status and negatively affected a range of bilateral lending to Zimbabwe including from the private sector. Zimbabwe has gone without balance of payments support for years. The consequences are felt by ordinary people across the economy.

As a result, Mugabe and the ruling party routinely present the sanctions as the root cause of the country’s biting economic meltdown when in fact the ruling party’s policies are largely to blame for the current economic implosion. The opposition and civic society groups in Zimbabwe have found this propaganda very difficult if not impossible to rebut.

Outside Zimbabwe, bodies such as Sadc and the African Union have found it extremely difficult to publicly criticise Mugabe and the policies of his Zanu PF government precisely because of the fear of being seen as either supporting the Western sanctions that are undeniably affecting ordinary people or being seen as puppets of the West. These sanctions have failed to take advantage of reform opportunities such as those described above, including exploiting the growing internal divisions in the ruling party. On the contrary, the effect of these sanctions has been to draw progressive Zanu PF politicians and officials closer to Mugabe and away from reform politics.

An impression has been created that the only desirable options for the West revolve around taking tough action against Mugabe and his cronies through targeted sanctions, including preventing Mugabe from attending global summits such as the EU-Africa summit planned for Portugal in December.

This strategy so far appears to be about isolating Mugabe and his regime from the international community.

But as the experiences of Libya, North Korea and Iran are showing, isolationist policies have limited if any success. Ultimately, the best way of dealing with rogue regimes is by confronting them through diplomatic
engagement. I must emphasise that there is a world of difference between engagement and support.

I therefore believe that the best that the West can do now is to re-engage the Zimbabwean government. While the content of the diplomatic engagement I am proposing would obviously vary from country to country, a leaf can be taken from the much maligned quiet diplomacy pursued by South Africa.

I don’t think there is any discerning observer who can argue that South Africa uncritically supports the policies of Mugabe and his Zanu PF government — far from it.

In 1979 when Britain under Margaret Thatcher abandoned its aloofness and decided to become engaged with the frontline states, the liberation movements and the Rhodesian government, the result was the Lancaster House agreement. The current Zimbabwean crisis calls for a similar spirit of engagement and the five opportunities described above could be a strategic starting point.

Failure to influence events towards the achievement of one of the above options means that we are then resigned to fate. I have two recurring nightmares in this regard, namely a spontaneous uprising by long suffering Zimbabweans or anarchy that would follow the untimely death of President Mugabe while in office.

The first nightmare relates to the fact that the situation in Zimbabwe right now is fertile for a revolution except for the absence of a leadership to direct people’s anger towards something positive.

Life is unbearable in Zimbabwe and I have no doubt that the groundswell of anger could easily burst into open revolt for the smallest of reasons. This is undesirable and could result in unimaginable consequences for Zimbabwe. The danger with this is that once it starts, a spontaneous uprising would be difficult to contain and there is no knowing what the underpaid and disgruntled police and military men would do in such circumstances.

The second nightmare relates to Mugabe’s health and age. In the absence of a managed transition, I have nightmares about the impact of Mugabe’s sudden death in office without a clear successor in place. While this might sound alarmist, it is a real possibility because Mugabe is not exactly a spring chicken and intelligence sources indicate that he is not well.

The two factions in Zanu PF would go for each other hammer and tongs following Mugabe’s sudden death, with a high possibility of a shooting war.

This is so because the factionalism in Zanu PF has reproduced itself in the police, the army and the national intelligence. In fact these two dangers emphasise the urgency for bold and courageous political leadership internally and from the international community to help bring about a peaceful transition.


Zimbabwe is indeed now pregnant with opportunities for change. For some of these opportunities to be realised politicians in Zimbabwe and the West need to reexamine their entrenched positions. There is need to recognise that leadership is about courage, boldness and taking calculated risks to achieve a breakthrough.

Instead of megaphone diplomacy and a fixation with President Mugabe, the international community should seek to work with Zanu PF moderates and all progressive forces in Zimbabwe to influence change that is rooted in the historical ideals of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

* Trevor Ncube is chairman of the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard.