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Talking Is No Cure

THE power-sharing talks between the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have been presented as the best hope of bringing peace to the embattled country.


However, power-sharing agreements are in fact a poor strategy for resolving conflicts.

They are extremely difficult to reach and possibly even more difficult to implement and sustain.

Power sharing is not a credible or viable solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe, either in the immediate or longer term.

It is unlikely to bring a durable peace, is inherently undemocratic and rewards ruthless behaviour.

Power-sharing deals are difficult to negotiate under the best of circumstances.

Reaching an agreement in Zimbabwe will be particularly problematic, for at least three reasons. First, the ruling party’s interest in sharing power is highly questionable.

Negotiators from Zanu PF are reportedly refusing to consider ceding any executive powers to an opposition prime minister –– the main bone of contention in the power-sharing agreement that ended a standoff following Kenya’s December 2007 elections.

Zanu PF is only sitting at the bargaining table because of international pressure, notably from South Africa and other neighbours, and will be loath to compromise.

While the opposition is more likely to be negotiating in good faith than the government, the failure of talks may help the MDC’s case that Zanu PF is intransigent and that sterner international pressure will be required.

Another major impediment to agreement is the lack of trust between actors.

Not only has the ruling party brutalised MDC officials and supporters in myriad ways since 2000, its previous power-sharing agreement serves as a stern warning to the MDC.

In 1987, a deal was signed between Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the then main opposition party.

Nkomo was brought in as a figurehead vice-president and the deal resulted in his party’s absorption and disbandment, serving to consolidate Mugabe’s power.

A third challenge is internal fragmentation.

Though not as significant as the multiplication of actors that have plagued negotiations in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Darfur, both Zanu PF and the MDC are factionalised.

Not all perspectives are represented at the bargaining table and further splits may be forthcoming if any eventual agreement displeases significant wings on one or both sides.

For instance, even if Arthur Mutambara’s MDC faction signs a separate agreement with Mugabe, his 10 MPs might defect to the main MDC wing, leaving Zanu PF no closer to achieving a parliamentary majority.

In addition, high-ranking military officials in Zanu PF, who have consolidated political and economic power in recent years, may prevent Mugabe from reaching an agreement that is detrimental to their own interests.

Even if a deal is reached, three principal challenges threaten its viability.

First, governing elites might lack the commitment to applying the terms of the agreement.

They might actually only be seeking to co-opt the opposition and could renege on the agreement if they fail.

Alternatively, there may be institutional resistance to sharing power.

For instance, where the bureaucracy of the state and a party apparatus have been one and the same for a long time, a political agreement at the top does not guarantee compliance at the middle and lower echelons of government, and indeed resistance may be orchestrated from the top.

In Sudan, members of the National Congress party continue to dominate state institutions in spite of the power-sharing provisions of the 2003 comprehensive peace agreement that ended the north-south conflict.

Second, government and opposition elites might lack the ability to deliver their commitments, particularly where key parts of their constituency are resistant to a political deal.

Veterans, one of Mugabe’s most powerful constituencies, may attempt to spoil a transfer of executive powers if they fear losing influence.

This is not unique to Zimbabwe. Veterans have obstructed progress in other locales such as the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Third, the MDC’s shortcomings might impede power sharing.

Where incumbents have been in power for a very long time, the opposition’s capacity to govern is likely to be limited.

That was the case in Sudan, where the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement found itself propelled to a governing position overnight. Permitting ill-equipped opposition leaders to assume positions of responsibility is also a way of ensuring they will stumble and fall, especially when assigned near-impossible tasks.

For this reason, one could expect Mugabe to give Tsvangirai responsibility for redressing Zimbabwe’s economic woes.

Even if a power-sharing arrangement was a viable option and could prevent more violence in the shorter or longer term, it is not necessarily a strategy worth pursuing.

Allowing a small number of elites to determine outcomes is inherently undemocratic, and manifestly ignores voters’ choices.

It would make more sense to hold new elections as soon as possible, preferably under a caretaker government.

Otherwise, a terrible precedent is set, encouraging politicians who are not committed to democracy to attempt to steal elections and then, through power-sharing agreements, secure a much stronger position than they otherwise would have held.

The Zimbabwean opposition and international actors would be well advised to consider this before supporting further negotiations.—kubatana.net

By Chandra Lekha Sriram :director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict at the University of East London School of Law.


Marie-Joëlle Zahar is associate professor of political science at the University of Montreal specialising in the politics of power-sharing and conflict resolution.

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