Robert Mugabe has survived for so long because he is cleverer and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalise the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.
However, he is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term, tactical style.
While his tactical skills have kept him in power for 27 years, over the last seven this has only been achieved by a series of populist, but destructive and ultimately self-defeating moves. In reaction to losing the 2000 referendum on the constitution, a vengeful Mugabe unleashed his “Green Bombers” to commit land reform and in the process he destroyed Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, once the bedrock of the economy.
While thousands of white farmers saw their properties seized, hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans lost their livelihoods and were reduced to utter poverty. In 2005, having been forced to steal victory by manipulating the results of an election he lost, Mugabe lashed out again, punishing the urban populace by launching Operation Murambatsvina. The result was wholesale destruction of the informal sector, on which as much as 70-80% of urban dwellers had depended, and the uprooting of 700 000 Zimbabweans. The current inflationary cycle really began with Murambatsvina, as rents and prices grew in response to a decrease in supply.
And now, faced with the hyperinflationary consequences of his ruinous fiscal policies and growing reliance on the printing press to keep his government running, Mugabe has launched Operation Slash Prices. This has once again given him a very temporary boost in popularity especially among the police, who have led the looting of retail outlets and now seem well positioned to take a leading role in the black market economy) at the cost of terrible damage to the country and people.
Many small grocery and shop owners, traders, etc, will be wiped out; the shelves are increasingly bare; hunger, fear, and tension are growing; fuel has disappeared. When the shelves are still empty this time next week, the popular appeal of the price rollback will evaporate and the government simply doesn’t have the resources to replace the entire private commercial sector and keep Zimbabweans fed. It may attempt to do so by printing more money, adding even more inflationary pressure on a system already reeling from the government’s quasi-fiscal lunacy combined with the price impact of pervasive shortages.
The increasingly worthless Zim dollar is likely to collapse as a unit of trade in the near future, depriving the government of Zimbabwe of its last economic tool other than sheer thuggery and theft of others’ assets.
With all this in view, I’m convinced the end is not far off for the Mugabe regime. Of course, my predecessors and many other observers have all said the same thing, and yet Mugabe is still with us. I think this time could prove different, however, because for the first time the president is under intensifying pressure simultaneously on the economic, political and international fronts.
In the past, he could always play one of these off against the other, using economic moves to counter political pressure or playing the old colonial/race/imperialist themes to buy himself breathing room regionally and internationally. But he is running out of options and in the swirling gases of the new Zimbabwean constellation that is starting to form, the economic, political and international pressures are concentrating on Mugabe himself.
Our Zanu PF contacts are virtually unanimous in saying reform is desperately needed, but won’t happen while the Old Man is there, and therefore he must go (finding the courage to make that happen is another matter, however, but even that may be coming closer).
This is not some sudden awakening on the road to Damascus, but a reflection of the pain even party insiders increasingly feel over the economic meltdown. We also get regular, albeit anecdotal, reports of angry and increasingly open mutterings against Mugabe even in Zanu PF’s traditional rural bastions.
Beginning in March (2007), the other Sadc leaders finally recognised (in the wake of the terrible beatings of March 11 and the international outcry that followed another self-inflicted wound for Mugabe) that Zimbabwe is a problem they need to address.
Thabo Mbeki appears committed to a successful mediation and is reportedly increasingly irritated with Mugabe’s efforts to manipulate him or blow him off altogether. If Mugabe judges that he still commands all he surveys by virtue of being the elder statesman on the scene, he may be committing yet another serious blunder.
Finally, one does well to recall that the only serious civil disturbances here in a decade came in 1998 over bread shortages, showing that even the famously passive Shona people have their limits. The terror and oppression of the intervening years have cowed people, but it’s anyone’s guess whether their fear or their anger will win out in the end.
What will the end look like?
This is the big, unanswerable question. One thing at least is certain, Mugabe will not wake up one morning a changed man, resolved to set right all he has wrought. He will neither go quietly nor without a fight. He will cling to power at all costs and the costs be damned, he deserves to rule by virtue of the liberation struggle and land reform and the people of Zimbabwe have let him down by failing to appreciate this, thus he needn’t worry about their well-being.
The only scenario in which he might agree to go with a modicum of good grace is one in which he concludes that the only way to end his days a free man is by leaving State House. I judge that he is still a long way from this conclusion and will fight on for now.
The optimal outcome, of course, and the only one that doesn’t bring with it a huge risk of violence and conflict, is a genuinely free and fair election, under international supervision. The Mbeki mediation offers the best, albeit very slim, hope of getting there.
However, as Pretoria grows more and more worried about the chaos to its north and President Mbeki’s patience with Mugabe’s antics wears thin, the prospects for serious South African engagement may be growing. Thus, this effort deserves all the support and backing we can muster.
Less attractive is the idea of a South African-brokered transitional arrangement or government of national unity (GNU). Mbeki has always favoured stability and in his mind this means a Zanu PF-led GNU, with perhaps a few MDC additions. This solution is more likely to prolong than resolve the crisis and we must guard against letting Pretoria dictate an outcome which perpetuates the status quo at the expense of real change and reform.
The other scenarios are all less attractive: a popular uprising would inevitably entail a bloodbath, even if it were ultimately successful; Mugabe’s sudden, unexpected death would set off a stampede for power among Zanu PF heavyweights; a palace coup, whether initiated within Zanu PF or from the military — in which Mugabe is removed, killed, exiled or otherwise disposed of, could well devolve into open conflict between the contending successors.
Similarly, some form of “constitutional coup” ie a change at the top engineered within the framework of Zanu PF’s “legitimate” structures could well prove to be merely the opening bell in a prolonged power struggle.
None of the players is likely to go quietly into the night without giving everything they have, including calling on their supporters in the security services. Moreover, experience elsewhere would suggest that whoever comes out on top initially will struggle, and more than likely fail, to halt the economic collapse. Thus, there is a good prospect of not one but a series of rapid-fire transitions, until some new, stable dispensation is reached.
The final, and probably worst, possibility is that Mugabe concludes he can settle for ruling over a rump Zimbabwe, maintaining control over Harare and the Mashona heartland, the critical forces of the National Reserve Force and CIO and a few key assets gold, diamonds, platinum and Air Zimbabwe to fund the good times. Under this scenario, the rest of the country, in one of the comrade’s favourite phrases, could “go hang”, leaving it to the international community to stave off the worst humanitarian consequences.
What of the opposition?
Zimbabwe’s opposition is far from ideal and I leave convinced that had we had different partners, we could have achieved more already. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. With that in mind, the current leadership has little executive experience and will require massive hand holding and assistance should they ever come to power.
Morgan Tsvangarai is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat. He is also the only player on the scene right now with real star quality and the ability to rally the masses. But Tsvangirai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him. He is the indispensable element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa character: Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country’s recovery.
Arthur Mutambara is young and ambitious, attracted to radical, anti-Western rhetoric and smart as a whip. But, in many respects he’s a lightweight who has spent too much time reading US campaign messaging manuals and too little thinking about the real issues.
Welshman Ncube has proven to be a deeply divisive and destructive player in the opposition ranks and the sooner he is pushed off the stage, the better. But he is useful to many, including the regime and South Africa, so is probably a cross to be borne for some time yet. The prospects for healing the rift within the MDC seem dim, which is a totally unnecessary self-inflicted wound on their part this time.
With few exceptions — Tendai Biti, Nelson Chamisa — the talent is thin below the top ranks. The great saving grace of the opposition is likely to be found in the diaspora. Most of Zimbabwe’s best professionals, entrepreneurs, businessmen and women, etc, have fled the country. They are the opposition’s natural allies and it is encouraging to see signs, particularly in South Africa and the UK, that these people are talking, sharing ideas, developing plans and thinking together about future recovery.
Unfortunately, among the MDC’s flaws is its inability to work more effectively with the rest of civil society. The blame for this can be shared on both sides (many civil society groups, like the NCA, are single-issue focused and take the overall dynamic in unhelpful directions; others, like Woza, insist on going it alone as a matter of principle), but ultimately it falls to the MDC as the largest and the only true political party, to show the way.
Once again, however, these are natural allies and they have more reason to work together than fight against each other.
Staying the course
If I am right and change is in the offing, we need to step up our preparations. The work done over the last year on transition planning has been extremely useful, both for stimulating a fresh look at our own assumptions and plans and for forging a common approach among the traditional donor community. But the process has lagged since the meetings in March in London and should be re-energised.
It is encouraging in this respect that USAid Washington has engaged the mission here in discussing how we would use additional resources in response to a genuinely reform-minded government. I hope this will continue and the good work done so far will survive the usual bloodletting of the budget process.
The official media has had a field day recently whooping that “Dell leaves Zimbabwe a failed man”. That’s not quite how it looks from here. I believe that the firm US stance, the willingness to speak out and stand up, have contributed to the accelerating pace of change. Mugabe and his henchman are like bullies everywhere: if they can intimidate you they will. But they’re not used to someone standing up to them and fighting back. It catches them off guard and that’s when they make mistakes.
The howls of protest over critical statements from Washington or negative coverage on CNN are the clearest proof of how this hurts them. Ditto the squeals over illegal sanctions. In addition, the regime has become so used to calling the shots and dictating the pace that the merest stumble panics them. Many local observers have noted that Mugabe is panicked and desperate about hyperinflation at the moment, and hence he’s making mistakes. Possibly fatal mistakes.
We need to keep the pressure on in order to keep Mugabe off his game and on his back foot, relying on his own shortcomings to do him in.
Equally important is an active US leadership role in the international community.
The UK is hamstrung by its colonial past and domestic politics, thus, letting them set the pace alone merely limits our effectiveness. The EU is divided between the hard north and its soft southern underbelly. The Africans are only now beginning to find their voice. Rock solid partners like Australia don’t pack enough punch to step out front and the UN is a non-player. Thus it falls to the US, once again, to take the lead, to say and do the hard things and to set the agenda.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary Zimbabweans of all kinds have told me that our clear, forthright stance has given them hope and the courage to hang on. By this regime’s standards, acting in the interests of the people may indeed be considered a failure. But I believe that the opposite is true, and that we can be justifiably proud that in Zimbabwe we have helped advance the (US) president’s freedom agenda. The people of this country know it and recognise it and that is the true touchstone of our success here.
- This edited article written in July 2007 by then US ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell is part of thousands of US classified diplomatic messages released by the Wikileaks website.