Continued from last week
While Mnangagwa’s rhetoric on issues such as land reform, human rights, rule of law, improving the business climate and reducing corruption was all positive, there was little actual action behind the words. Some Zimbabweans argued that Mnangagwa was still beholden to the military leaders who put him in power and could not afford to undertake serious reforms until he had an electoral mandate. So, a credible election was vital not just to Zimbabwe’s relations with the international community, but for Mnangagwa’s hold on power as well.
It became clear to most observers in the months leading up to the election that the process was unlikely to deliver the credibility and legitimacy the government needed. Registration of voters appeared skewed to the advantage of traditional Zanu PF supporters in rural areas and against young urban voters more likely to support the opposition.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) did not appear to be independent of the government and declined to be any more transparent than strictly demanded by the law. Procurement and printing of ballots — a sensitive topic in Zimbabwe — was undertaken in secrecy, and the final ballot did not adhere to Zimbabwe’s own standards.
While the opposition did have more freedom to campaign than they had in previous elections, their access to state media was limited in violation of Zimbabwe’s electoral law. The military steadfastly declined to state publicly that they would respect the outcome of the election, even if the opposition won.
Given the Zimbabwean military command’s history of saying they would never salute an opposition government and their role in political violence in previous elections, their refusal to state that they would accept the will of the people had a chilling effect on the process.
July 31, election day, was orderly and peaceful.
On August 1, Zec released preliminary results indicating that Zanu PF had won a majority of seats in parliament. Opposition supporters protested what they believed was a rigged outcome and clashed with military forces in downtown Harare. Six protestors were killed in the confrontation. (In November 2018, a government-appointed commission of inquiry completed its investigation of the August 1 conflict and submitted its report to Mnangagwa. As of December 5, the report had not been made public.)
On August 3, Zec declared Mnangagwa the winner with 50,8% of the vote to opposition leader Chamisa’s 44,3%. These results are in line with public opinion research conducted by Afrobarometer in June and July 2018, so they may well be a legitimate result.
Unfortunately, Zimbabwe’s history of rigged and violent electoral processes, Zec’s lack of transparency, the government’s inability to follow its own electoral laws and the military’s unwillingness to pledge support for the people’s will, left the 2018 election short of the credibility needed to rehabilitate the government’s legitimacy. The process was an improvement over 2013 and a great improvement over 2008 and 2002, but enough questions remained to undermine confidence in government.
The new dispensation
If Zimbabwe proves true to form, the country will settle into an uneasy political peace as common Zimbabweans struggle to make ends meet in a continually declining economy.
Mnangagwa will remain president for at least five years. The ruling party has already announced that Mnangagwa will be their candidate in 2023, so he could be president through 2028, at which point he will be 86 years old.
While Mugabe has left the political scene, he and Grace continue to live in peace in Zimbabwe, much as his predecessor Ian Smith did for more than 20 years after majority rule came in 1980. But other than a different president, Zimbabwe has not changed much.
As the events January 2019 have shown — the grossly disproportionate use of police and military force to stop protests and looting — Zimbabwe’s government/ruling party remains willing to do whatever it takes to remain in power.
Credible reporting by independent media and NGOs indicate 12 to 18 citizens killed, scores wounded, and hundreds arrested in a three-week long government crackdown against protestors and members of the MDC Alliance opposition party. Most disturbingly, there are credible reports of security forces raping women to suppress protests.
Tragically, this government/ruling party use of violence against its own citizens looks just like what the Mugabe-led government/ruling party did in the mid-1980s and the early 2000s.
While there has been some new openness in political dialogue and more freedom for dissent, the state still controls radio and television and it shut down the internet for several days during the January 2019 protests.
While the government’s talking points on fundamental issues such as rule of law, debt and international co-operation are more rational, measurable reform is elusive. Shona-speaking political, business, and military elite continue to call the shots and live in luxury while the middle-class emigrates and the poor suffer on. The government’s economic managers continue to look for short-term responses to systemic problems, print fake money and extract hard currency from any place they can find it.
The military remains the strongest, most capable institution in the country, and the High Court’s blessing of the November 2017 coup keeps the threat of another coup alive. The executive branch of government has subordinated the judiciary and completely overshadows the parliament.
Bankable title to agricultural land remains only a promise, so there is no collateral for new investment that could revive commercial agriculture and Zimbabwe’s economy. Mining continues to generate some export earnings, but disputes with Chinese and Russian mining companies have hurt those ventures and Western companies see more secure opportunities in neighbouring countries.
Much of the popular gratitude for the military’s removal of Mugabe evaporated on August 1 2018 when soldiers shot and killed six protesters. Public support for Mnangagwa and hope for reform is being trampled out of existence by the brutal actions of security forces in January 2019. Hopes that the coup of November 2017 opened a new beginning for Zimbabwe have proven false.
Are all coups bad?
According to data collected by University of Kentucky political scientists Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, there were about 450 coups worldwide between 1950 and 2010. Most, like Zimbabwe’s, effected little change in a country’s underlying problems of poor governance, corruption, weak rule of law and bad economic policy.
The authors found that “coups promote democratisation, particularly among states that are least likely to democratise otherwise”.
However, looking at a list of current African leaders who have come to power via a coup, it is hard to see much promotion of democracy. That list includes Theodore Obiang Nguema in Equatorial Guinea, Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) Omar Guelleh (Djibouti), Denis Sassou Nguesso (Republic of Congo), Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (Mauritania), Omar Ahmad al-Bashir (Sudan), and Idriss Deby in Chad. It’s not easy to see the democratising impulse in any of these leaders.
Still, law professor Ozan Varol, author of The Democratic Coup d’État, argues that a military coup can sometimes establish a democracy. Varol lays out the following criteria for judging whether a coup is “democratic”:
the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime;
the military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime;
the authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising;
the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription;
the military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime;
the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and
the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders.
Varol acknowledges that the vast majority of military coups are undemocratic in nature, and evaluated by his criteria, Zimbabwe’s November 2017 coup is one of that majority.
Exceptions may illustrate the rule. Portugal’s 1974 coup, Turkey’s coup in 1960 and, perhaps, Ghana’s coup in 1979, each seem to have led to stronger democracies.
Ghana’s was an incremental process and Turkey is backsliding today, but Portugal remains an example of a coup that delivered democracy. However, three positive examples out of more than 450 coups or attempted coups is poor evidence of the efficacy of coups in advancing democratic governance.
As in Zimbabwe, coups generally leave the judiciary alone in exchange for some sort of court ruling that legitimises the military’s undemocratic action. And therein lies the greatest problem for coups. Once the courts legitimise a coup — an unconstitutional transfer of power — the bar is set lower and it sets a precedent for future coups.
The one thing that coups seem to do consistently is increase the likelihood of subsequent coups. If Zimbabwe’s parliament had acted to impeach Mugabe on their own accord, rather than waiting for the military to act first, Zimbabwe’s chances for lasting, fundamental reform would be better than they are today.
The immediate result, a Mnangagwa presidency, would likely have been the same. But, the parliament would be seen as a more potent branch of government, the judiciary would be less compromised and the military could maintain the facade of being apolitical. These factors would have contributed to Zimbabwean and international confidence in the country’s commitment to the rule of law and democratic process.
The climb-back to respectability would have been a little less steep and the odds of another non-democratic transfer of power a little less likely.
Zimbabweans remain a remarkable people, capable of finding solutions to problems that would overwhelm others, and they deserve the chance to overcome their current challenges. Until recent unrest in response to the rise in petroleum prices and high inflation, most Zimbabweans still hoped for reform of the country’s governance and economic systems and some were still willing to give Mnangagwa time to show that he is the reformer he has promised to be.
However, recent splits within Zanu PF and clear lack of control of the military by Mnangagwa, who responded to demonstrations with the live-fire killings of at least 12 and injuring of hundreds, including 68 people wounded by gunfire, show that the marriage of convenience between Mnangagwa and the military is unravelling.
Signs that Mnangagwa and his government understood the expectations their citizens have of them were optimistic at best. Early euphoria has translated to high levels of frustration by a disaffected and marginalised youth population affected by high unemployment, shortages of major staples and scarcity of foreign currency.
Hopes that Zimbabwe, through Mnangagwa, would be one of those rare examples of a military coup that restores democracy are slowly and methodically being dashed by a military not willing to allow change.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield retired from the Senior Foreign Service of the US in 2017 after 35 years of service. She is a senior counsellor at Albright Stonebridge Group in their Africa practice and a distinguished fellow of African Studies at Georgetown University. She was assistant secretary for African Affairs from 2013 to 2017 and director-general of the Foreign Service and director of personnel from 2012 to 2013. Thomas-Greenfield was ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012. Ambassador Wharton, a retired member of the Senior Foreign Service of the US, served as the US ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2012 to 2015, and principal deputy secretary of state for African Affairs from 2015 to 2016. He also served as the public affairs officer at the US embassy in Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2003.