#Coup17: Mnangagwa’s political reforms: More rhetoric and less action

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FOR more than half of the four decades of Zimbabwe’s Independence under the long-ruling Zanu PF, the country has been locked in a syndrome of crises, first under former (and now late) President Robert Mugabe who was in charge for an unbroken 37 years and later under Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, referred to as “ED”.

Mnangagwa took over after a military-instigated and mass-supported leadership change in November 2017. It is not without significance that the new Mnangagwa team rechristened itself as the “New Dispensation” before adding the “Second Republic” after the July 2019 harmonised elections which the President won by a whisker.

In reality, though, there was leadership change without regime change in the sense that there was a change in the cast of those who rule but not change in the political rules of the game. Though it is not uncommon for leadership change to lead to regime change, this has not been the case in Zimbabwe. It was therefore unrealistic and over-optimistic of Zimbabweans and the international community (especially the West) to expect deep and wide-ranging reforms that would, according to the ruling elites, “reform the regime out of power”.

The multi-dimensional crisis has proved impervious to the leadership change. In fact, if anything, the socio-economic and political situation has dramatically deteriorated since Mnangagwa took over and especially since the July 2018 harmonised elections.

For most people, the chronic hydra-headed crisis is reducible to a conjoined political and economic crisis, with the political side being the driver behind the economic and other manifestations of the quagmire. There is general consensus, in and outside government, that political reforms are an imperative to begin to cure the enduring crisis.

What has Mnangagwa done and not done? Answering this question with an unjaundiced eye leads to the finding that there has been more not done than done. The balance sheet is not so savoury. In assessing the performance of the regime in the last two years, it is imperative to recognise that the political system Zimbabwe has is a culmination of 90 years of settler-colonial authoritarianism — which became harsher in the last 15 years of its life — and 37 years of post-colonial militarised electoral authoritarianism which also became more vicious in the last 17 years of its life.

Thus, dismantling nearly 13 decades of authoritarianism is a difficult and long-running task. If anything, critics see Mnangagwa adding his own version of authoritarianism atop that he inherited. What is the “true” picture? Let us steal a glimpse at the performance balance sheet.

Credit side

One of the distinctive features of the Mnangagwa administration has been a change of tone compared to his predecessor. Instead of the bellicose and militant rhetoric of Mugabe, Mnangagwa stormed into office with a charm offensive directed at both the domestic and international consumers, though more the latter than the former. In his very first public speech upon his return from self-exile in South Africa in November 2017, he assured his listeners that they were “witnessing the beginning of a new unfolding democracy”.

Two months later in January 2018, he again sought to reinforce the change narrative: “Let me assure you that Zimbabwe is not the same again and will not be the same again”. Of course, cynics would agree that indeed Zimbabwe “is not the same again”; it is worse! And, we will also see that rhetoric alone is far from enough and can, in fact, be self-defeating.

In terms of transparency in government decision-making, there has been some improvement, the most outstanding of which has been the weekly cabinet decision matrix, arguably one of ED’s most laudable governance innovations. It has greatly helped in piercing the “black box” of government and getting a sense of what happens in the corridors of power and the outputs of the decision-making process.

It must also be acknowledged that toward the 2018 elections, and breaking with an odious tradition of banning foreign media (especially from the West) to come to Zimbabwe and report on their findings, Mnangagwa opened up, allowing in many high-profile media houses including the BBC, Sky News, Voice of America, Financial Times, etc. Relatedly, he allowed external Western observers to come and observe the July 2018 elections which they did in droves, including IRI/NDI, the Carter Centre, the EU and Commonwealth.

Also significant was the September 2019 invitation extended to the United Nations rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, who undertook the first official visit by a UN Special Procedures mandate holder in Zimbabwe. He spoke with a wide-range of interlocutors in and outside government and publicly shared his preliminary findings. All these invitations would most probably have been unthinkable under Mugabe.

In the same category was the setting up of a commission of inquiry comprising local and international members to investigate and report on the circumstances surrounding the August 1 2018 disproportionate use of force by security forces that killed at least six demonstrators who were protesting against the delay in the announcement of the presidential election results. The Motlanthe Commission held public hearings that were televised for all to hear and see and the commission proceeded to make its findings public. This was also a rare instance of transparency and accountability, although, to date, the government has only cherry-picked some of the recommendations for implementation, while setting aside the most critical which was about arresting and prosecuting those responsible.

Again, in the January fuel protests in which at least 17 people were killed by security forces, culprits were neither identified nor prosecuted. This impunity has been one of the dark sides of Mnangagwa’s government in the last two years, raising the ire of the international community he desperately wants to re-engage.

On the credit side, there has also admittedly been a sense of more freedom of speech and expression than under Mugabe and this is despite the sometimes overzealous application of insult laws — themselves unconstitutional. In various public spaces like combis, mushika-shikas and boozing places, people tend to speak truth to power. Opinion surveys also attest to the improved atmosphere for citizen expression.

The more relaxed environment was also evident during the 2018 election campaign with the opposition, especially the MDC Alliance, being able to traverse the country with little to no hurdles. They were clearly the most peaceful since the violence and intimidation-ridden elections from 2000 onwards. The above bright sides of Mnangagwa’s performance represent commendable improvements on the past but most changes tend to be more symbolic than substantive and tend to be with an eye on the impressing or appeasing the Western international community rather than sustainable reforms aimed at enhancing the quality of governance in the country. This brings us to the debit side.

Debit side

This side of the balance sheet has been deeply disappointing, especially for the hundreds of thousands who thronged the streets to celebrate (wildly and without much reflection) the exit of long-ruling Mugabe who had overstayed his welcome. The disappointment — which has reached a point of despair — arises from the rupture in leadership in the context of regime continuity. The debit side has been dominated by non-implementation of key reforms, most of which have been repeatedly raised in various circles including by election observer groups, the Motlanthe commission and recently by the UN rapporteur. Most are a carry-over from the Mugabe era and non-implementation is a consequence of the dynamics of power politics and the imperatives of power preservation and consolidation, as well as an element of state capture by business cartels. These kinds of governance reforms are difficult to implement by a regime that benefits from them. This has been the case in the last six years, two of those years under the “reformist” Mnangagwa.

A distinctive difference though between Mnangagwa and his predecessor in terms of the political reform agenda is that Mugabe did not accept the identified deficits and the need to address as well as remedy them. On the other hand, Mnangagwa explicitly acknowledges the need to reform and either promises to do so or claims he is doing so.

On the few occasions that he has so far instituted reforms, they often fall far short of expectations with only superficial rather than substantive changes. But at least Mnangagwa accepts the need for reform and improvement, which Mugabe resolutely denied. It is easy to enumerate and describe the outstanding political reforms that are needed to improve the quality of governance in the country and that are at the core of sanctions like the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. It is more difficult to analyse why the requisite reforms have not been implemented, something this piece will try to do. But first the key issues around political reforms. These can be classified into three categories.

The first is about implementation of the “new” 2013 constitution in its totality, that is, bringing into legislative and practical life those provisions in the new constitution that were not part of the statutory framework at the time the new supreme law was adopted. Prominent among such provisions are those on devolution — especially the establishment of the provincial councils and allocation of budgetary resources to the local government tiers of government as per Chapter 14 of the constitution.

To this day, these provisions have not yet been implemented though tentative steps have been taken. In fact, on the downside, there is regression regarding devolution whereby the government intends to amend the constitution to remove MPs as members of the provincial councils in their respective constituencies.

Outstanding political reforms

Another implementation gap is in respect of provisions relating to security sector reforms. Intentions have been expressed to enact the relevant legislation — in accordance with section 210 of the constitution — that provides for the establishment of an effective and independent oversight mechanism to receive and investigate complaints from the public regarding any alleged misconduct of members of the security forces as well as providing for appropriate remedies.

It is notable that these outstanding devolution and security sector reforms are in fact those issues that fell under the rubric of “sticking issues” during the 2009-2013 constitution-making process whereby Zanu PF strongly objected to the provisions but later relented albeit reluctantly. It now appears the party strategically retreated on these issues for the sake of finalising the constitutional draft and clear the path for elections they desperately needed but meanwhile planned to sabotage the provisions at the point of implementation if they won the elections, which they did, resoundingly but controversially too. The sabotage tactic has been on full display in the last six years in respect of these key clauses.

The second category of outstanding political reforms relate to extant legislation—that is legislation that was already in place at the time of the new Constitution — that thereafter needed to be synchronised with the new social contract. This was the case with more than 400 pieces of legislation but in this basket — and for most people—were a few that were notorious for being vicious instruments of repression, some reproduced from the settler colonial era. To civil society, human rights defenders, the opposition political parties, and the Western international community, the most repugnant were the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the incongruously named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa).

Both were enacted in 2002 when the three-year Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under the late Morgan Tsvangirai was assessed as posing an existential threat to the Robert Mugabe regime. Thus, the cardinal purpose of the reviled twin laws was for regime preservation by asphyxiating any and all anti-regime forces and their activities.
Considerable progress has been made in repealing and replacing these two manifestly repressive laws. For instance, Posa will now be replaced by the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (Mopa) that, among other things, “will provide mechanisms to ensure that the police in maintaining law, order and suppression of civil commotion or disturbances in any police district do so in a manner that does not compromise human rights”. Mopa has already been passed by both the National Assembly and the Senate and now awaits presidential assent. Most critics have also dismissed Mopa as a reincarnation of Posa and the settler colonial Law and Maintenance Act (Loma).

Posa’s twin brother, Aippa, is to be dismantled and replaced by several pieces of legislation including: Freedom of Information Bill (gives effect to section 62 of the constitution which enshrines the right of access to information), Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill (purportedly complies with section 249 of the constitution), Information/Data Protection Bill, and the Broadcasting Services Bill which, among other things, seeks to provide for freedom to establish broadcasting and other electronic media of communication. To date, Zimbabwe has not authorised a single community radio station, which makes it the black sheep of southern Africa (and indeed of Africa) in this regard.

The first two Bills have been gazetted and public consultations held and the Bills await debate in Parliament. Already, however, media experts condemn some of the provisions in the Bills as failing the test of constitutionality and international best practice. The other two Bills are still at a nascent stage of the legislative process but cabinet approval is said to have been given. It may be noted that intentions to amend the media terrain, including Aippa, were expressed as long back as December 2018 with explicit promises to expedite the reform process. A year later, the Bills are still stuck in the pipeline.

The government has also made an undertaking to amend the Electoral Act by mid-2020, according to Foreign Affairs and International Trade minister Sibusiso Moyo who is the deputy chairperson of the Inter-ministerial Task Force on Political and Electoral Reforms established in March 2019. He promised that such electoral reforms “will be completed, at the very least, by June 2020, although we aim to complete electoral reforms well before that date”. On the positive side, it is noted that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has been gradually implementing some of the recommended reforms in recent by-elections, for example the display of the voters’ rolls outside polling stations.

The first two broad categories discussed above require political reforms in the legislative arena to address and remedy the identified problem. The third category of needed political reform relates to conduct or practice that is outside the law and outside the constitution, that is, extra-judicial actions by supposedly rogue elements that however act on behalf (and perhaps at the behest) of the regime and state elites. Recent abductions, for instance, fall in this category, and so do cases of rape, beatings, torture, harassment that are perpetrated by vigilantes, militia, party activists, so-called “Third Forces” etc where the perpetrators apparently escape the famed “wrath of the law”. For instance, not a single culprit has been identified and arrested let alone prosecuted for the dozens of abductions carried out since the beginning of the year. This conduct or impunity was equally rampant under the long rule of Mugabe, for example the perpetrators of the bombings on private media in the early 2000s, electoral violence, murder and intimidation, especially during 2008 presidential run-off campaign.

Such extra-legal political behaviour does not necessarily require legislative interventions to curb it but a new way of conducting political business by the ruling elites. It also requires appropriate training and re-training as well as capacitation of the law enforcement agencies to be able to apprehend offenders “without fear or favour”. The selective application of the law as well as impunity are some of the high priority areas for political reforms. It is notable that the police has been undergoing retraining to enable it to better handle public demonstrations and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) will be renamed the Zimbabwe Police Service (ZPS) by way of rebranding it in line with developments in the region.

A question that arises is: Why are there delays in implementing the various seemingly straightforward political reforms as outlined above? For instance, the minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Ziyambi Ziyambi, promised that all laws should be fully aligned with the constitution by the end of 2019 but, with less than two months to go, this promise is clearly beyond reach.

One answer to what appears to be “strategic” delays or deliberate reluctance lies in the conflation of political reforms with regime change, that is, the regime seeing the needed reforms as part of the Western-instigated regime change agenda. Since the escalation of the political and economic crisis from 2000, the Zanu PF regime has been ultra-sensitive about any moves that, in its assessment, remotely resemble regime change. Thus, it has an expansive definition of national security and what constitutes a national security threat. For instance, security sector reform, a core part of political reforms, has for long been regarded as a presidential preserve and therefore untouchable. Any efforts to reform this sector has therefore been viewed as unwarranted interference and an attempt to weaken a key pillar of the regime and the state. The same judgement is given in respect of other governance reforms in the electoral and media terrain. The political and security infrastructure is what keeps the regime going and any tinkering is invariably seen as a concerted effort to undermine the Zanu PF regime and bring it down in favour of a “puppet” regime that is amenable to the Western “imperialist” interests . So, the first line of defence is to resist through delaying tactics. Delay or glacial implementation of the requisite reforms is a deliberate strategy of regime preservation and power consolidation.

The above also helps explain the rhetoric-action gap that President Mnangagwa has become legendary for. In virtually every sphere of policy, ED reflexively overpromises and under-delivers, resulting in deep public scepticism about what he says. This assessment is widespread both among citizens and external stakeholders. For instance, in exasperation, US senator Chris Coons—who visited Zimbabwe during last year’s elections—told a Congressional hearing on Zimbabwe in December 2018 that:

“If you read a transcript of our meeting with President Mnangagwa, if you read transcripts of his speeches, if you read the editorial he wrote in the New York Times, he’s saying all the right things. Our challenge is the doing.”

In short, Mnangagwa is very bold at promising but very shy at delivering. Increasingly, for most people, ED comes across as a president with two faces: the first face displays a man of daring rhetoric, saying the right and sweet things, often accompanied by a firm commitment that those things will be done, and expeditiously. The other presidential face betrays a man of inaction except in governance areas that involve power preservation and consolidation. Zimbabweans and other observers await the day when the President will synchronise his words with action.

A generous interpretation of ED’s performance—loud on rhetoric and subdued on action—is that he has the will to deliver and walk the talk but that he is constrained by powerful forces around him. In other words, the President is captive to malign forces surrounding him and who then exercise veto power on the reform agenda items they feel would be injurious to their vested interests. It is common knowledge that Zimbabwe’s political economy is now heavily cartelised and that the rent-seeking rackets populate virtually every important sector of the economy and society through their control of the party-state. To the extent that political reforms to be implemented are coterminous with perceived regime change— especially foreign orchestrated regime change—the cartel czars instinctively resist such changes. Thus, in this explanatory perspective, ED may have the will but lacks the capacity to push his willed agenda through and forward. In fact, there is an eerie and legitimate sense among many that the ruling elites have been captured in the South African Gupta-style.

In sum, the balance sheet on political reforms has been skewed in favour of limited performance. We have so far witnessed a surfeit of rhetoric but a dearth of action. If this approach will define the balance of President Mnangagwa’s term of office, then it is difficult to be sanguine. But the message from the domestic and international community is loud and unambiguous: do more, talk less.

Eldred Masunungure is a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe and director of Mass Public Opinion Institute (Mpoi).

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