Published 08 Apr 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Zimbabwe Zigzags Onto Another Rough Patch
The ongoing stand-off in Zimbabwe between incumbent President Robert Mugabe and the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, shows how much the political landscape can shift back and forth in the space of a week. And, as things stand at the time of this writing, the auguries, at least for the short-term, are not particularly auspicious for either the long-suffering country or the future of Africa.
On March 29, according to numbers released by Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) in relation to the legislative poll, some 2.4 million Zimbabweans (out of an estimated total population of 12.3 million) cast simultaneous ballots in presidential, House of Assembly, Senate, and local council elections. In the past, these elections were held separately: presidential elections coming every six years, parliamentary elections every five years, and local council elections every four years. The harmonization of these elections came out of a mediation process undertaken by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and constitutional amendments which were subsequently ratified. Thus Zimbabweans had an unprecedented opportunity to effect political change in their country.
As the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), a non-governmental organization which, under the patronage of Sir Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, a former president of Botswana who voluntarily retired in 1998 at the end of his term of office, has monitored elections in throughout the subregion, noted in its post-election statement, when compared with previous elections in Zimbabwe, the polls were "were partly free in that there existed a more peaceful environment allowing for freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech," although "the electoral process to be severely wanting in respect of fairness as most of the critical aspects of the process lacked transparency" (the Zimbabwean government selectively accredited observer missions, excluding many civil society monitoring groups; EISA's mission was itself technically illegal). The EISA report also cited the "painstakingly slow" announcement of official results from the ZEC.
The first set of results to be announced by the ZEC on April 2, four full days after the voting had finished, conceded control of the 210-member House of Assembly to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with Tsvangirai's main faction winning 99 seats, while a splinter group led by Arthur Mutambara picking up 10 seats. The ruling Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) went from 108 seats in the previous 150-member Assembly (78 elected members, 20 presidential appointees, and 10 ex ufficio chieftains) to 97 in the new body; the Assembly's lone independent member, Jonothan Moyo, a onetime information minister who later turned against Mugabe, was also reelected to his seat. Three other contests were delayed due to deaths of candidates during the campaign.
The Assembly results sparked rumors fed undoubtedly by the hopes of many Zimbabweans to see the back of Mugabe who has ruled the country for twenty-eight years that the ZANU-PF chief was looking for a "safe exit," perhaps through the vehicle of a transitional government of national unity that would permit him to retire quietly.
Then the ZEC began slowing down its work even further. It took the electoral board two more days to call the 60 Senate seats being contested (37 others are either ex ufficio or by presidential appointment), awarding 30 to ZANU-PF, 24 to the MDC, and 6 to the Mutambara faction of the MDC.
More significantly, no official presidential results have been announced as of this writing, fueling widespread speculation that the ZEC was engaged in vote-rigging. In fact, the MDC has initiated court proceedings to try to force the commission the release results. Meanwhile, in the absence of an official tabulation, MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti claimed the presidency for his party's standard-bearer, citing figures from tabulations of the results posted outside each polling station which he said showed Tsvangirai winning 1,171,079 votes (50.3 percent) to Mugabe's 1,043,349 (43.8 percent), former ZANU-PF finance minister Herbert Stanley Simba Makoni's 167,815 (7 percent), and a negligible sprinkling of support for an independent nonentity, Langton Towungana. The constitution requires a presidential hopeful win 50 percent plus one in the first round to avoid a run-off election with the second-place candidate.
Based on its own rather sample-based observation of the posted returns, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a coalition of 38 civil society organizations, projected that Tsvangirai had won 49.4 percent of the vote (with a 2.4 percent margin of error), Mugabe 41.8 percent (with a 2.6 percent margin of error), Makoni 8.2 percent (with 1.1 percent margin of error), and Towungana 0.6 percent (with a 0.1 percent margin of error).
Adding to the confusion and, undoubtedly, to the climate of distrust, a five-hour-long meeting on April 4 of the ZANU-PF politburo endorsed Mugabe for the run-off, despite the fact that the ZEC had yet to announce if there was to be one. It also demanded recounts in 16 of the Assembly constituencies won by MDC. The announcement by the party which has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 fueled speculation that it would either seek to overturn its defeat by manipulating the current results and/or, as it did during the election campaigns of 2000, 2002, and 2005, unleash a campaign of violence to "win" the second round of presidential contest. The fears appeared confirmed by the menacing parades of Mugabe loyalists, the so-called liberation war veterans (many of the thugs could hardly have been old enough to have born, much less participated in, the 1970s struggle against the minority white government of the then-Rhodesia), through the streets of Harare over the weekend as well as the police raid on rooms at the York Lodge hotel being used by the MDC and the subsequent detention of several foreign journalists, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak. Reports over the weekend included several accounts of Zimbabwean soldiers and ZANU-PF militants beating suspected MDC supporters.
At this point, there are five possible scenarios:
First, the ZEC announces results similar to those claimed by the MDC and Zimbabwe begins the transition to a new chapter in its history with Morgan Tsvangirai as its new president. However, there is little indication that this will happen: the sampling by the Zimbabwean NGOs, for example, seems to indicate that the opposition candidate may have actually narrowly missed the absolute majority needed. Furthermore, if a story published by the (London) Sunday Times is to be credited, the ZEC previewed the true results of poll to Mugabe and his closest collaborators the day after the election and was essentially sent back with orders to manipulate them, albeit not the extent that the president wanted.
Second, the ZEC releases results not dissimilar to those projected by the ZESN model, its findings are accepted by opposition as legitimate (an entirely debatable proposition), a run-off takes place in a reasonable amount of time Zimbabwean legislation requires that the poll occur within twenty-one days, but there are all sorts of technical questions, both legitimate and not-quite-so-valid and the independent candidates throw their support behind the MDC's Tsvangirai, who wins the presidency in the second round. This would be the optimistic outcome and the one which many Western governments are hoping will actually come about. However, for it to even have a minimal chance requires so many factors to come together that it may not be realistic.
Third, the results published set the stage for a run-off, but Mugabe is persuaded to spare his country the trauma by withdrawing his candidacy (under the Zimbabwean constitution there is no provision for replacing a candidate who withdraws from the second round, thus a withdrawal would give the race to the remaining candidate by default). While nothing in his personal history could possibly give rise to hope that the megalomaniacal despot would put anyone before himself, the thought is that other members of ZANU-PF, interested in preserving their ill-gotten gains if not their political positions, might push Mugabe aside if they were offered a place in a "government of national unity." South African and other regional governments are reportedly pushing for this negotiated "soft landing." However, the combination of the violations of international humanitarian law and other human rights abuses which senior ZANU-PF members could potentially be accused (see below), which have no statute of limitations, coupled with the increasing campaign against impunity (see my report last year on Liberian's fallen despot Charles Taylor) does have the unintended effect of making it more difficult for the regime to cede power. (In an op-ed published Monday by Britain's Guardian newspaper, Tsvangirai, while stopping short of offering the blanket immunity which he could not guarantee, allowed that the MDC had "assured Mugabe that the new government will not pursue him legally through government offices" because "work ahead is monumental and we need no further self-made distractions.")
Fourth, a run-off is called, but the process quickly degenerates as Mugabe and ZANU-PF hardliners resort to their old tricks to retain power. Some observers, for example, have noted that Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga declared last week that while ZANU-PF had "let the president down" in the first round, it would rebound to "win" a decisive victory in the second: "We only applied 25 percent of our energy in the first round [The run-off] is when we are going to unleash the other 75 percent." Moreover, Mugabe could attempt to derail the vote altogether by declaring a state of emergency and arresting his opponents (Tsvangirai was most recently arrested by the Mugabe regime this past January, although on that occasion, unlike last year, he was spared the severe beating that sent him to the hospital with head wounds). Mugabe, whose regime is already under sanction, may well gamble that there is little that the international community is likely to do to actually remove him from power. The People's Republic of China, which wields a veto on the UN Security Council, for example, has benefited immensely from the West's shunning of Zimbabwe in recent years, securing access to various commodities in the African country and, as I have previously reported in this column, selling the Mugabe regime arms, including no fewer than forty fighters in the last four years. Even amid the political stand-off last week, a Chinese delegation was actually in Harare trying perhaps to extract one last concessionary trade deal.
Fifth, fearing the third possibility and confident of mandate he believes himself to have won outright in the first round, Tsvangirai resists a run-off and proclaims himself president, precipitating a crisis in Zimbabwe. On Saturday, the MDC leader, while essentially declared Mugabe a lame duck who "must concede to allow us to move on with the business of rebuilding and reconstructing the country," also accused him of "preparing a war." In the eventuality of the MDC trying to "act presidential" by forming a government and relying on massive turnouts of supporters to protect its leaders, much would depend on whether or not the Zimbabwean military and security services, presumably under the control of more "moderate" elements of ZANU-PF, could be dissuaded from intervening violently to crush what would effectively be an opposition attempt to unseat the regime by employing the tactic known in the Philippines as "people power" and in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia as "color (or flower) revolution."
Whatever happens, it will be rough going, at least for a while. Nonetheless what is at stake in Zimbabwe is nothing less than the fate not only of that one African country, but perhaps the future of its subregion, if not that of the continent itself. In his three decades in power, Mugabe has quite literally ruined his country. At one time, the country fed its neighbors; by last year, maize production was down to one-third and wheat production to one-twelfth of the 2000 levels, which were themselves down from previous figures. The last time anyone checked, inflation raged at an annual rate of more than 100,000 percent (the country's chief statistician subsequently stopped calculating the inflation rate since there were no longer enough goods in shops for him to use in his determinations). Last Friday, the Central Bank of Zimbabwe introduced new 25 million and 50 million Zimbabwean dollar (ZWD) bank notes. Previously the highest bank note was the ZWD 10,000,000 bill, a piece of paper that would only buy one half a loaf of bread, assuming he or she was fortunate enough to locate any for sale. To this economic mismanagement one must add the gross human rights abuses to which Mugabe and ZANU-PF have subjected Zimbabweans, beginning with the Gukurahundi ("the early rain washes away the chaff") campaign of the early 1980s when North Korean-trained troops from the Fifth Brigade massacred tens of thousands of Ndebele people in Matabeland who had backed onetime Mugabe rival Joshua Nkomo (for more on this atrocity, sadly largely forgotten, see the comprehensive 1999 report by Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resource Foundation). Not surprisingly, an estimated one-third of Zimbabweans no longer live in their own country, opting instead to become refugees whose presence severely taxes the capacities of countries across southern Africa; South Africa alone hosts an estimated 800,000 Zimbabweans, many undocumented. (In anticipation of a further deterioration of the situation in Zimbabwe and fearing a mass exodus, Zambia put security forces along its border on high alert over the weekend.)
Despite this record, Mugabe is warmly embraced by his fellow African leaders whenever he deigns to show himself at their regional meetings. (To be fair, the European leaders have hardly shown themselves paragons of moral clarity in the face of the thuggish Zimbabwean ruler: in December 2007, when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that he would absent himself from the second-ever European Union-Africa summit if Mugabe attended, none of his peers supported his stance. In the end, Mugabe attended the Lisbon meeting while Brown stayed at home.) However, Africa's leaders have certainly not covered themselves with glory in the aftermath of the Zimbabwean election, casting doubt on their sincerity of their own embrace of democracy and good governance. Barely a day after the voting, before even one race had been called, the SADC election observation mission, with the exception of the representatives from South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance party, pronounced itself satisfied that the polls were "peaceful and credible," the vote counting was conducted "meticulously and lawfully," and the results (!) were "a credible expression of the will of the people of Zimbabwe." The African Union (AU) observers were, apparently without irony, headed by former Sierra Leonean president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a United Nations bureaucrat-turned-politician whose own election in 1996 as I documented in my 2005 book Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy including such irregularities as the cancellation of voting in the home district of his opponent and returns from party strongholds which suggested he won more votes than there were registered voters (a UN representative helpfully "adjusted" the returns to show his erstwhile colleague winning "only" 100 percent of the vote). Not surprisingly, the AU mission actually commended the Zimbabwean electoral commissioners for "commitment, professionalism and efficiency" and urged Zimbabweans to accept the results the ZEC would announce. Similar declarations of approval were forthcoming from the delegations dispatched by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC). In an interview with the AllAfrica.com news service, EISA's executive director, Denis Kadima, criticized the African observers for not taking their responsibilities seriously, noting that "these are not solidarity missions, these are election observer missions in a country going through some very serious challenges."
Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain said in a statement last week (the first by any of the presidential candidates, Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both following the GOP nominee's lead three days later):
Our ideals must animate our foreign policy and that includes support for democratic forces in closed societies. The opposition in Zimbabwe has endured repression, hardship, beatings and imprisonment. At this time we cannot turn our back on the brave men and women who have struggled peacefully for their freedom. The situation in Zimbabwe has reached a decisive moment. After the years in which the repressive regime of President Robert Mugabe has made a mockery of law while turning what was once southern Africa's breadbasket into a literal economic basket case, the people of Zimbabwe nonetheless bravely went to the polls. The delay in publishing the results of the election raise serious doubts about what is happening. It is now time for the international community, especially Zimbabwe's immediate neighbors, to stand up and be heard in support of Zimbabwe's people, demanding that their votes be respected. This is not only the principled course of action; it is also the only one that will assure everyone's best interests by not allowing the situation to deteriorate further. The United States has and will continue to support the democracy and rule of law that alone can secure Africa's future development, and should be prepared to provide assistance to support a transition to democracy in Zimbabwe.
If there is any comfort in the current situation, it is that time is ultimately not on 84-year-old Mugabe's side. Sooner or later, he will be gone from the scene. While Zimbabwe may have to careen a bit before that long-expected day arrives, its friends abroad must plan ahead for that time, preparing to move quickly to stabilize the situation with an aid package that includes both emergency funds to make a real immediate difference in the lives of ordinary people through the provision of food, medication, fuel, and other basics of life and longer-term assistance to resettle refugees and rebuild a shattered economy that was once one of the bright spots in Africa and with some good governance, a bit of start-up help, and absent its octogenarian despot could be so again.
J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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