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A new political settlement can fix Zimbabwean crises

Elections would not be a panacea for restoring the state to legitimacy and international re-engagement.

Two years ago, we argued that the socio-economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe required a credible national dialogue, backed by a regional initiative and international scaffolding, and galvanising financial support to break the logjam on debt and raising capital. Things have worsened considerably since then.

The goal would have been a political settlement and a transitional arrangement — including substantial reform of the state and return of the military to civilian control, leading to elections under a new social contract. At Sapes Trust, we have held 35 policy dialogues since March 2021 covering the political economy, human rights, elections, and corruption.

Our expert panellists harboured no doubts that things were getting worse; that the government was unable to develop policies to address the rot; and that elections would not be a panacea for restoring the state to legitimacy and international re-engagement.

Enemies and alliances

Unlike other societies in the region, Zimbabwe’s ruling party Zanu-PF has, since independence in 1980, regarded and treated opposition parties and politicians as enemies to be vanquished completely: whether Joshua Nkomo and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union; Edgar Tekere and the Zimbabwe Unity Movement; Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change; and now Nelson Chamisa and the Citizens Coalition for Change. The Zanu-PF government’s explanation for the parlous state of the nation has been to blame sanctions and to claim that there are sufficient reforms to warrant the Commonwealth re-admitting Zimbabwe.

Yet no economist speaking at the eight dialogues that Sapes organised during the past two years believed that sanctions were a material cause of the country’s dire economic status, but that the major causes were poor policies, erratic fiscal behaviour, and rampant corruption.

Former Finance minister Tendai Biti was particularly alarming in outlining the extent of the corruption and the losses to the country. Steven Hanke, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, was in no doubt that Zimbabwe was heading for its third dose of hyperinflation. It was clear that the fundamental problem was the absence of the substantive reforms promised so earnestly in 2017. The hope for curing the military coup of November 2017 was an undisputed election in 2018, but Zimbabwe failed the credibility test thanks to a less than satisfactory treatment of a crucial election petition by the Constitutional Court.

Its attempt to resolve the problems of  violence after the election in August 2018 — by setting up a presidential commission to investigate it — has been wholly undermined by the government’s failure to take the Kgalema Motlanthe Commission’s recommendations seriously.

Word of the law

Zimbabwe is a rare country whose Constitutional Court has established a legitimate right for military coups. Few have paid attention to the judgements of the High Court and the Constitutional Court concluding, in effect, that Section 212 of the constitution gave the military a right to intervene in civilian affairs in order “to protect the constitution” and overriding Section 213, the provision in the constitution that clearly empowers only the president with the concurrence of the legislature to deploy the military.

In 2017, and whatever the military and others thought, Robert Mugabe was in full constitutional power of his office, and most definitely did not deploy the military to overthrow his government. Nobody in our policy dialogues believes that the election due this year will meet the conditions for legitimacy.

The problem is that this interpretation by the courts until it is overturned gives the military the right, regardless of the president, to deploy itself when it considers that the constitution is under threat. There is no evidence that any return to constitutionalism, rule of law, and adherence to human rights has taken place since 2017.

Despite all the factors that suggest an election cannot be a solution to the country’s problems, Zimbabwe is a few months away from another such contest, and the context for these elections is no better than it was in 2008, seen as among the most violent in the region.

Nobody in our policy dialogues believes that the election due this year will meet the conditions for legitimacy.

The contrast with Kenya, which had a violent election in 2007, is illuminating: the East African country held a credible election in August 2022 that saw the defeat of an incumbent president.

Any brief analysis of the conditions in Zimbabwe suggests that not only will the planned elections fail the credibility test but it makes matters much worse.

Experts in the policy dialogues argued that Zec has failed to demonstrate the necessary conditions of impartiality, equality, representativeness, transparency, and non-discrimination for delimitation (the drawing up of electoral constituencies) as was predicted last year in October.

There is also the refusal by Zec to make the voters’ register easily available, as it is in many African countries, claiming that auditing it somehow leads to tampering.

As for the conditions under which political parties must operate, it is clear that political violence is increasing; opposition parties are barred from holding meetings and rallies.

Civic space is closing and may close completely with the application of the Private Voluntary Organisations Act. The courts are being weaponised to deal with activists and opposition party members; the continuous denial of bail to Job Sikhala is the most egregious but not unique case.

Faced with the conspicuous misuse of public resources to cajole the populace into supporting Zanu-PF, Zimbabwe has descended into its usual state of paralysis that takes hold when elections are pending.

Only a local remedy can deal effectively with the fall-out. The manner in which Kenya has cleansed itself of potential threats to elections, and can stand by the outcome, irrespective of foreign approval, is exemplary.

This is why an audit of the election climate in Zimbabwe is so critical. If all the conditions for a legitimate election are not present, then action is required.

Testing democracy

In 2000, the Commonwealth pointed out that there would be consequences if the conditions for a legitimate election were not met.

The Commonwealth Observer mission, chaired by former Nigerian head of state General Abdusalami Abubakar, concluded that the political violence meted out against oppositionists and the pro-regime bias of the electoral commission, undermined the elections in 2000. That’s why Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth.

If one of the tests for democracy is the holding of elections, then the quality of the election matters.

Elections are not just symbolic, they determine the nature of political power; who holds it must have the acceptance of the nation for legitimacy.

Zimbabwe has failed this test in every single election since 2000 when Zanu-PF faced a mass opposition party. The consequences for Zimbabwe, and the region, are not trivial.

The usual response that “Zimbabwe must do better next time” will not solve the problem of a state that will not and cannot reform.

As we pointed out earlier, the problems are too deep without a total overhaul of the state, the removal of the securocrats and a clear strategy to address the deepening economic crisis and impoverishment of our people.

Zimbabwe, like Rhodesia before it, has reached a “Lancaster House” moment, a point at which there is no possible solution without coherent regional and international action.

No election could solve Rhodesia’s problems without a major change in politics.

This required a political settlement, with acceptance by all internal political forces agreeing on a different solution to the status quo of military struggle by the liberation forces against the Rhodesian Front settler regime, which had been declared illegal by the UN and Britain, and across most of the world.

Of course, Zimbabwe isn’t in the middle of a civil war, but its political polarisation is so entrenched that negotiation is the only way forward, and that will require mediation of a serious and sustained kind. President Emmerson’s political actor’s dialogue isn’t taken seriously by credible opposition politicians.

The “Zimbabwe problem” will not stay neatly inside our national borders. It is a problem for the whole region as it was 44 years ago when Ian Smith’s illegal regime was making its desperately bloody last stand.

Then our brave liberation forces negotiated a new independent dispensation and it is with that spirit we must take action now.

Mandaza and Reeler are co-conveners of the Platform for Concerned Citizens.

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