THE current lull on Zimbabwe’s succession front after President Robert Mugabe shored up his leaking ship almost certainly faces new storms on the horizon, an influential US think tank has said, even as it admitted there was little Washington could do to influence Harare.
A furious behind-the-scenes battle last year between the current and former Vice-Presidents saw Mugabe, aided by wild card and wife Grace, intervene decisively, leading to the ouster of Joice Mujuru in favour of incumbent deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa.
But a wide-reaching analysis by the Council on Foreign Relation (CFR)’s Centre for Preventive Action says that despite this, the risk factors associated with political instability in Zimbabwe are growing fast, as doubts remain over how long the tight discipline will last.
“Mugabe may serve out his term and successfully hand over power to an anointed successor, but events may unfold in a less orderly fashion,” the CFR analysis, authored by former US ambassador to Namibia George Ward, says.
Three scenarios that could trigger acute instability are presented: that Mugabe dies or becomes incapacitated before installing a chosen successor, that his control is challenged and undermined by growing party factionalism, or an economic crisis triggers demands for political change.
While Mugabe has sought to maintain an active schedule and is current political head of the African Union and the regional Southern African Development Community (Sadc) as he targets another run in 2018, he has however travelled abroad for treatment several times, and has recently been more dependent on his wife for physical support.
While Zimbabwe seems to have a default shock setting for bad news on the economy front including declining commodity and cash crop prices and investment, it is the second scenario that presents a more immediate challenge, according to the non-partisan CFR.
With the opposition MDC party in disarray following a routing in the 2013 elections, the intrigue has come from within the ruling Zanu PF. With a purge targeting Mujuru’s allies underway, it has been lost that the former vice president enjoys strong support at the local and regional party levels.
She also has significant support among Zimbabwe’s “securocrats” on the basis of her liberation struggle record, a war in which she fought under a nom de guerre that translates as Comrade Spill Blood. Her husband was the commander of Mugabe’s liberation army and led Zimbabwe’s army after independence.
It is these factors that may have emboldened her to last week speak out after a sustained propaganda during Mugabe’s 91st birthday party, even as Mnangagwa goes flat out to demonstrate loyalty with the knowledge that Mugabe’s deputies have historically fared poorly.
At his lavish party in Victoria Falls on February 28, Mugabe branded Mujuru a witch and accused her of plotting to kill him. He claimed that she had hired Nigerian shamans and performed bizarre rituals aimed at killing or ousting him so that she could become the country’s leader, he charged.
But Mujuru, who has kept a low profile since she was ousted in December, finally spoke out in some detail.
“I’ve kept quiet out of respect for President Mugabe, but people mustn’t mistake my silence as weakness or guilt,” Mujuru told news wire Bloomberg in an interview on March 4 from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “I’m not weak and I’m not guilty.”
“I’m a Christian woman, born into the Apostolic Church, the President knows that,” Mujuru, 59, said. “I don’t practice witchcraft.
“I’m ready to be taken before the courts if they think there’s a real story, if they think I was trying to kill or remove President Mugabe,” Mujuru said. “I haven’t betrayed anyone, not him, not the leadership, not the party. This is some kind of presidential fantasy.”
The CFR says that she cannot be counted out, even as Mnangagwa, who has fallen out with Mugabe in the past, seeks to consolidate what may turn out to be another poisoned chalice. Grace Mugabe is seen as seeking to enlist him as her future patron and protector, even if she has exhibited presidential ambitions of her own.
Mugabe in a television interview ahead of the birthday party termed his wife as raw and “not strong enough yet”.
According to the CFR’s analysis, while his latest moves have seen Mugabe take personal control of Zanu PF, which is inextricably tied to the State, “significant opposition to Mugabe’s authoritarian role would likely be met by repressive measures, but conceivably could trigger a crisis within the Zanu PF”.
Any political instability, forecast in the next 12-18 months, could drag in the United States in several ways, Ward argues.
These include generating a major humanitarian problem that would require extensive US aid commitment, and delaying hope of a productive bilateral trade and economic relationship as commerce between the two antagonistic countries remains minuscule, at only $50 million worth of goods and services.
Political relations, trade and investment would also be hurt, while the US army could be forced to intervene to evacuate American citizens, currently estimated at less than 1 000.
It is thus in both countries’ interests to ensure stability, allowing Zimbabwe to use its rich “human and natural resources to play a leading role in shaping Africa’s future”, while American expertise would be employed, both to further its economic interests and cull the need for future humanitarian intervention.
The problem, Ward says, is that the US possesses few policy instruments for directly influencing developments in Zimbabwe politics. Bilateral relations are strained, and while US aid at $130 million in 2013 is significant, it has been mainly channelled through civil society, allowing Mugabe to build shock absorbers.
“Targeted economic sanctions remain in place, but are widely seen as having little impact,” he says.
The preferred option for the US is thus to seek to influence the political transition, but in addition to the named constraints, Washington would have few willing partners — neither Sadc, China nor even the EU.
The other is to seek to minimise the risk of political violence and economic turmoil — essentially become a bystander while hoping for a quick and stable transition. Under this approach Washington would thus to seek to build a multilateral, several-partner strategy to help in this, essentially admitting that even Uncle Sam’s big stick, so often employed unilaterally, has its shortcomings.
Sadc is identified as one such partner, but with a distracted South Africa (despite being most at risk of a fallout from Zimbabwe including from refugees) others such as China, which has vast economic interests but is also battling its own internal economic slowdown, may help.
As Washington’s own sanctions are mainly symbolic, UN and EU bans might help mitigate violence, but are dependent on China and a tougher line from Brussels, the latter which has been in recent weeks been loosening restrictions.
The CFR argues the US would be best advised to look to work with the post-Mugabe regime, while seeking to increase its stagnated clout in southern Africa, including in countries more vested in Zimbabwe such as major trading partner South Africa.
“[The] scarcity of options is not a rationale for doing little or nothing. Rather it is a call for the United States to focus on what is essential — reducing the possibility of political instability and civil violence during the post-Mugabe succession — while laying the groundwork for a better relationship with an eventual successor government,” Ward concludes.
Mugabe would toast to that.