Power without legitimacy is unstable

More than a year ago after the military transition, it was thought the aim by the plotters was to “restore the country’s legacy”, but now people across Zimbabwe talk of and yearn for sustainable progress and how to achieve a middle-class economy that President Emmerson Mnangagwa claimed in his maiden United Nations speech last October as he boldly declared: “Our vision is to become a middle-income economy with a per capita income of about US$3 500. This will bring on board increased investment, decent jobs, broad-based empowerment and a society free from poverty and corruption by 2030.”

Guest column: Pearl Matibe

In breaking that down, it means an 18-year-old would be 30 and getting ready to enjoy the said middle-class income society. If you’re 55 years old now, don’t hold your breath because it may or may not happen in your lifetime — 76-year-old Mnangagwa would be 87.

Certainly, many domiciled Zimbabwean citizens criticise the 2% tax on all electronic transactions, the persistent cash crisis and a crumbling health system presided over by the Mnangagwa-led government. But less frequently do they question how the government maintains power.

The power at Munhumutapa Building — Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC)— without legitimacy, is unstable. Without dialogue in a location inside Zimbabwe or outside its borders, with the largest opposition leader, Zimbabwe’s diaspora and its domiciled and external civil society, Mnangagwa would have a long way to go to reach the mark of success as a leader in 2019 or beyond.

In addition, each time the Mnangagwa government takes from the people of Zimbabwe, their question would be whether they are dealing with a real legitimate government.

Power that is deficient of legitimacy is intrinsically precarious, teetering and unstable. And Zimbabwe, since the July 30, 2018 presidential election result announcement, has been experiencing the dire straits and catastrophe of legitimacy.

Problem one: The dire straits of legitimacy

Since the 1980s, Zimbabwe has relied on “liberation-war legitimacy,” a model for sustaining power that entails consistent reference and propaganda concretely aligned to the wrongs of colonial rule. Yet the goals of economic growth, social stability, governing competence, and accountability have nothing to do with liberation war veteran credentials.
Mnangagwa’s liberation war legitimacy is fundamentally different from the legitimacy model necessary for sustaining power in an emerging economy at this particular point in the country’s history.

Problem two: Conflictual political culture

Legitimacy may also be derived if the country is building strong institutions to anchor on as well as follows and accepts the rule of law. In Zimbabwe, though, the notion that everyone must follow the law is questionable as it is common cause that not everyone does. Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution is not always abided by.


In Zimbabwe’s case, this notion of legitimacy is influenced by the:-

  • economic well-being of the country
  • charismatic leadership of the MDC leader Nelson Chamisa
  • extent and level to which is satisfied with the Mnangagwa-led government’s performance and responsiveness, and
  • social license — this capital can be demonstrated; the higher the social capital, the higher the trust exists between citizens and the government.

However, does Mnangagwa have the social capital and the potential to get things done; and needed to gain legitimacy?

It’s true to say today that Zimbabwe is experiencing a conflictual political culture which is different to “consenting”.

A consensual political culture is when people accept both the legitimacy of the regime and its solutions to major problems. This trust persists even in cases when the people do not agree with the decisions being made.

Conflictual political culture differs in that citizens are sharply divided regarding the legitimacy of the regime and the solutions the regime offers to fix major problems. It is this conflictual political culture that has resulted in an unstable Zimbabwean society.

Problem three: The power dynamics

There are two types of power; coercive and non-coercive. If you have to go out and forcibly make people do things such as by using the military and the police, that’s coercive.
Power is the ability to get people or groups do what they otherwise would not ; paying a 2% electronic tax is one example. To exert that power, one must have some type of legitimacy. Legitimacy provides you the right to rule, driven by consent by citizens.

A big difference between Zanu PF loyalists and loyalists of opposing thought is that, generally, Zanu PF followers seem to think it’s okay to do whatever the Mnangagwa government wants, simply because they are in power and it’s their right. Some are happy to simply operate within the structure, with the mind shut off.

In the social contract Zimbabweans have with their government, which includes agreeing to pay their taxes, the government should have provided education and good access to a healthcare delivery system.

It seems that Mnangagwa may have a burden: a burden to justify his legitimacy. His tenure will be defined and best measured by what he did not do.

Zimbabwe-United States relations until 2019

Since no one could have predicted half of what happened in 2018, I exercise caution here in casting an eye forward to likely Zimbabwe-US trends in 2019.

I’m taking a look at what’s looming in US foreign policy this year: The US-China trade war has brought Zimbabwe in sharper focus in the US Congress. Congress sees Zimbabwe’s reform agenda as slow, showing little interest, not inclusive and decided by a State House apparently at odds with the multiple parts of its own ruling party. Even if Mnangagwa repeals POSA and AIPPA, his allure as a “soft as wool” Statesman and reformer has faded. Anyone who believes this is just about Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act and sanctions is mistaken. With US President Donald Trump’s New Africa Strategy, Zimbabwe now faces a more complicated foreign relations challenge with the US.

Meantime, opposition actors down in 2018, but not vanquished, appear ready for the opportunity to rise further in 2019. If there was sincere dialogue, then 2019 is the year when the country should begin to head in a more positive direction.

Will Zimbabwe take meaningful steps to reform? It remains to be seen. But legitimacy is a must.

We’re about halfway into Trump’s first term. All things being equal, Trump is facing a presidential election race in 2020 where the Democrats may have as many as 20 candidates in the New Hampshire primary elections. The presidential campaigns of various contenders begin this January 2019. This will see Trump dig in on his foreign policy and competition with China. Zimbabwe’s tardiness to reform and pick a side; that lack of effort may threaten relations in 2019 with increased criticism from the US Congress of Mnangagwa as being unable to fix domestic economic problems, while his attention is also not focused on the New Africa Strategy.

Zimbabwe is fortunate; it enjoys the people’s belief in their country. One can only wonder how that belief can still exist if their local world consistently represses free thought and action. Yet that voice needs to redefine its ideals, promote its culture and tourism. Increasingly, domiciled Zimbabweans are growing openly critical of Zimbabwe’s policies; it’s refreshing to see. Yet despite such opposition, the government has maintained its hold on power.

The upside? Zimbabweans are resilient.

On the downside, during the 2018 UN General Assembly and after ill-thought-out efforts to court “captains of industry and multi-billionaires” (to quote Finance minister, Mthuli Ncube), Zimbabwe still awaits the first arrival of foreign direct investors at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.

Even as the country struggles through the worst economic downturn in a decade, the Mnangagwa team has to begin to chart a path out of this disaster.

As it does so, a huge unanswered question attached to the crisis of legitimacy is: has Mnangagwa failed Zimbabwe’s poor? Or asked another way: about how much more can they take and be let down, hanging from the country’s lowest socioeconomic ladder before they truly break? Or is it, to heck with poor people?

The year ahead in 2019 will determine whether this can be repaired or whether the entire edifice must come down to be rebuilt from scratch.

In 2018, Zimbabweans went to the polls to advance from military transition to legitimate rule. But power without legitimacy in 2019 will keep the country unstable.

Pearl Matibe has geographic expertise on US foreign policy, think tank impact, strategy and public policy issues. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe

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