Zim: Still expecting the impossible?

Zimbabwe is six months away from another election, and the context for the elections is no better than it was in 2008.

In March 2021, one of us (Ibbo Mandaza) issued an analysis of the then current state of Zimbabwe, making the point that there could be no solution to the Zimbabwe crisis without forthright regional and international action.

The solution was argued to be three-fold: a genuine national dialogue, a regional initiative, and international scaffolding for the regional dialogue. The goal was a political settlement and a transitional arrangement (including substantial reform of the state and return of the military to full civilian control, all leading to elections under a new social contract.

Without repeating the basis for this argument, it is evident that things have worsened considerably over the (nearly) next two years.

There is consensus for this view, as has been demonstrated in 35 Policy dialogues held by the SAPES Trust since March 2021.

 In these dialogues, covering the political economy, human rights, elections, and corruption, the expert panellists were in no doubt that things were getting worse; that the government was unable to produce and implement policies to address the rot; and that elections would not be the panacea for restoring the state to legitimacy and international re-engagement.

Furthermore (and extremely important), unlike other societies in the region and beyond, the Zimbabwe state (read Zanu-PF) has since independence in 1980, regarded and treated the opposition — whether it was Joshua Nkomo and Zapu, Edgar Tekere and ZUM, Morgan Tvsangirai and MDC, and now the CCC — as enemies, to be vanquished completely.

The major argument advanced by the government for the parlous state of the nation has been to blame sanctions, unwisely supported by Africa, and to claim that there are sufficient reforms to warrant the Commonwealth re-admitting Zimbabwe.

As regards the economy, no economist in the eight dialogues during the past two years believed that sanctions were a material cause of the country’s dire economic status; all were in no doubt 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 corruption and the losses to the country, whilst international expert, Steven Hanke was in no doubt that Zimbabwe was heading for its third dose of hyperinflation.

While the government gained some support from the mendacious report on unilateral sanctions by the UN Special Rapporteur, the impact of that report has clearly been minimised by the widespread, unilateral (not UN mandated) sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine.

It was clear from all those talking about the economy that the fundamental problem was a total absence of the substantive reforms promised so earnestly in 2017.

The one hope for curing the coup was an undisputed election in 2018, but once again Zimbabwe failed the test of credibility, helped enormously by a less than satisfactory treatment of a crucial election petition by the Constitutional Court.

Its attempt to resolve the problems of the violence after the election in 2018 — setting up a Presidential Commission to investigate this — has been wholly undermined by the government’s failure to take the Montlanthe Commission’s recommendations seriously.

However, lurking in the background since November 2017 has been an even more serious problem, one given too little attention nationally, regionally, and internationally, and once again a product of the judiciary.

Few have paid attention until recently 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 over-riding Section 213, the provision in the constitution that clearly empowers only the President with the concurrence of the legislature to deploy the military.

Certainly 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.

Quite simply, the problem is that this interpretation by the courts, until it is overturned (as it should) gives the military the right to deploy itself when it considers (and despite the President) that the constitution is under threat.

Zimbabwe must be a rare country when it has established a legitimate right for military coups.

Thus, it can be asserted, as was the case in March 2021, there is no evidence that the 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 six months away from another election, and the context for the elections is no better than it was in 2008.

Nobody in all the seven policy dialogues held between March 2021 and January 2023 believes that this coming election will meet the conditions for legitimacy, and the contrast with Kenya that also had a horrible election in 2007 were illuminating. It was also illuminating to see the differences between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Any brief analysis of the conditions for elections in June 2023 demonstrates that not only will the election fail the test of credibility, but the election will likely make things considerably worse.

According to every expert on the policy dialogues, Zec has failed to demonstrate the necessary conditions of Impartiality, Equality, Representativeness, Transparency, and Non-discrimination for delimitation, as was predicted last year in October.

The delimitation report has been rejected by members of the ruling party, with one member even going to court. 

There is, as always, the refusal by Zec to make the voters’ roll easily available, claiming that auditing the voters’ roll leads to tampering, the most feeble excuse possible given that previous analyses in 2009 and 2013, showed extraordinary problems with the roll.

As for the conditions under which political parties must operate, it is clear that political violence is increasing; opposition political parties are unable to operate freely in 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 being the most egregious, but not unique); and the completely blunt use of government resources to cajole the populace into supporting Zanu PF.

Thus, Zimbabwe now stands in the usual state of paralysis that takes place when elections are pending.

The regional and international community does the usual things.

Exhorts the government to ensure a legitimate election; prepares to observe the election, even though no observer mission to date has been able to do more than scratch the surface; validates the election by even being there to observe; and probably will require local remedy in the event there are disputes.

Here 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 is so critical.

 If all the conditions for a legitimate election are not present, then this must require action. In 2000, the Commonwealth pointed out that there would be consequences if the conditions for a legitimate election were not met and the outcome was unsatisfactory: bad behaviours would have consequences, and 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, and who holds it must have the acceptance of the nation for legitimacy. Zimbabwe has failed this test in every single election since 2000.

However, it is not merely that the pre-election audit matters and should have a determining effect on any conclusion about the outcome of the election, it should guide the actions of the regional and international community in deciding what must be done when the election fails the test of acceptability.

The consequences for Zimbabwe, and the region, are not trivial, and the usual responses that Zimbabwe must do better next time, will not solve the problem of a state that will not, and cannot reform: as pointed out earlier, the problems are too deep and insoluble without a total overhaul of the state, the removal of the securocracy, and serious dealing with the growing economic crisis.

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

That was the point made in March 2021. No election could solve Rhodesia’s problems without a major change in the politics and this required a political settlement, with acceptance by all internal political forces agreeing on a different solution to the status quo of military struggle.

 Of course, Zimbabwe does not have a civil war, but is so entrenched in its political polarisation that negotiation, and not the farce of Polad, is the only way forward, and that will require mediation of a serious kind.

If there is no serious attempt to address the problem, it is not hard to predict the short-term future.

The economy will continue to slide into hyperinflation; thousands more Zimbabweans will migrate; the begging bowl will be out for humanitarian relief to support the broken social safety net; re-engagement will remain a distant dream; the government will resort to greater and greater coercion; and the “black swan” of severe social and political unrest become ever more likely.

The “Zimbabwe problem” is not just a singularity, but is a problem for the whole region, as it was 44 years ago. So, take action – NOW.

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


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