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Zimbabwe: Is There Any Way Out?

Notes for Panel Presentation by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Royal Commonwealth Society Conference, Zimbabwe: Preparing for Change, London, 2 July 2007

The Bad News

Zimbabwe is not fertile ground for optimists:

  • The internal situation is catastrophic, with the country’s economy in freefall and its people suffering grievously. Economists are putting current inflation rates at 9,000 per cent or worse. Over 80 per cent of the population of some 12 million is living below the poverty line, and 80 per cent is unemployed. The economy as a whole has shrunk dramatically in recent years and has a current growth rate of negative 4.4 per cent. Health indicators are equally depressing. Life expectancy has dropped below 40 years for both men and women, and the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in adults hovers around one in five. And the last four months have seen the government embark on another brutal campaign of state-sponsored violence against opposition groups and their supporters.
  • The internal opposition is fragmented. The opposition MDC is trying to coordinate a common front but remains split between two wings and both strategically and tactically less effective as a result. The ZANU-PF is internally divided with a numerically strong anti-Mugabe faction led by the Majurus, but the debacle in the Central Committee immediately after the SADC meeting in late March, when Mugabe rammed through a resolution supporting his running again as President in 2008, showed the limits of its strength, or commitment, or both. There are divisions in the security services, reflecting the stress felt by families in every walk of life as a result of the economic meltdown, but these have not been enough to give anyone confidence that anything resembling a velvet revolution could succeed. And civil society organizations continue to struggle to exercise any influence at all on the course of events.
  • External pressure remains ineffective. International sanctions are shrugged off, with general economic sanctions hardly likely to make any difference – except to further immiserise the poor; targeted sanctions too narrowly focused to make an impact (and with travel bans regularly ignored, most recently by the Portuguese presidency of the EU with the forthcoming EU-Africa Summit). General condemnations from the North – especially the UK – seem to be if anything counterproductive, fuelling Mugabe’s claims of neo-imperialism: SADC leaders remain hypersensitive to any suggestion they are carrying out an external agenda, in particular one imposed by Zimbabwe’s former colonial rulers. South Africa continues to decline to use such leverage as it has, and the regional countries have – until very recently – contributed nothing but support for Mugabe’s leadership.

All this means that there is little or no prospect of Mugabe being bludgeoned out of office in the foreseeable future – from below, within the country; from above, by the international community; or from the side – by any really coercive pressure from his regional neighbours.

The Better News

Causes of Conflict Not Deep Rooted

The first piece of more heartening news is that none of the causes of Zimbabwe’s current discontents seem to have roots so deep that the situation cannot be quickly turned round once some decent leadership is restored:

  • Ethnic conflict has occurred between Ndbele and Shona in the past, and fears are periodically expressed that the present woes will reignite it, but so far remarkably little tension of this kind has surfaced.
  • Democracy is not something which Zimbabweans have had much chance to enjoy under successive regimes, but on available evidence they appear to have a taste for it and would hugely welcome free and fair elections.
  • Economic destruction has been great, but the resource base of the country remains strong, and with good planning and international support, the situation can be reasonably rapidly reversed.
  • Land distribution remains an emotive and divisive issue, but – even with all the additional problems created by Mugabe’s expropriations and reallocations – it is not incapable of resolution, especially if generous resources are forthcoming from the UK and other international donors.

SADC has Engaged – and Given Political Cover for South Africa for the First Time

In its March 2007 Dar es Salaam Extraordinary Summit meeting, the Southern African Development Community did not directly confront Mugabe, but did finally decide to take concrete action, mandating South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between the parties.

The first round of mediated talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC - and the first substantive dialogue between them for four years - took place on 18 June, with an agenda agreed (covering Constitution, Electoral Laws, Repressive Legislation, and ‘Political Climate’), and a further meeting planned for later in July. Mbeki is making an initial progress report to the AU Summit in Accra this week.

This process faces significant hurdles and limitations, especially:

  • Time is running out to create the minimum conditions necessary for reasonably legitimate elections in March 2008, even with full cooperation between the parties – of which there is as yet no sign, with ZANU-PF bent on proceeding simultaneously with legislative and constitutional changes reinforcing its advantage
  • The balance of power between ZANU-PF and MDC is very unequal, making it difficult for any mediator to obtain significant concessions (although, as noted below, this could be overstated: SADC has real leverage if it chooses to exercise it). The internal divisions within ZANU-PF relating to the succession have not yet translated into any fragmentation of the government’s position vis a vis the MDC.

All that said, the SADC development has introduced a new dynamic into a very stalemated process, and remains about the only game in town in terms of moving forward. There are essentially two levels of activity in play, or potential play, so far as the SADC leaders are concerned.

First, there is the overt agenda of ensuring free and fair elections next March, which will require:

  • An immediate end to the repression and intimidation of the opposition, civil society, media and legal professions, including by the repeal of the repressive POSA and AIPPA laws;
  • A hold on constitutional changes aimed at strengthening ZANU-PF’s position;
  • A fully independent electoral commission, to replace the present military-run body (this being part of a larger need to demilitarise state institutions), to prepare a new voters roll and carry out everything necessary to ensure a free and fair election.

The hope is that a free and fair election would be followed, notwithstanding which party had the majority of seats, by a government of national unity to carry through all the necessary political, legal, constitutional and economic changes needed to stabilise the country and set it back on the path to recovery.

SADC’s leverage in all of this is great, if it chooses to exercise it. If the South African mediation is unable to achieve the outcomes necessary for free and fair elections, SADC

  • can publicly state, before the elections, that the conditions are simply not in place for any possible outcome to be free and fair; or
  • after the election, refuse to certify it as free and fair.

SADC’s willingness to go down either of these paths would, if clearly flagged in the mediation, maximise the chances of the necessary reforms being accepted. The point is that Mugabe is politically very dependent on support for his positions from his Southern African peers: any condemnation by them of the electoral process would be likely to have a devastating effect on his credibility, and create the conditions for an effective political move against him. This may all be unduly optimistic, but I for one have been struck by the number of South African senior figures who attach real weight to the SADC role in this respect.

The second track in play is a behind the scenes exercise, involving senior SADC and other figures, to try to negotiate a ‘soft landing’ for Mugabe, ie a reasonably graceful exit combined with assurances that he would not face prosecution in any domestic or international court. Present indications are that this course has been made very much more difficult by the removal of Liberia’s Charles Taylor to face charges in the Sierra Leone Special Court, notwithstanding safe refuge assurances he had earlier been given by Nigeria’s President Obasajano in 2003 to secure an early end to threatened further major warfare in Monrovia. But efforts should certainly in my view - and I believe most Zimbabweans - continue to negotiate such a soft outcome: sometimes the urge for justice just has to yield to a more urgent need to stop large scale human suffering.

The Commonwealth’s Role

  • Political Support for SADC. The Commonwealth’s strong African and general South membership makes it an important source of political support, with the November Heads of Government meeting in Kampala a timely opportunity for making that clear - provided its North members are not seen to be pushing the issue too hard. Although there should be no question of readmitting Zimbabwe to Commonwealth membership until some normality in the country is restored, continued overt external pressure, here as elsewhere, runs the risk of being counterproductive.
  • Support for Civil Society. By itself this may be unlikely to change the political balance in Zimbabwe, but is worth every possible effort nonetheless to avoid the disintegration of Zimbabwean society under the present stresses and to hasten the eventual return to normality.
  • Support in Planning and Coordinating Zimbabwe’s recovery. The Commonwealth as an institution has particular technical expertise in certain areas, which should be harnessed and coordinated with the resources of major donors.
  • Take a Leadership Role on the Land Issue.
    - A commitment on the part of the Commonwealth to engage on land reform could act as a powerful hook for Harare, which desperately needs a way out of the quagmire of its current land policy. To this end, the Commonwealth Secretariat might consider establishing a working committee or a group of Eminent Persons, tasked with exploring options for land reform in Zimbabwe, mediating between Harare and the international community, and finding a settlement on the land question that will allow international donors to reengage on the issue and is acceptable to key stakeholders.
    - The grouping’s African members could include both SADC and non-SADC countries: South Africa, Tanzania and Botswana (SADC countries and regional stakeholders), Kenya (as a useful case study of a viable post-colonial land settlement), and perhaps Ghana. It could be composed of former high-level decision-makers, as well as officials with technical expertise. The recommendations generated by such a body, composed predominantly but not exclusively of African countries, might well carry weight with Zimbabwe, allow the British to remain quietly engaged and overcome some of the constraints that prevent SADC member states from addressing land reform.
    - Ultimately, the land issue must be resolved by Zimbabweans themselves. As Crisis Group has argued in a book-length report on the subject, the logical first step in moving the land process forward during a transition period would be to establish a Land Commission, with a clear mandate, a strong technocratic base and representing a large cross-section of Zimbabwean stakeholders. The responsibilities of the Land Commission would include conducting a comprehensive inventory of land, mediating claims on the ground, developing a compensation formula and so on. But a Commonwealth committee of the kind suggested would provide important political and technical support to Zimbabwe’s own land reform efforts.

Watching Zimbabwe’s decline and fall has been one of the most dispiriting experiences of modern times. There are no easy ways out of the abyss in which the country now finds itself. But hopefully sustained, carefully modulated commitment by the international community – with the Commonwealth and its member countries playing a particularly important role in this respect - can and will make a difference.