What’s Next for Zimbabwe?

A disputed poll and violent post-election crackdown have raised questions about Zimbabwe’s prospects for shedding its pariah status and restoring investor confidence in its economy. On July 30, Zimbabweans went to the polls in a closely contested election that pitted the incumbent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), against Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-A). This was a seminal election for Zimbabwe, with neither Robert Mugabe, in power for 37 years, or Morgan Tsvangirai, the country’s main opposition leader for over two decades, on the ballot. Mugabe was ousted from power in a military coup last November, while Tsvangirai passed away from cancer in February of this year.

Initially, President Mnangagwa made some important concessions ahead of last week’s vote, including opening political space and permitting the opposition to hold unprecedented public rallies. He also invited international election observers from Western countries for the first time since the early 2000s. However, the playing field remained uneven and local and international observers noted that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) lacked independence, the voter’s roll showed evidence of manipulation, ZANU-PF engaged in vote buying, and the security services intimidated voters, especially in rural areas. Indeed, 44 percent of Zimbabweans said it was “somewhat” or “very” likely that security agencies would not respect the will of the people.

While election day itself was relatively peaceful with a high turnout of over 70 percent, the postelection period featured a violent crackdown on opposition supporters. Before the ZEC announced a winner, the opposition unofficially declared that they had won, citing an internal party tally, leading to celebrations at party headquarters in Harare. On August 1, after the ZEC released parliamentary results showing that ZANU-PF had secured a two-thirds majority, MDC-A supporters marched in Harare in protest, burning tires and throwing rocks at riot police. Citing the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the military deployed to quash the crowds. In the ensuing crackdown, the military opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing seven and injuring over a dozen. On August 2, Zimbabwe’s electoral commission declared Mnangagwa as the winner of the country’s presidential election. The ZEC said that Mnangagwa captured 50.8 percent of the vote while Chamisa took 44.3 percent, putting the incumbent just over the 50 percent-plus-one-vote requirement to win outright and avoid a second round vote.

Q1:What is the current state of play?

A1: The opposition is contesting the results, claiming in a press conference (that was initially broken up by riot police) that the contest was “fraudulent and illegitimate.” Chamisa has 7 days after the results were announced to file a challenge, and the Constitutional Court must rule on the petition within 14 days. His lawyers probably will cite reports from international observers such as the European Union that criticized the “un-level playing field” and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) mission that expressed “deep concerns that the process thus far has not made the mark” (I was part of the NDI-IRI joint election observation delegation).  Similarly, the opposition will almost certainly point to the findings of the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network indicating that while the result was within the margin of error, it could not “definitively confirm whether or not there should have been a runoff.” It is doubtful that this approach will pay off. Zimbabwe’s courts have a long-held bias towards ZANU-PF, and its judges, many of whom owe their position to the ruling party, are unlikely to rule in favor of the opposition’s petition.

For his part, President Mnangagwa is trying to distance himself from the heavy-handed military actions, insisting that he would launch an “independent investigation” into the violence and encourage the opposition to pursue its appeal through the courts. Moreover, he is highlighting endorsements from China, as well as Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa to bolster his international credibility. Mnangagwa probably is calculating that the West’s disapproval will fade with time, and his election win eventually will gain acceptance by most African and international stakeholders.

Q2:What are the prospects for further political violence?

A2: The continued deployment of the military and police under the repressive POSA, in combination with the likelihood of further opposition protests, increases the risk of additional unrest. The security crackdown has continued over the past several days, including the arrest of 22 MDC-A activists on August 2 for inciting violence. Dozens of beatings, rapes, and abductions have taken place at the hands of the military and other unidentified men, according to credible local and international human rights groups. Two senior MDC leaders, including prominent long-time MDC strategist Tendai Biti have been targeted, with armed groups surrounding their homes over the weekend. MDC spokesman Nkululeko Sibanda said on August 5 that there are “lots of people missing. We have helped five people who narrowly escaped abduction to flee Zimbabwe. Others we are hiding in safe houses.”

As reports of attacks increase, Zimbabwe watchers are beginning to draw comparisons to the brutal 2008 post-election period that saw the ruling party employ many of the same tactics. In the United States, membersofCongress and the U.S. State Department have issued statements of concern.

Q3:Who’s in control?

A3: There is speculation that a divide is growing between Mnangagwa and his vice president, coup mastermind and former commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces Constantino Chiwenga. The military has long played a central role in the country’s politics and economy, and Mnangagwa, as a former defense minister and former state security minister, relied on the armed forces to oust Mugabe in November 2017. It has proved difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Under Mnangagwa, the military has been on the ascendency, with Chiwenga and former generals securing key cabinet posts.

Although the ongoing crackdown is straight out of the Mugabe playbook, some observers are claiming that the military may have been deployed without the president’s consent. There are swirling rumors in Harare that Chiwenga is the power behind the throne, and is either ignoring or overruling Mnangagwa’s orders. Alternatively, some have suggested that the president and his deputy are engaged in a good-cop, bad-cop routine aimed at both stifling dissent while simultaneously positing to the international community that Mnangagwa is indeed the reformer he claims to be. Chiwenga and other senior military figures certainly wield significant influence. But given Mnangagwa’s long ties to the security establishment, it is unlikely that he has lost complete control. Either way, as commander in chief, Mnangagwa is accountable for the actions of his military, and stakeholders everywhere should hold him to it.

Q4:How should the international community respond?

A4: The Zimbabwean government’s repression and heavy-handed response to protests will hurt, although perhaps not fatally, Mnangagwa’s charm offensive aimed at reengaging with the international community. Zimbabwe’s dire economic crisis and debt of at least $10 billion has heightened Mnangagwa’s desire for foreign investment. This, combined with recent signals that he seeks the international validation long denied his predecessor, gives the donor community more leverage than it has had in at least a decade. With its significant voting power at the international financial institutions and the perennial carrot of lifting related restrictions under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, first passed in 2001 and recently amended, the United States holds particular influence—an opportunity for leadership it has not yet seized.

As tensions heighten across the country, the international community should first and foremost act as a unified front to demand Mnangagwa immediately withdraw the military from the streets and stop the ongoing clampdown on opposition supporters and civil society. The government must cease its excessive use of force, exercise restraint, and stomach the peaceful protest allowed for under Zimbabwe’s constitution. Similarly opposition parties should urge their supporters to refrain from violence. Further, perpetrators of human rights violations, as documented by Zimbabwe’s robust civil society, must be held to account under Zimbabwean law, in courts that demonstrate impartiality.

Until these basic democratic conditions are met, international actors would be wise to hold firm on reengaging with Zimbabwe. They should demand that election results be validated and that political, economic, and security reforms be implemented, including the repeal of draconian legislation like POSA. Mnangagwa has repeatedly proclaimed that post-Mugabe Zimbabwe is turning a new leaf, and that under this “new dispensation” the country is “open for business.” But this week’s events prove that, thus far, his rule is just business as usual. The international community must act accordingly.

Alexander Noyes is a senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHNoyes.

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Alexander H. Noyes

Alexander H. Noyes

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program