Zimbabwe Policy: Preparing for the Post-Mugabe Era
November 10, 2006
The regime of Robert Mugabe survives still, even as the Zimbabwean economy further collapses and personal freedoms suffer ever greater assaults. Indeed, having foiled the pressure of the West and the quiet diplomacy of its neighbors, and then having watched the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) collapse, the regime today is more powerful than ever.
Realistically, any strategy for change in Zimbabwe must focus on the departure of Mugabe, whether through retirement or more likely through death. The regime will endure an extremely difficult succession on Mugabe's departure. The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has deep fault-lines between two rival factions. The one faction has as figurehead Joyce Mujuru, wife of an influential former military leader, and it represents the Zezuru clan of the Shona – approximately 25 percent of the national population. Joyce Mujuru is one of Zimbabwe’s two vice-presidents and ethnic Zezuru hold the other vice-presidency, most of the ministerial positions, and the top leadership of the defense and security forces.
The other faction is led by Ernest Mnangwagwa, the former parliamentary speaker, and embodies the Karanga clan, some 35 percent of the population, which played an outsized role in the liberation struggle. It had been lying very low after its failed efforts to push Mnangwagwa for vice-president in late 2005 led Mugabe to demote him and a half-dozen provincial leaders. But Mnangwagwa's fortunes appear to have risen of late, most likely because Mugabe remains wary of any faction becoming dominant.
As long as Mugabe retains the presidency, little will change in Zimbabwe. But when Mugabe departs—and given his paranoia, and the experiences of retired dictators elsewhere, he appears increasingly to wish to die in office, rather than resign—the dynamics of the crisis will change instantly. On Mugabe's departure, there is an extremely slim chance of a new leadership that moderates and reforms from within. Three other outcomes seem more plausible.
First, Zimbabwe may spiral into an all-out civil war as Karanga groups, marginalized Ndebele, and other frustrated elements of society take up arms. Second, the Mujuru faction could consolidate power effectively and fashion a hardline, militaristic and ethnically narrow regime – one that would arguably lack even Mugabe's qualms about using full force against protesters and suspending elections. There is a third possibility that does hold out some hope for Zimbabwe and ought to be taken seriously: that the opposition may be able to take advantage of the regime's vulnerability, both internally and externally, and take power.
The MDC has split over personal rivalries and this has been damaging – but it hardly precludes effective exploitation of Mugabe's departure. The crucial issue is whether the two MDC factions can put aside their differences and collaborate when the stakes are at their highest. Internally, the fracture of the regime will leave it with a substantially reduced capacity to repress the political opposition and rig the elections. In Kenya and Ghana, when powerful incumbents – Daniel arap Moi and Jerry Rawlings respectively – finally accepted that the time had come to step aside, the regimes did not use all the dirty tricks that they almost certainly would have if the incumbents had been running. Indeed, in the 35 post-transitional elections since 1990 in electoral authoritarian (or semi-democratic) regimes in sub-Saharan Africa, opposition candidates have won presidential elections only 4 percent of the time when they faced incumbents, but 40 percent of the time when they faced regime-designated successors.
Regimes in the throes of succession are never as capable of defending their power. Significantly, Article 28.3 of the constitution currently provides that "an election to the office of President shall take place within ninety days… after the office of President becomes vacant." This three-month window would leave a new leader very little time to consolidate rule. Analysts expect the government to amend this provision to allow parliament to appoint the new president, and also to push the presidential elections scheduled for 2008 back to 2010. Regional pressure will be crucial to blocking such changes, or at least forcing presidential elections within a reasonable time, say one year, of Mugabe's exit.
Shrewd diplomacy can capitalize on Mugabe's personal reluctance to facilitate a smooth succession for fear that he will be pushed aside. Externally, Mugabe's eventual exit may prompt genuine pressure from Zimbabwe's neighbors—and especially South Africa—for the first time. The liberation credentials of Mugabe have protected him, but regional leaders will have much greater political space to apply pressure after his departure. The transition will provide Thabo Mbeki and other regional leaders with an opportunity to save face by demonstrating that they truly are committed to promoting good governance and economic development, as promised under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Finally, while they have thus far relied on Mugabe's demonstrated ability to maintain order in Zimbabwe, the specter of all-out violence upon his departure may shake their complacency.
These factors, in total, should encourage Zimbabwe's neighbors to exploit the political and economic leverage they possess. The fate of Zimbabwe is far from clear, but everything possible must be done to assure that a coalition of the country’s opposition factions takes power once Mugabe goes and begins the tough transition back to normalcy. The transition will be difficult and fraught with risk. But a survey of the Zimbabwean political landscape suggests that there are no other viable prospects for democratic change in the next few years ahead.
That being the case, U.S. policymakers and the international community ought to focus on the succession and on ways of helping the opposition take advantage of the succession. Specifically, this will mean engaging with southern African governments on the Zimbabwe issue and making clear the perils of the post-Mugabe era; focusing the attention of Africa and the world on the Zimbabwean government's upcoming efforts to change the succession provisions of the constitution; and working with the opposition parties to persuade them that collaboration (if not unity) is critical.
Mugabe's regime has thus far thwarted all the various strategies to address the crisis in Zimbabwe. At this point, it seems prudent to focus fully on the prospect of Mugabe's departure and plan effectively for translating the succession into political reform, not further violence or stagnation. _____________________________________________________________________
Gideon Maltz is an associate in the international trade practice of Hogan & Hartson LLP, in Washington, DC. He recently completed a one-year fellowship at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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