The Day After: Zimbabwe

Exhuming Hope.

The disarray in post-Saddam Iraq offers a sharp reminder that ridding a country of a despotic regime is a lot easier than figuring out who or what comes after. In that spirit, FOREIGN POLICY speculates on the Day After in several oppressed nations. From Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, what groups are likely to come out on top when the Big Man goes down? Which are most likely to embrace democracy and pursue economic reform? What role will each nation’s diaspora have in rebuilding and reengineering its society? Sadly, almost all of our contributors note that any sudden regime change will first yield only chaos and greater hardship. But by identifying the forces most likely to shape these countries’ futures, our authors also open the possibility of transcending the tragedies of the past.

Having pauperized his country and terrorized large segments of its population, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is today a widely reviled figure at home and a pariah abroad. However, the outline of a peaceful transition seems clear. With sufficient internal and external pressure, Mugabe can probably be eased off the stage. The most immediate task of the post-Mugabe era will be to revive an economy now in ruins. But equally important is the need to construct democratic institutions and to move beyond the reflexive urge to see individual politicians as the answer to Zimbabwe’s problems.

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), draws its strength from the country’s urban centers. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has demanded that Mugabe step aside without further delay. Tsvangirai and his supporters believe that the most recent presidential election, held in March 2002, was a fraud. This view is shared by the European Union, the United States, and the Commonwealth. Free elections under an independent electoral body and with international supervision would almost certainly result in a victory for Tsvangirai.

However, Mugabe is unlikely to be chased from office by a party that he regards as a Trojan horse of British imperialism. Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF, retains strong rural support and commands the allegiance of the army and the police. The president may have alienated Zimbabwe’s urbanites, but he still controls the city streets; he demonstrated that in June, when his government and supporters broke up MDC-led protests before they could gather enough momentum to seriously threaten the regime. Mugabe has said that he will consider retirement, but only on his own terms. That means managing the process of succession so he can leave, if not gloriously, then without harassment.

There is wide support for a negotiated solution. Many Zimbabweans wish to see a peaceful transfer that will depoliticize the police and army, establish independent electoral institutions, and repeal oppressive laws. Pressure from neighboring countries and Western donors is also propelling Mugabe and Tsvangirai to the bargaining table. In April 2002, regional heads of state and church leaders began sponsoring “talks-about-talks.” Progress has been glacial despite the outside prodding.

The most promising scenario would see a constitutional amendment, supported by the MDC, creating the position of prime minister. Mugabe would serve out his term as president, which runs until 2008, but his role would be largely ceremonial. It is unlikely he would surrender the office, and there is almost no chance he will go into exile. A coalition government would then be formed.

A government after Mugabe could thus be headed by a Mugabe appointee or an interim administration headed by a figure acceptable to both parties. Zanu-PF’s presence in such an arrangement would help smooth the transition by securing the adherence of the army and the political old guard to negotiated reforms.

But once elections are held, and assuming they are free and fair, Tsvangirai and the mdc will almost certainly be in charge. While he lacks Mugabe’s charisma, the 51-year-old Tsvangirai has successfully tapped into popular discontent and shown a talent for building coalitions and a real determination to implement political and economic reforms. He would undoubtedly help ease racial tensions, inflamed by Mugabe’s demagogic campaign against Britain and Zimbabweans of British descent. The MDC is a broad church, sheltering labor unionists, civic activists, business interests, ethnic minorities, and the urban lumpen proletariat. But if the party fails to deliver recovery quickly, it will face internal fracturing.

Mugabe’s continued presence could provide a rallying point for disaffected elements that fail to benefit from a democratic transformation. An early source of friction could be the MDC’s commitment to a land audit targeting multiple-farm ownership among Mugabe’s elite.

Moreover, Tsvangirai may not get much support from neighboring governments. In a region that emerged from colonial rule and apartheid, the MDC’s scorn for the rapaciousness of Zimbabwe’s post-independence aristocracy and the inclusion of whites within the party’s ranks makes it suspect to some regional players.

But the biggest challenge facing Tsvangirai and the MDC will be the economy. Mugabe’s Khmer Rouge-like land seizures have devastated both farming and wildlife. The land redistribution program has caused a 60 percent collapse in agricultural production and led to severe food shortages. With inflation topping 400 percent, unemployment hovering at 70 percent, and gross domestic product shrinking by a projected 13.1 percent this year — following a 12.1 percent decline in 2002 — Zimbabweans have not been this poor since the mid-1970s, and never so disillusioned.

The current regime has inflicted enormous harm, and undoing the damage will be a formidable task. Zimbabwe’s rapid economic decline has led to social dislocation, with many farm workers forced to migrate to the cities. Dimming prospects and political repression have also prompted the flight of professionals to places like South Africa, Botswana, and Britain. Even if Tsvangirai manages to turn around the economy and institute political reform, the country’s slide will not be easily reversed. The South African and Kenyan precedents suggest that new democratic governments are unable to curb crime or prevent middle-class emigration even when macroeconomic fundamentals are reasonably sound.

But there are also reasons for optimism. A government that promotes fiscal prudence and restores ties with the international community is likely to secure the support of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other lenders. Organizations such as the London-based Zimbabwe Democracy Trust stand ready to mobilize funds for a new government. Investors are predisposed to a country rich in mineral resources, with a well-educated workforce and good communications infrastructure. However, confronted by the Augean stable left behind by the Zanu-PF’s misrule, potential investors are likely to take a very cautious approach.

Popular discontent with nationalist elites across Africa has led the continent’s civil societies to place emphasis on democratic institution building rather than looking to individual politicians to rescue them from overweening rulers. Zimbabwe is no exception. Indeed, that may prove Mugabe’s lasting legacy. His transformation from national hero to brutal tyrant is a cautionary lesson on the need for Africans to prevent their liberators from becoming their despots.

Executive President Robert Mugabe, 79
Years in Power:
Experience with Democracy:
12.6 million
GDP per capita:*
Asylum Applications: **
Political Prisoners:
Population Under Poverty Line :

35 percent
Military Expenditures:
3.2 percent of GDP
*GDP per capita estimates in purchasing power parity
**Asylum applications submitted in 37 countries, 1980-2001

Sources: Amnesty International; Central Intelligence Agency; Migration Policy Institute; United Nations Development Programme; World Bank; The CIA World Factbook; U.N. Human Development Indicators 2003; World Development Indicators 2003  

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