Zimbabwe’s Opposition Is Under Attack. It Should Seek a Unity Government Before It’s Too Late.

Zanu-PF has proven time and again that it will resort to violence to stay in power. The MDC Alliance must pursue a coalition deal with President Mnangagwa, or more lives will be lost.

Zimbabwean police officials look at detained civilians as they stand in an armored vehicle outside MDC party headquarters in Harare on August 2, 2018.
Zimbabwean police officials look at detained civilians as they stand in an armored vehicle outside MDC party headquarters in Harare on August 2, 2018. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

After Zimbabweans voted on July 30, it took the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission three days to confirm President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s victory. The opposition MDC Alliance is still clinging to the hope that it can reverse the election results in court, something that will never happen if the ruling party, Zanu-PF, has its way. Indeed, in the days since the election, the opposition has reported attacks on its leaders and their families; some of them have even attempted to flee the country for fear of abduction by the military junta. The question now is whether the MDC Alliance should push for a coalition government or continue shouting from the sidelines that Mnangagwa’s victory was illegitimate.

In 2008, Zimbabwe reached a similar crossroads after the presidential election results showed diminishing support for President Robert Mugabe’s government and his Zanu-PF party. That year, between the first-round election in March and the second round in June, at least 153 MDC supporters were killed by Zanu-PF youth militias, and many more were left with permanent injuries. The state-sponsored reign of terror unleashed throughout the country left the MDC’s leader at the time, Morgan Tsvangirai, with little choice but to pull out of the runoff election and enter a coalition government.

The opposition today faces the same Catch-22 situation it struggled with in 2008. The people’s vote was stolen by the Mugabe regime, but in the wake of widespread violence, Tsvangirai sacrificed his dream of becoming president and threw in the towel to save the many civilians who were at risk of losing their homes, their sanity, and their lives.

His argument at the time was that it was better to concede than to fight and put people’s lives in danger. He agreed to come to the table and work with Mugabe in a government of national unity in order to stop the bloodshed, killings, and torture that plagued the country. Although that coalition government didn’t accomplish much, it did bring some peace, tranquility, and order to Zimbabwe. People had food in their homes, the inflation-plagued economy had a bit of revival, and the MDC had a taste of power.

For the sake of Zimbabwe’s people, someone in the opposition needs to make a similar decision today. Zimbabweans are once again witnessing violence on the streets of Harare. A trigger-happy military is waiting to shoot and kill unarmed civilians. There have indeed been anomalies in the electoral process this year, but there should be a way of dealing with those irregularities rather than facing the barrel of a soldier’s gun. The opposition needs to call the people off the streets.

Since its independence, Zimbabwe has been led by a party that believes it has a right to rule. Zanu-PF’s sense of entitlement to power has grown stronger each year since 1980, when it ousted the white-minority Rhodesian government and ushered in a new dispensation and majority rule. Then, in late 2017, Mnangagwa—a key security official in Mugabe’s inner circle who helped oversee the violent 2008 election campaign—ousted his longtime boss in a military coup.

At the time, Zimbabweans celebrated in the streets, and there was much talk of national unity. Now, the people of Zimbabwe are struggling to come to terms with the seemingly abrupt shift by a military that in November used its power to oust Mugabe and has now turned its guns on helpless, unarmed civilians.

But the ruling party and its soldiers were never going to relinquish their hold on Zimbabwe. There is no way Zanu-PF would have snatched power from a dictator only to hand it over to an opposition leader on a platter. This, after all, is a government whose leaders came to power through the gun and do not believe in the ballot box. The opposition MDC Alliance was therefore naive to think that the Zanu-PF government would not defend its dominance. Indeed, the government has been put in the hands of military men, including Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, Agriculture Minister Perence Shiri, and Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo.

The MDC Alliance, by contrast, is composed mostly of idealistic members of a younger generation who feel they have been denied the opportunity to govern themselves by an old guard who keep promising them that they are the leaders of tomorrow while crushing any attempts to win power by young politicians who want to lead today.

Unfortunately, there will likely be more killings and attacks on innocent people while Zanu-PF leaders sit in hotels having tea. This leaves the MDC Alliance with little choice going forward. At least Mnangagwa has mentioned that MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa has a huge role to play in the new government—a statement that suggests a possible national unity government.

The MDC Alliance could save Zimbabwe’s people from another round of state-sponsored violence by entering a national unity administration with Zanu-PF. They will have a chance to take part in decision-making processes that they would otherwise be shut out of. Moreover, they could use their influence to work against sanctions, as they will be part of the government.

But they will also be plagued by the same demons Tsvangirai’s team faced. After 2008, the MDC Alliance emerged from the national unity government politically bruised; they were infiltrated by Zanu-PF and severely weakened, costing them the next election.

As in 2008, the MDC Alliance today has much more to lose than Zanu-PF. Even so, for the sake of progress, peace, tranquility, and stability, it should work with the Mnangagwa administration. After all, Mnangagwa is seeking legitimacy in the outside world—especially from foreign companies—by presenting his government as a new chapter for Zimbabwe. His “open for business” mantra will fall on deaf ears, however, if he does not make a peace offering to the opposition and include them in his government. Investors are watching.

If Zimbabwe were a normal country where the rule of law held sway, today’s opposition would stand a chance of having its application to nullify the election result heard by an impartial court, but that is unlikely in the current political climate. At this point, election observers have spoken; South Africa and China have already congratulated Mnangagwa. Reversing the result will not be easy.

The MDC Alliance must do everything in its power to avoid violence and unnecessary confrontations that could provoke retaliation. As much as it may not be politically beneficial for the opposition to enter a government of national unity, this is the best way for the party to stay relevant and contribute to the country’s development. Another five years of disgruntlement is preferable to a repeat of the post-election violence of 2008, which led to a painful period of hunger, violence, and instability.

Evans Simbarashe Zininga is an international broadcaster at Voice of America in Washington D.C. This article represents the author’s views, and not necessarily the views of Voice of America.

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