By Xolani Zitha, Yale World Fellow ’11.
The people of Zambia deserve praise for the willingness of all parties to accept the outcomes of their recent Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The incumbent, Rupiah Banda was defeated in the September 20th contest by Michael Sata, leader of the opposition party. Although Zambians celebrated the election of their fifth President since their independence in October 1964, their neighbors across the Zambezi in Zimbabwe have known only two strongmen in the same period. The first of these leaders, Ian Smith, was infamous for fighting for minority rule. In contrast, his successor, Robert Mugabe, started out with overwhelming majority support but has since squandered his party's popular appeal through a series of ill-conceived policies.
Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) has a long history of refusing to tolerate dissent. This reached a boiling point in the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s where violence ceased only after the co-option and consolidation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) into ZANU. Thereafter, the now-termed ZANU-PF embarked on a disastrous crusade to establish a one-party state government in Zimbabwe, devoid of all opposition. The ZANU-PF under Mugabe, however, failed to accomplish this and frequently defers to violence as a response to its political adversaries. During its 31 years in power, ZANU-PF has mastered the dark arts of clinging to power against popular will through a litany of strong-arm tactics often fronted by state security agencies.
Why has Zimbabwe been unable to develop a progressively democratic ethos with political competition like Zambia? Unlike its neighbor, Zimbabwe remains mired in persistent electoral irregularities and is unable to agree and adhere to the basic values and rules of political competition. The frequent breakdowns in trust and cooperation between the three parties in the Zimbabwean Inclusive Government cannot only be attributed to colonial legacies. Rather, the present governance crisis is also the direct result of the asymmetrical division of power between the parties that was reached in the Global Political Agreement mediated by Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa.
Mbeki’s preference for ZANU-PF and Mugabe was never a state secret. He described ZANU-PF as 'the party of revolution' in whose hands the challenges of change were safest. He viewed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), on the other hand, as structurally weak, unprepared for the task of governing the country and too beholden to Western interests. Under Mbeki, the role of mediator a position that should be occupied and protected by an unbiased leader was hardly neutral. Mbeki’s mediation provided a comfort zone for Mugabe while requiring unreasonable compromise from Morgan Tsvangirai, the actual winner of the 2008 elections. There is a vast difference in the way Thabo Mbeki mediated the Zimbabwean crisis compared to Kofi Annan and John Kufuor’s handling of the Kenyan mediation.
Mbeki’s biased mediation explains why Mugabe and ZANU-PF have retained control of the security, foreign affairs and mining ministries while the MDC is left to cleanup the social service ministries – those institutions in which ZANU-PF had depleted the country’s fortunes. As mediator, Mbeki’s precondition for negotiations required the two MDC formations to recognize Mugabe’s legitimacy as President, with Tsvangirai serving as Prime Minister. Mbeki established this requirement fully aware that the March 2008 elections had been rigged and that Mugabe had finished a distant second to Tsvangirai. In the name of shared history and likeness between former liberation movements, Mbeki allowed the loser of the election to retain exclusive control over those coercive instruments that have blocked Zimbabwe’s transition to democratic elections. This curious stipulation demonstrated Mbeki’s pronounced preference for the ZANU-PF and acceptance of Mugabe’s demands, as well as his obvious contempt for the MDC. By wearing his heart on his sleeve concerning his political affinities, Mbeki failed to act as an even-handed mediator.
Mbeki’s mediation introduced a framework for institutional gridlock by establishing an asymmetrical division of power in a system that is dependent on inter-party consensus. While this did postpone immediate conflict, the Global Political Agreement failed to create a genuine power-sharing government. Instead, as others have observed, it only served to divide power by creating two autonomous centers within the government, each more concerned with undermining the other than with rebuilding the nation. No meaningful institutional reforms can take place when current office-bearers think only in terms of how these changes will affect their future election chances.
The consequences of Mbeki’s flawed mediation are highly visible. Currently, the constitutional reform process is running behind schedule by 18 months, as the newly created Independent Commissions on Media, Anti-Corruption, Human Rights and Elections are unable to execute their mandates. This is largely due to the endless squabbling between parties about the methodology for writing a new constitution. Mbeki’s model of allowing electoral losers to cling to power by rejecting the outcome of elections under the visage of an electoral stalement may seem to have bought short-term peace and stability. However, in reality, it simply deferred the task of addressing the underlying reasons for conflict and thus postponed conflict without alleviating it.
If the next elections, due within the next two years, are to be different from the violence- marred contests of the past, the motley crew in the present power-sharing government must find a way to agree on constitutional reforms. They must also agree to allow meaningful autonomy for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is in dire need of finances both to carry out an audit of the voters’ roll and to establish a clear system for voting and tabulation of poll results. In light of these observations and recommendations, the effectiveness of the current power-sharing government in Zimbabwe is highly questionable.
Earlier this year, Mbeki advocated the same power-sharing model in Cote d'Ivoire as he had in Zimbabwe. Had he been successful, Laurent Gbagbo like Mugabe, would be unjustly sharing power with the rightful winner, Alassane Outarra. Mbeki's appeal in Cote d'Ivoire, however, did not find any traction within Africa nor the rest of the international community. This suggests that the world has become aware of the limits of asymmetrically structured power-sharing agreements. The successes of the Zambian elections are also encouraging. Zambia’s peaceful transfer of power confirms the possibility of electoral outcomes in Africa that do not result in intractable disputes that necessitate help from outside actors. This is especially promising as intervention by external players often compounds the progress of democratization as has happened Zimbabwe.
* Zitha is chief aide to Lovemore Moyo, the Speaker of the House of Assembly and the Chairman of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party. He supports the Speaker's efforts to modernize Zimbabwe’s Parliament and strengthen its democracy. Zitha previously directed the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an umbrella organization of more than 250 civil society organizations focused on democratization and governance, and was deputy director for the Bulawayo Agenda Trust.
* This article was edited by Dana LaMendola