Mugabe Über Alles: The Tyranny of Unity in Zimbabwe

Robert I Rotberg. Foreign Affairs. Volume 89, Issue 4. July/August 2010.

More than a year into a supposed government between President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe continues to stagnate. There has been little unity, even less partnership, a wholesale denial of basic political and human rights, and only marginal economic improvements. Mugabe is holding tightly to the levers of power. As the mdc minister of finance, Tendai Biti, put it bluntly in February, “ZANU-PF cannot continue to urinate on us.”

The unity government was born in 2009, after Mugabe finally agreed to share power under pressure from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional bloc. Tsvangirai reluctantly accepted the arrangement despite having won the March 2008 parliamentary election outright-a result that Mugabe’s handpicked electoral commission refused to honor.

From the beginning, Mugabe has run roughshod over the unity compact. Although some ministries were assigned to the mdc and some to ZANU-PF, the key Home Affairs Ministry had to be shared between the two parties because Mugabe refused to relinquish control over it. Mugabe also reneged on a promise to consult Tsvangirai before appointing the head of the central bank and the attorney general. Nor has Mugabe sworn into office most of the MDC’s nominees for other government posts. In an attempt to keep virtually all governmental authority in his party’s hands, he has never fully constituted the Zimbabwe National Security Council, a new entity-on which Tsvangirai has a right to sit-that was intended to replace the powerful Joint Operations Command, a secretive body of high-ranking ZANU-PF security officials that continues to meet out of the public eye. He agreed to appoint judges in consultation with Tsvangirai but has not done so; meanwhile, he has simply ignored court judgments that have displeased him. And he continues to extract immense sums of cash from the central bank to fund his travels, his wife’s travels, and the lavish spending of their entourages. (Mugabe took 66 people with him to a November 2009 United Nations meeting on hunger in Rome and another 59 to Copenhagen for the December climate summit.)

Mugabe has repeatedly permitted-if not directly approved-attacks by the regime’s soldiers and police on defenseless MDC leaders. So far this year, there have been more than 200 attacks by the police and ZANU-PF vigilantes against local mdc officials, members, and presumed sympathizers. In March and April, to make sure that villagers backed a much-disputed draft constitution that Mugabe and his associates have been attempting to foist on Zimbabweans, ZANU-PF reopened socalled torture camps in four parts of the country. Meanwhile, thugs loyal to Mugabe have directly threatened Tsvangirai and attacked his office, and it is conceivable that they arranged a March 2009 highway “accident” that injured him and killed his wife. Mugabe’s henchmen have also prevented the reestablishment of an independent daily newspaper and harassed the distributors of objective newsmagazines produced by Zimbabweans abroad. As a result, most Zimbabweans still obtain their news from Mugabe-controlled radio and television broadcasts.

The top brass of the army, the air force, and the police are all slavishly loyal to Mugabe. He has enmeshed the security forces in a dense web of state-sponsored corruption since 1998, when Zimbabwean troops entered the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and looted cadmium, cobalt, diamond, and gold as “payment” for their intervention on the side of then Congolese President Laurent Kabila. By intervening there, Mugabe both won the security services’ fealty and made them coconspirators in his misrule of Zimbabwe. Ever since, “securocrats” have assisted Mugabe in harassing the mdc and rigging elections.

I knew Mugabe in the 1960s and 1970s, when he emerged from prison and fled to Mozambique; I saw him in power in the 1980s and 1990s and finally appreciated that absolute power could indeed corrupt absolutely. Tirelessly ruthless, unscrupulous, and canny, Mugabe remains of sound and scheming mind, full of seductive charm, and widely feared. Like the former Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, he intimidates his close associates by consulting with a coterie of traditional medicine men, whose spells his underlings fear.

Ten years ago, I wrote in these pages, “Venal leaders are the curse of Africa.” Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe over the last decade testifies to the lasting power of that curse.

Destroying a Nation

In 2002, according to the census, Zimbabwe had 14 million people; today, there are only ten million left. Many have fled to neighboring Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, or Zambia to look for work (upward of 90 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed). Others have left due to severe hunger (a third of all Zimbabweans lack adequate food supplies, and the May maize harvest was 800,000 tons short, requiring the un World Food Program to feed 1.6 million Zimbabweans); to flee the cholera epidemic of 2008-9, which killed approximately 4,000 people; or to escape the country’s gravely inadequate schools. Approximately one million have perished since 2000-more than twice as many as would have been expected to die under normal circumstances-nearly all from starvation, a failing health system, or systematic brutalities.

The unity government was meant to end the economic ruin brought about by Mugabe’s tyranny. Raging against a constitutional referendum that he lost in early 2000, Mugabe sent pro-regime thugs to oust white farmers, 70 percent of whom had purchased their farms in the 1980s with his government’s permission. By 2005, most of the 4,500 white farm owners had been forced off their land, many fleeing to neighboring African countries and Australia. Despite the ruinous economic consequences of Mugabe’s personal vendettas, ZANU-PF continues to endorse such invasions. In many cases this year and last, ZANU-PF youths have surrounded isolated white-owned farms, sent the workers away, maimed livestock, stolen machinery, and menaced the farmers and their families, forcing them to flee. Nearly all of the last remaining 400 commercial farms in Zimbabwe have been “appropriated” in this manner. The result of this pillaging of productive farmland has meant the end of Zimbabwe’s commercial agriculture, once its main source of GD P and foreign exchange.

The farm invasions persist despite rulings against them in a sadc regional court and within the South African court system, where South African citizens ousted from farms in Zimbabwe have successfully claimed compensation. Although the farm invasions have been accompanied by Mugabe’s anticolonial rhetoric, most of the victims have been black. Along with the farm owners, about one million of Zimbabwe’s 1.3 million farm workers and their family members have lost their jobs, their homes, and access to clinics and schools.

ZANU-PF has carried out an even bigger heist in the country’s east. The area near Mutare holds a vast reservoir of alluvial industrial diamond deposits. Although the largest and most profitable deposit in the country, Marange, is officially owned by African Consolidated Resources, which is based in the United Kingdom, it is being systematically pillaged by First Lady Grace Mugabe; her close relative Gideon Gono, who is governor of the central bank; and a number of leading generals. In February, Obert Mpofu, the ZANU-PF minister of mines, was found with 29 kilograms of diamonds (worth about $18 million), which he had removed from the central bank.

The toothless Kimberley Process, an international initiative meant to segregate “blood diamonds” from nonconflict diamonds, has failed to stop stolen Zimbabwean diamonds from entering the world market. Many of these diamonds find their way into neighboring Mozambique, and from there they often fall into the hands of Russian dealers, who buy and sell the stones on the international market. And in May, a Zimbabwean general began recruiting Chinese soldiers, with Beijing’s approval, to help mine the diamonds.

Perhaps a third of Zimbabwe’s GDP, to the extent that it can be measured, consists of remittances from abroad. The output of the commercial farming sector today is tiny compared with that of earlier years; tobacco production, once a mainstay, will probably never recover; horticultural exports have largely ceased because of water and power shortages; and the country’s manufacturing capacity has shrunk to a small fraction of its former level. Skilled technicians have fled, leaving hardly anyone at home to keep the economy running and few companies able to find or train new workers. Roads, are crumbling, the railways and the national airline barely function, and the country’s main thermal power station produced no electricity in February. Nearly all Zimbabweans now seek livelihoods through the informal economy, much of which consists of barter.

Zimbabwe’s mining sector (especially its platinum mines) could provide ample foreign exchange, but the Mugabe regime skims the profits from successful operations. Several profitable gold mines, such as the locally owned Gwanda facility, closed this year, despite high gold prices, because of official interference. And in January, Mugabe threatened to “indigenize” all foreign-owned enterprises worth more than $500,000 by granting a 51 percent share to highly placed ZANU-PF apparatchiks. He subsequently followed through on his threat without consulting Tsvangirai or Parliament, and with no regard for the chilling effect it would have on the foreign investors Zimbabwe desperately needs to attract if it is to grow. In April, Tsvangirai and his ministers declared the indigenization program null and void, but Mugabe is still trying to make it official policy.

Despite its many flaws and weaknesses, the unity government has nevertheless helped make life in Zimbabwe a little less miserable. Last year, Biti, the finance minister, quickly abolished Zimbabwe’s own dollar-and permitted the U.S. dollar, the South African rand, and other foreign currencies to circulate freely. This was crucial, since for several years Gono had simply printed the local dollar in denominations of millions, billions, and trillions-rendering the currency almost valueless. By mid-2009, after Biti’s reforms, previously empty shops had started filling up with food, and almost anything, even scarce gasoline and diesel fuel, became available to elites with hard foreign currency.

In late 2009, Biti also began paying civil servants $250 a month (a paltry amount, but much more than before), inducing teachers, medical personnel, and bureaucrats to return to work. But earlier this year, they went on strike for higher pay. Unfortunately, too few engineers are willing to work for what little the government can pay, and power and water shortages continue to enrage consumers and disrupt mines and other business operations. Zimbabwe also owes more than $100 million for energy supplies to the southern African electricity grid, a debt it cannot pay.

Overall, Zimbabwe’s GDP expanded in 2009 by about five percent. Welcome as that increase was, it was far less than the eight percent annual growth needed to make up for the massive losses of 2001-8. Even if Zimbabwe grows steadily for the next decade at the unlikely rate of seven percent per year, living standards would only return to 2000 levels in 2020.

Avoiding a Bloodbath

Tsvangirai understands better than anyone how little the unity government has accomplished when it comes to curbing Mugabe’s power and protecting mdc supporters from violence. Yet preferring to work from within and make incremental improvements to the country’s governance, he has decided to remain prime minister. He does not believe that a Georgian- or a Ukrainian-style revolution is possible in Zimbabwe, however angry and resentful Zimbabweans are.

Mugabe’s security apparatus is so strong and entrenched, Tsvangirai believes, that any active protest, whether in urban or rural areas, would be met with overwhelming force, resulting in thousands of deaths. Tsvangirai does not want to risk bloodshed, nor is he prepared to test these assumptions without first being convinced that enough sympathetic individuals within the security forces would hold their fire or defect. Probes by the mdc have found legions of supposed sympathizers in the military, but too few are prepared to risk their own fives by opposing the Mugabe regime.

Tsvangirai and others are now playing for time. Mugabe turned 86 in February and is rumored to have prostate cancer. If he dies soon of natural causes, there will be a battle within ZANU-PF to succeed him and retain the privileges and perquisites of power. One contender would be Emmerson Mnangagwa, currendy the minister of defense and a close ally of China’s official diplomats and military attachés in Harare, as well as of the Chinese investors who have crowded into Zimbabwe. Another would be Solomon Mujuru, a former general and the husband of Joice Mujuru, the current vice president and Mugabe’s nominal successor. Several senior security figures could also try to muscle into the political barde, especially Constantine Chiwenga, head of the army, and Perence Shiri, head of the air force. Grace Mugabe, 40 years her husband’s junior, may also seek office.

But none of these contenders has a solid political following. Tsvangirai and the mdc, by contrast, can claim to have vast popular appeal; they have won every national election since 2000 (although Mugabe rigged the results to make it appear otherwise). Tsvangirai calculates that if he remains the sitting prime minister, he will be seen as both an obvious and a credible successor by Zimbabwe’s citizens and foreign leaders.

Many of Tsvangirai s supporters want him to be more assertive in opposing Mugabe and positioning the mdc as a true alternative government. They are not prepared to wait for Mugabe’s death, particularly since the unity government has so far accomplished little. They want Tsvangirai to take a stronger stand against harassment and double-dealing. They also want him to police the mdc more thoroughly to avoid any traces of corruption or illegitimacy.

Some internal critics have urged Tsvangirai to turn his back on the unity government altogether. Doing so, they argue, could demonstrate to Zimbabweans and the world that the mdc is not yoked to unity just for the positions and incomes that it has delivered to Tsvangirai and Biti and a handful of others-a growing perception among ordinary Zimbabweans. But if the mdc left the government, Tsvangirai would lose what little leverage he currently has.

Tsvangirai may further calculate that South Africa and SADC would come to his aid if an internecine ZANU-PF bloodbath ensued after Mugabe’s demise. After all, no country in the southern African region seeks chaos; they would prefer a legitimate Tsvangirai succession to a bitter scramble for power within the ruling party. In May, Tsvangirai told an authence that he would not agree to a coalition government again, calling it “a very painful exercise” and “a bad precedent.”

Biti, believing that South Africa would not permit another fraudulent Zimbabwean vote, has called for early national elections. But Mugabe himself has asked for elections, promising to stand once more. If Mugabe indeed decides to declare a parliamentary election this year or next (a poll is required before 2013), he will likely rig it. Mugabe would not countenance losing again and having to cover up the defeat, as he and his party did in 2008. Instead, he is more likely to simply falsify the voters’ rolls in advance, intimidate potential mdc supporters, and depend on the theft of ballot boxes and fake tallies, even if SADC or other bodies insist on international observers. Biti’s hope of a level playing field is optimistic and misguided: change is not going to come to Zimbabwe via the ballot box.

Spineless SADC

The African Union, SADC, and South Africa prefer to coddle Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, despite the obvious harm that Mugabe has brought to the region and his own country. Had the un placed human rights before sovereignty and made the so-called responsibility to protect a solid international norm, and had the General Assembly been willing in 2009 to clearly define the conditions under which collective action is permissible when states prey on their own people, the un, the au, and Zimbabwe’s neighbors might now be obliged to intervene to halt Mugabe’s despotic rule. After all, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere dispatched his army to Uganda to end Idi Amins tyrannical reign in 1979, the Economic Community of West African States forcibly intervened twice in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s, and the au sent troops into the Comoros to end an insurrection in 2009. But these interventions either involved minor nations or, in the cases of Nyerere and ecowas, required genuine political will.

So far, South Africa has refused to display the political will needed to curb Mugabe’s excesses. President Jacob Zuma, like Thabo Mbeki before him, appears to fear that regional instability would follow Mugabe’s ouster. Zuma also respects Mugabe as an elder statesman and senior anticolonialist. Additionally, he believes (as do other southern African leaders) that Tsvangirai is not a strong enough alternative. Finally, Zuma has demonstrated little willingness to be decisive at home or abroad.

Vacillation and tentativeness are the hallmark’s of Zuma’s “Vicar of Bray” tenure. Although some observers expected that his actions would be influenced by the sympathy of South Africa’s trade union movement for Tsvangirai and the mdc, Zuma has preferred only mild censure of Mugabe, limited reprimands for those in the African National Congress who praise Mugabe, and the pretense of serious mediation. There are suggestions, too, that Zuma wants to avoid tangling with or bringing down Mugabe for fear of his exposing more ANC dirty dealing over arms purchases or the ANC’s earlier connivance with nefarious elements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But there is no evidence that Zuma’s lack of decisive action over Zimbabwe represents anything other than innate caution-particularly as South Africa prepares to host the soccer World Cup.

Pretoria has the ability to exert pressure on Mugabe-for example, by preventing overflights of Zimbabwean aircraft and Hmiting the travel of senior Zimbabweans to South Africa (where they purchase provisions, buy fuel, and receive medical treatment). But so far, South Africa has refused to take such measures or support the kinds of anti-Mugabe sanctions that have been enacted in Europe and the United States. Due to these restrictions, Mugabe and nearly 200 other Zimbabwean leaders are prohibited from traveling there (except for UN functions), and their assets have been frozen in European and U.S. banks.

Although the South African public and the ANC rank and file, including its affiliated Communist Party and trade union wings, are keen to end Mugabe’s outrages, Zuma has continued to dither and prevaricate. South Africa is simply not ready to take meaningful action-which means that Mugabe will continue to run roughshod over his own people.

South African-sponsored talks between the mdc and ZANU-PF have dragged on since October, with no success in sight. A visit from Zuma to Mugabe brought reports of change, but by May it was clear that Mugabe would not appoint mdc provincial governors or remove Gono as the central bank governor or Johannes Tomana as the attorney general.

President Ian Khama of Botswana is the one exception in the region. He has criticized SADC’s lackadaisical mediation efforts and has spoken out publicly against Mugabe’s failure to adhere to the unity agreement, declaring, “Everyday [Mugabe] has been in power, things have just gone from bad to worse … He should have gone long ago.” Khama has described Zimbabwe as a country that has “literally become like one big refugee camp, full of people who are living Uves of misery.” No other southern African leader has been so outspoken or has dared to mobilize the moral weight of SADC against Mugabe.

The European Union and individual European countries would like to act against Mugabe. For example, the United Kingdom’s government, which ZANU-PF regards as a hated former colonial power, is antagonistic to Mugabe and favors maintaining sanctions. But neither Brussels nor London can do anything of consequence without the cooperation of South Africa or the United States, and any heavy-handed action by Europe would require the imprimatur of the UN. China, however, which has supplied Zimbabwe with jet aircraft and army uniforms since 2006, would almost certainly veto any proposed UN Security Council action. In recent months, Chinese state-owned enterprises have begun purchasing land in Zimbabwe and establishing widespread agricultural operations to produce food for China’s ballooning population-while Zimbabweans continue to starve.

What Is To Be Done?

The United States is not going to intervene in Zimbabwe, but it can still act as a positive catalyst for change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken forcefully about the Zimbabwean situation and has asked Zuma for his help and cooperation. Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs and a former ambassador to Zimbabwe, has also spoken out strongly-even, in 2009, to Mugabe’s face. (Mugabe famously called Carson “an idiot” and walked away.)

Clinton, whose voice is influential in key African capitals, could pressure Mugabe by promising to provide SADC leaders with meaningful financial assistance and positive publicity if they agreed to ban Mugabe’s official aircraft from crossing neighboring airspace. This would end the Mugabe family’s penchant for shopping trips to Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Confining Mugabe to Zimbabwe would also deny him medical treatment in South Africa or beyond.

Clinton should then appoint a strong regional envoy with ambassadorial status with the goal of ending violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, transferring power to Tsvangirai, and loosening Mugabe’s authoritarian grip. Such a roving ambassador would demonstrate Washington’s commitment to the region and provide the kind of close personal attention to the issue that Carson, busy with so many other African concerns, cannot. The goal is not so much to pressure Mugabe as to influence South Africa and other neighbors so that they will hem Mugabe in.

Additional incentives could be offered to the Zimbabwean government as well, such as new funds with which to jumpstart the faltering economy and aid for agriculture, industry, and infrastructure. Dangling such incentives would entice potential successors to push Mugabe out now in order to get the benefits. A roving regional ambassador with Clinton’s backing could make these offers persuasively and demonstrate finally that the United States seeks a democratic, fair outcome for the Zimbabwean people.

If the United States and its allies do not put renewed pressure on South Africa and SADC, Mugabe will continue to rule as a tyrant, disregard the unity pact, and enmesh all Zimbabweans, except himself and his cronies, in a web of deceit and corruption. Such an outcome would obviously not be good for Zimbabwe, nor would it benefit sadc or the rest of the continent.

A sad statistic demonstrates the full tragedy of Mugabe’s misrule: in 1965, most of Africa was much more prosperous than East and South Asia; today, most Asian countries are ten times as wealthy as African ones. Zimbabwe is no exception. And Mugabe, the poster child for venal leadership, is at the root of the country’s poverty. The more Mugabes there are-and the more the international community proves itself impotent or unwilling to stop them-the poorer Africans will remain.