Zimbabwe 2018: ‘new dispensation, new possibilities’?

In this blog, Joe Devanny looks ahead at likely political events in Zimbabwe during 2018 and looks back to the turbulent close to 2017, which saw Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power come to an end.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the ZANU-PF Party Congress, 15 December 2017. Source: VOA News.

Yesterday, a Financial Times op-ed called for ‘step by step’ Western re-engagement in Zimbabwe. It followed a lengthy interview recently conducted by the paper with Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who also submitted recently to a television interview with Bloomberg. The FT op-ed called for the ‘international community…to play a cautiously supportive role’ to help Mnangagwa to become a ‘transformative figure’ by reforming the predatory and authoritarian Mugabe-era system.

Collectively, these articles and interviews are a peak in the wave of well-coordinated media and public relations engagements pursued by Mnangagwa since the November 2017 military-assisted transition, a transition that was deftly described by the FT as a ‘“non-coup” coup,’ that called time on Robert Mugabe’s long incumbency. (What better way, for example, for the septuagenarian Mr Mnangagwa to signal his relative youthfulness and modernity, than by becoming Zimbabwe’s first presidential user of Twitter?)

For the FT, Mr Mnangagwa might well be deeply ‘compromised’ by his long association with Mr Mugabe, but ‘he deserves a hearing…[and] a clear message that he will be judged by his actions, not his words.’ Certainly, the UK government appears to agree on the need for a hearing: the top official at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently tweeted about the ‘new dispensation, new possibilities’ of reintegrating Zimbabwe into the international community and normalising UK-Zimbabwe relations under Mr Mnangagwa (which itself raises an intriguing question about an opinion voiced prior to Mugabe’s fall, that the UK explicitly favoured a Mnangagwa succession.)

Not too hot, not too cold: getting re-engagement just right

The FT essentially presented Western policy as a Goldilocks challenge: if it re-engages too quickly with Zimbabwe, and its support becomes too hot, then Mr Mnangagwa will assume he can avoid meaningful reforms and make do with the veneer presented to the press and on social media; but too cold a response from the West, and he will have no incentive to turn away from the violence, fraud and abuse of state resources that underpinned and prolonged Mr Mugabe’s long rule. So how to get the balance just right? The hinge of this question will be the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe.

The op-ed stresses that Western re-engagement should be premised on holding Mnangagwa to his word on allowing electoral observation missions from the EU, UN and even the Commonwealth. In his interview with Mnangagwa, the FT’s Alec Russell rightly observed that as important as the plurality of different national and multinational missions accredited to observe the elections is the length of time these missions are in country prior to election day. One might also add a further rider, that the missions’ resources and freedom of action once in country will also be crucial.

An independent electoral commission, a clean electoral roll, and diaspora voting rights were also listed by the FT, seemingly as necessary prerequisites for Western re-engagement (or the continuation of a re-engagement strategy executed prior to the elections). This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means — the military’s role supporting ZANU-PF in rural areas is another important electoral issue, as is the wider question of levelling the playing field for, and refraining from harassment of, all opposition parties. The key issue is whether this challenging list is one that Mnangagwa is likely to accept, practically as well as rhetorically.

The implication of the FT’s opinion piece is that the UK and allied governments should be willing to sequence increased assistance for Mnangagwa prior to his successful holding of more peaceful and less fraudulent elections. Those elections are due by the end of August, with Mnangagwa intimating that he might call them earlier, in four or five months’ time. If these elections fall short of the West’s fresh expectations, then the window for engagement would again close, leaving Mnangagwa as dependent as Mr Mugabe was before him on a ‘Look East’ policy, placing most of Zimbabwe’s eggs (and diamonds) in Chinese baskets.

But does it make sense for Western governments to re-engage ahead of elections? A central issue for Western policymakers is their assessment or political forecast about how probable freer, fairer elections and genuine reforms are under Mr Mnangagwa. Absent a rigorously justified and well-supported belief that Mnangagwa intends to deliver on reforming Zimbabwe’s economy and government, and liberalising its political space, there would be few reasons to change course, unless these governments were willing to concede that the broad sweep of nearly 20 years of their respective Zimbabwe policies had essentially failed, and might as well be jettisoned now that the figurehead (Mr Mugabe) has been removed, even if the major lines of his policy continued under his successor.

The FT speculates that Mnangagwa might gamble on the likelihood that his electoral victory is assured, even in free and fair elections, because (1) he is not Mr Mugabe and (2) the Zimbabwean opposition is divided, both internally within individual parties and across the different parties. But how much weight should Western states place on this assessment when considering prospects for re-engagement prior to polls?

Forecasting elections in 2018: what might happen?

Forecasting future political events is difficult. If nothing else, Brexit and the Donald Trump’s election should tell us that national votes can bring about unexpected results. But based on past evidence and a close reading of Mr Mnangagwa’s early moves in office, I think there are some good reasons to doubt that meaningful reforms and an election campaign that most FT readers would describe as free and fair will be the likely outcome (50+ per cent likely) in Zimbabwe this year.

In fairness to the FT, its own recent coverage of Zimbabwe has raised most of these issues, which I would group into two categories — one focused on events prior to the ouster of Mugabe last November, and the other on Mr Mnangagwa’s record during his first few months as president. First, the historical record shows the indisputable connection between Mr Mnangagwa, the security state and Mr Mugabe’s legacy of political violence. Mnangagwa came to power on the back of a military operation, Operation RESTORE LEGACY, that essentially placed the sitting president under house arrest and compelled him to resign. Mnangagwa then appointed to his Cabinet several of the senior military officers who planned and executed this seizure of power. Further back in Zimbabwe’s recent political history, in 2008, Mnangagwa conspired with several of these same individuals to ensure that Mugabe did not need to make any compromises with the electorate that had rejected him and his party (ZANU-PF), unleashing a campaign of violence and intimidation that killed several hundred people and drove the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, to pull out of the presidential election run-off. Securocrats are now indisputably in control of both party and state, making the military whip hand over ZANU-PF’s political strategy even more commanding than in previous elections.

Mr Mnangagwa is a veteran politician, but he does not himself have a strong track record of electoral success, at least at constituency level. Moreover, let us not forget that he was outmanoeuvred within his own party in the battle to succeed Mr Mugabe — he had to rely on the army to help him secure the leadership of ZANU-PF, which shouldn’t inspire anyone’s confidence in Mr Mnangagwa’s ability to win hearts and minds outside of his party.

Second, Mnangagwa’s choices since ascending to the presidency suggest he knows only too well how to play his most potent cards. Zimbabwe has a predominantly rural population, meaning that a successful political campaign must entail a successful rural strategy. Mr Mnangagwa’s strategy includes following through on Mugabe’s pledge to provide expensive vehicles to local chiefs; appointing a feared military officer, Air Marshal Perrance Shiri, as Agriculture minister, and appointing another military officer as the party’s political commissar, who will coordinate its operations ahead of the election campaign. And there are other reports that the party intends to make the military a major part of its election campaign. Moreover, the military has already reportedly been active in rural areas as part of the ‘Command Agriculture’ programme since last year.

As for the FT’s other stipulations, Mr Mnangagwa already appears to have ruled out conceding the right of diaspora Zimbabweans to vote from outside of Zimbabwe, whilst the independence of the electoral commission hangs in the balance, pending appointment of a new chairperson and the deeper question of changing the relationship between the commission and the government. Overall, there is little evidence so far that Mr Mnangagwa is willing to make himself a hostage to fortune by failing to load the dice in his favour on each of these variables.

It should be stressed that none of this suggests that a re-run of the violence of 2008 is a likely outcome. Rather, Mr Mnangagwa is most likely to build on the more carefully prepared effort that led to Mr Mugabe’s and ZANU-PF’s controversial victory in the 2013 elections. On that basis, overt violence will most likely be kept to a minimum; every opportunity to find a competitive advantage from government incumbency will be taken, ensuring the appointment of pliant electoral officials and denying diaspora votes; dispensing patronage and largesse, especially to key figures in rural areas; deploying soldiers and youth militia to intimidate voters and remind them of the physical consequences of voting ‘incorrectly.’

Conclusion

As a leading figure in Mr Mugabe’s government, who saw first hand the consequences of electoral complacency in 2008, as well as the instrumental power of political violence in that same election, Mr Mnangagwa is unlikely to miscalculate, take for granted or become inebriated by the appearance of his newfound popularity, whether in the pages of the Financial Times, on social media, or at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The most plausible forecast of his actions over the next six months is that he will use the extensive means at his disposal to retain the unequal electoral playing field in Zimbabwe. Indeed, calling an election in four or five months’ time, as Mr Mnangagwa recently indicated, might be just another way to suffocate the reform process, denying the time and space necessary to effect substantial changes.

The success or failure of this strategy would depend on at least three factors. First, and most obviously, on the choices of Zimbabwean voters — to the extent, of course, that the process for counting votes adheres sufficiently closely to the way in which those votes are cast. And in the wake of Mugabe’s ouster, we are in new territory: we simply do not know how Zimbabweans, who came out onto the streets during the events of November, would react to another seemingly stolen election. But there must be a high probability that any large-scale protests would meet with a firm response from the state.

Second, the success of Mnangagwa’s strategy will depend on his finely calibrating any electoral concessions to appear more meaningful than in fact they are, e.g. in opening up to more international observers, but subtly (and perhaps less subtly) denying those same observers the means to hold his campaign fully to account.

Recent efforts to reform the leadership of the police force have indicated that Mr Mnangagwa and his securocrat allies might not always agree on specific points, but they will be unanimous on the major strategic objective: being able to declare victory in the election.

Finally, their success would depend on an inversely proportional relationship between, on the one hand, Mr Mnangagwa’s tried and tested, patiently executed electoral strategy, and the appetite of Western states, (1) to invest sufficient resources to exercise rigorous monitoring of Zimbabwe’s political landscape over the next six months, and (2) to calibrate their own policy decisions closely to the extent to which Mr Mnangagwa has genuinely reformed Zimbabwe and created conditions for freer and fairer elections.

As the ever-excellent Alex Magaisa puts it: ‘While Western countries do not vote in [Zimbabwe’s] elections, they have a crucial role in the judgments they pass over the elections.’ Another well-informed commentator, Alex Noyes, recently stressed the importance of Western governments carefully coordinating their respective policy responses. In essence, there are two hurdles for Mnangagwa to jump: (1) winning the election and (2) ensuring that he wins in a manner that unlocks significant Western re-engagement. There is a difficulty here, not just for Mnangagwa but for Western states too.

One important precondition for effective Western decision-making about Zimbabwe will be high quality information-gathering and analysis, enough to determine the truth between claims and counter claims as the elections approach. Relative to other national security issues facing the UK and US governments, Zimbabwe can hardly be thought of as being close to the top of the tree, but lower tier priorities still require investment if policy is to be based on good evidence and wise counsel. Legislative oversight committees — in the UK, US and other states — have a role to play here in calling on governments to explain their preparations and emerging strategies, if necessary in closed sessions.

The FT noted a likely Western willingness to give Mr Mnangagwa the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ but this must not translate into a willingness to look the other way, either actively (by ignoring actions that conflict with the ‘new dispensation, new possibilities’ narrative) or passively (by failing to invest sufficiently in the capability to uncover and make sense of the full spectrum of such actions).

Joe Devanny is programme director for security at Ridgeway Information and a former research fellow at King’s College London. You can follow him on Twitter.