The Complexities of Zimbabwe

By virtue of the suspicious, poorly explained delay in announcing who won the presidential poll, the authorities in Harare have ensured that the only outcome that will be widely believed by a sceptical world would be one in which main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai emerged the winner. Any other result would be widely dismissed as "fixed" by the authorities to produce a favourable outcome for President Robert Mugabe in the time since the election.

Even a close result requiring a run-off election between Mugabe and Tsvangirai would be seen by many as engineered to give the ruling party a second chance to mobilise the state machinery to do whatever it took to ensure the "right" result for him. The results delay and whatever other gambits the authorities are likely to serve up arguably can no longer serve to impart even the veneer of electoral legitimacy on Mugabe.

It would be one of many recent defeats in which Mugabe resorts to out rightly thwarting the electoral will of the people. But he does nevertheless need a façade of democracy. He has often responded to his Western criticism by saying they have no authority to chide him on the basis of his democratic credentials. "We brought democracy at independence in spite of Western support for the racist, anti-democratic government we replaced" has been his argument. He points out that by the measure of regularly held elections, Zimbabwe is far more democratic than many other countries that are in much better books with the Western world than it is.

Mugabe makes this point to bolster his argument that Western opposition to him is not because of any concern for the welfare of Zimbabweans, but is due to his stinging criticism of the double standards of the West, as well as his refusal to be compliant with Western expectations of how an African leader should conduct himself. It is precisely Mugabe’s fearlessly expressed, hard-to-fault arguments about the West’s relations with the rest of the world that makes him such a hero to many in Africa and beyond, even as Zimbabweans have suffered steep economic decline and increasing repression at home.

If the veneer of democratic legitimacy such as that imparted by regularly scheduled elections, no matter how flawed, has always been so important to Mugabe, why would he seem to risk throwing it all away now? Whatever the presidential results will show when released, the opposition MDC’s unprecedented win of a majority in the concurrently held parliamentary election is a convincing indication of the level of disaffection with the rule of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. His actions since March 29 do not at all suggest a man who respects the right of the voters to choose their leaders.

For the three election cycles up to the mid 1990s, Mugabe’s desire for the perception of a strict adherence to at least the forms of electoral democracy, if not the substance, was relatively easy to achieve. Independence-era euphoria and "gratitude" may have been lifting with every election, but until about then, Mugabe could count on genuine popularity to make his party’s re-elections a foregone conclusion. Mugabe has now shown that his dedication to those electoral forms is not quite so strong after all, now that the evidence suggests a likely majority of the electorate want him gone.

Merely conducting an election cannot bestow democratic legitimacy when it is clear that the only results that will be respected are those in which the incumbent wins. By so awkwardly making this obvious, Mugabe’s government has trapped itself into the equally unhealthy situation in which much of the Zimbabwean electorate and the world would now only believe a result which showed Mugabe losing. This has made "the Zimbabwe crisis" take on a dimension far beyond what can be resolved by the much anticipated release of the results of the presidential poll.

The desire to hold on to power and privilege, and fear of prosecution for past crimes are the usually discussed reasons for Mugabe and ZANU-PF conducting themselves with so little dignity in the face of evidence of an electorate earthquake of rejection against them. But genuine revulsion at what Tsvangirai and the MDC are perceived to represent is no doubt also part of the intransigence of Mugabe & Company in conceding defeat.

There is a self-serving element to Mugabe’s painting of the MDC as stooges of the West who are bent on reversing the efforts to have Zimbabwe’s political independence also have economic teeth for its citizens. Yet Tsvangirai and the MDC have ineptly only fuelled these suspicions in their words and deeds over the years. Mugabe and ZANU-PF in turn have largely failed to convince a majority of Zimbabweans that the claimed slavishness of the MDC to their Western backers is the reason their country is in such poor shape. Mugabe & Co. may genuinely worry that Tsvangirai and the MDC wish to "sell out" the country to the West and "reverse the gains of the revolution" by restoring the economic dominance of whites in commercial agriculture and other sectors of the economy.

But if so, electoral democracy required that Mugabe sell that message to the electorate more convincingly than the MDC’s pitch much needed change and renewal. The MDC has arguably won that battle for the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans, helped considerably by the country’s desperate economic state under Mugabe.

Instead of accepting his failure to sell his message of "Things are bad because we are besieged by powerful external foes, stick with me while I work out a plan to thwart them and improve things," Mugabe has instead arrogantly chosen to accuse the electorate of not fully understanding what is at stake. His stance is essentially that the electorate are mistaken to buy the Tsvangirai’s message and reject his. And if he can get away with it, he seems inclined to "correct" the misguided electorate by hanging on in power regardless of the popular will!

Yet the price one must pay for accepting a system of electoral democracy is to respect the will of the people even if one believes that will to be wrong. You then revert to opposition, sharpening your message for the next election. The current impasse is partly because of the refusal of Mugabe & Co. to respect this rule of the game because for the first time its result has been unfavourable to them.

The MDC had begun to make inroads into reversing the suspicion with which it was regarded in many African capitals by a belated diplomatic outreach to them. Those efforts have in recent weeks become compromised again by the over-the- top eagerness of the Western political establishment and media to take sides in the Zimbabwean election. In the days leading up to the election, and since then, the Western political and media establishment abandoned all pretence of merely being onlookers who were just interested in seeing that Zimbabweans were able to freely exercise their vote. Zimbabwe’s economic, political and humanitarian problems are severe enough, but the Western media, particularly that of ex-colonial master Britain, went into an absolute frenzy to depict the country as a virtual war zone.

Whether or not it was a coordinated campaign to give the Mugabe a decisive final push out of power, in their shrillness the Western political and media establishment only served to give credence to Mugabe’s long-held claim of a Western conspiracy to depose him for not being pliable in the mould of most African leaders. Britain had kept a relative distance in the months leading up to the election, correctly fearing that any unusual interest would be used by Mugabe as proof of its dishonourable neo-colonialist intentions. But at the time of the election and immediately after, Britain seemed to smell Mugabe’s blood and lost all self-restraint in the excitement of the prospect of seeing its old nemesis gone. It was almost as if Britain were so certain of Mugabe being deposed that it no long felt the need to maintain the façade of being a neutral observer.

Western shrillness has only grown since the election, with the Zimbabwean authorities also feeding it by the astonishing games over the election results, as well as the jailing of some Western journalists for slipping into the country to report on the election without getting accreditation – under the country’s tight media laws. But the effect of all this has been to justify the paranoia of the Zimbabwean authorities about a claimed coordinated Western "regime change" agenda.

Such an agenda could not justify the flouting of the popular electoral will, but it is not much of a stretch to guess that the unseemly eagerness of the West to interfere in and influence the election against him would only have made Mugabe and his whole political machinery feel inclined to dig in even in defiance of the voters. It is therefore quite plausible to speculate that the Western eagerness to "help" the MDC ensure Mugabe’s exit may in the short term have done the exact opposite.

In the immediate term the desire of the West to see the back of a troublesome-to-them-Mugabe probably overlaps with the wishes of many Zimbabweans who put the blame for the political repression and economic hardships in their country squarely at Mugabe’s door. But it is not at all certain that those similar desires perfectly coincide. Neither Britain nor the US have an honourable history in regards to Zimbabwe, so their posing as great champions of democracy and defenders of its peoples’ best interests have a hollow ring.

Mugabe has indeed degenerated into a despot who has refused to accept any responsibility for his country’s mess. But he is no worse a ruler than many others who dare not point out the West’s double standards and who are quite happy to have their countries be client states in return for being absolved of scrutiny over their governance records. Therefore the West and the Zimbabwean citizenry want a change from Mugabe for likely very different reasons.

If Mugabe somehow survives the electoral and diplomatic onslaughts against him and hangs on for several more years, the ill-advised Western intervention on behalf of the MDC would provide him considerable ammunition against the opposition party. This may make little difference to the voters’ feelings towards him if economic decline and hardship continue, as is likely to be the case in a situation where the Western world would be even more resolute in closing doors to Mugabe’s government. Yet if Mugabe were able to stem the slide, say by paying serious attention to improved agricultural productivity, he might well be able to say "you saw how the Westerners behaved during the 2008 election; their conspiracy against me was not a figment of my imagination."

With the economy continuing on its present slide, few outside his immediate circle and the die-hards in his party would listen to this argument. But with even modest stabilization, his idea of radical land redistribution remains popular enough amongst even his opponents that the argument could gain political currency to his benefit and at the expense of the MDC.

Even if Tsvangirai and the MDC assume office, their doing so with such open support for it as the West has shown will be a double edged sword. If the expected massive Western financial support flows in a way that quickly results in a stabilization of the economy that is widely felt at the grassroots, the whiff of the suspicion of the MDC having agreed to be "stooges" in return for Western support would be neutralised, at least in the short term. The need for a return to economic stability is probably the one issue that unites people across the country’s criss-crossing political divides.

But in the absence of either quick or widely-felt economic recovery, the tag of "Western stooge" around the necks of Tsvangirai and the MDC could remain a potent political weapon in the hands of a ZANU-PF that no longer dominates parliament, but nevertheless has only a handful fewer seats than the MDC. This assumes that ZANU-PF adjusts to being a minority party without disintegrating, which in turn also depends on how successfully they can choose a leader to fill Mugabe’s very large shoes. Without dramatic economic recovery, ZANU-PF in opposition could remain a formidable thorn in an MDC government’s flesh, with its Western backing becoming more of an albatross to it than a blessing.

Having won a majority, the MDC has not spent much time contesting the legitimacy of the parliamentary results. If they are considered to be a true reflection of the electoral will, it is astonishing that the ruling ZANU-PF did as well as it did, winning almost half of the popular vote and the number of parliamentary seats. With the rate of inflation said to be close to 200,000% and virtually every other economic index being strongly negative, one would have expected the ruling party to have been electorally wiped out.

Herein lie some of the nuances of the Zimbabwean crisis that much of the media we are exposed to is either oblivious of or simply not interested in relating. Mugabe has increasingly become repressive, he has been a brilliant ideologue but a very poor manager and he has simply stayed in power longer than was advisable for his own legacy. But his broad message of an unapologetic, assertively expressed desire for African empowerment retains its appeal and has led to a sea change in how black Zimbabweans think about what their independence should mean.

To say many and probably most Zimbabweans want Mugabe to step aside is not the same as saying his ideas have been largely rejected by them. For example, most would want his flawed land reform effort to be fixed to work, not for it to be reversed. The MDC was slow to understand this and other nuances of Mugabe’s complex legacy, losing it precious time and early support in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

Now the opposition party is careful to say it would not return land to its previous white occupiers, but would make sure it was productively used by the new black landholders. It remains to be seen if the MDC’s Western backers understand these nuances and would let it negotiate the minefield of balancing the need for reviving the economy with the political imperative of a strong desire for African empowerment that will remain one of Mugabe’s strongest legacies despite his failure to translate that desire into concrete, practical reality.

There has been talk of a Kenya-like ‘government of national unity.’ Both sides naturally posture against it. It may still be emerge as the immediate way out of the present crisis. But as in Kenya, such a compromise solution robs whoever the winner is of the spoils of electoral victory. When the game is played, all the participants are fully aware that they could lose by a mere handful of votes.

Whether in Kenya or Zimbabwe, another potential flaw of a GNU is to rob the electorate of two or more competing visions of how their country should be ruled. It may avoid conflict in the short term, but it also effectively allows political parties to put aside their competition for power because the GNU allows all of them a chance at the feeding trough. There is also the potential of them collectively ganging up against the citizens they usually claim are their whole reason for being.

Resolving the current impasse is undoubtedly the most urgent order of business in Zimbabwe. But the country’s tortured and violent history, the cynical external interests seeking to exert their influence for their own ends, the huge ideological gulf between the two main political parties and the closeness of the results announced so far suggest that whichever way the immediate crisis is resolved, there are long term difficulties ahead in getting Zimbabwe back on the track of political stability, psychic healing and economic growth.

Chido Makunike is a Zimbabwean social and political commentator. This article was originally published in and is reprinted here under a creative commons license. **Please send comments to or comment online at