Zimbabwe: the make or break elections

Baffour Ankomah

After years of economic sanctions imposed by the West, Zimbabwe desperately needs help getting back on its feet. With the country poised to go to the polls later this year, Baffour Ankomah looks at how political developments have unfolded in recent years and wonders if a new government can improve international confidence and attract much-needed investment.

From the outside, the received wisdom is that Zimbabwe’s politics is a messy affair. A long-serving president does not want to relinquish power; the opposition is harassed; civil society organisations are not welcome; human rights violations abound; the press is muzzled; and personal freedoms are at risk.

From the inside, however, the picture is very different. The country is planning for both presidential and parliamentary elections. Though the date is yet to be fixed, indications are that it might be in the second half of this year.

Will President Robert Mugabe run again? The short answer is yes. Yet, why would the 88-year-old long-serving president want to cling on to power when a dignified departure could give the country a new opportunity to bounce back?

According to insiders, it is partly because of exogenous factors (the ‘nationalists’ in the country fear that a regime change influenced by foreign powers will not be in the national interest), and partly because Mugabe’s Zanu PF party wants him to run again (they say, apart from him, they don’t have a strong enough candidate to beat the opposition contender, Morgan Tsvangirai).

As a result, Zanu PF overwhelmingly confirmed Mugabe as the party’s candidate for 2013 at its national conference last December. So at 89 this year, when most people are long retired, Mugabe will be seeking a new term of office.

This year’s election will see the end of the inclusive government that has run the country since February 2009 and is formed by the country’s three main parties – Zanu PF led by President Mugabe, the main Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T), and the smaller splinter faction of the Movement for Democratic Change led by Welshman Ncube (MDC-N). The inclusive government’s major success has been in ensuring economic stability and halting the runaway inflation that had decimated the economy in the years following the country’s controversial land reform programme that started in 2000.

So far, the land reform programme stands out as the biggest landmark event in the country since independence in 1980. By taking land from white farmers and giving it to black farmers, the land reform programme was met with animosity by Western governments, led by Britain, which used its kinship status with the USA and EU countries to impose economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. Most of the white farmers who lost their land were of British descent.

The effects of the economic sanctions, which are still largely in place, have been devastating on the nation and its citizens. From 2000-2008, the sanctions virtually cut off Zimbabwe from the international financial system, leading to a catastrophic collapse of the economy. Britain and its allies do not publicly accept that they have imposed ‘economic’ sanctions on Zimbabwe. They insist that they have only imposed ‘personal’ and ‘travel’ sanctions on Mugabe and his officials, and companies aligned with the formerly ruling Zanu PF party as a way of compelling them to return the country to democratic ways.

But the USA’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, signed into law by President George W Bush in November 2001, expressly imposes economic sanctions on Zimbabwe.

The imposition of ‘personal’ sanctions on a president and his officials should not prevent the country from borrowing on the international financial system or even receiving foreign aid, or stopping Western companies from investing or doing business in Zimbabwe, or intimidating, threatening, and thus dissuading, non-Western companies from doing business in Zimbabwe.

To many African observers, the consequences of the sanctions were deliberately calculated. If the British or US government were prevented from borrowing for even half a year, they argue, their economies would be bound to suffer. Even as rich and well developed as they are, Britain and the USA need to borrow, and they do borrow, on a continuous basis to keep government finances and the economy afloat.

Thus, by preventing a developing African country that depends partly on borrowing and partly on foreign aid from accessing the international financial system, the Western countries that imposed the sanctions were only pushing Zimbabwe into an economic, and some say political, catastrophe. And that is exactly what happened between 2000 and 2008.

In 2009, after the formation of Zimbabwe’s inclusive government, Arthur Mutambara, the then leader of the smaller MDC faction, publicly criticised the Western countries for refusing to lift the sanctions, saying they had been imposed to help him (Mutambara) and Morgan Tsvangirai to win power, and “now that Zimbabweans have come together and are working together, who are these countries to say they won’t lift the sanctions?”

The bitterness arising from the hardships imposed by the sanctions and several interventions by Western governments clearly intended to effect a regime change in Zimbabwe have largely shaped the politics of the country in the last 12 years.

Not surprisingly, many Africans say the Western actions in Zimbabwe have only confirmed the saying that there are no permanent friends in politics. For until 1997, when the ‘troubles’ in Zimbabwe really started, the country and its president, Robert Mugabe, were the darlings of the international set.

Dozens of Western and other universities around the world gave Mugabe honorary degrees and awards for running the country well. And Zimbabwe was talked about in high terms in Western capitals. Perhaps that was their expression of gratitude to Mugabe for not doing anything radical about the vexing land issue in Zimbabwe.

Incidentally, the nation had waged a guerrilla war for independence because of the warped land tenure system in the country, itself a consequence of colonial dispossession of native land that had led to 4,500 white farmers holding nearly 80 percent of the arable land in the country by 2000, while millions of black people were living cheek by jowl on congested, semi-arid lands dotted around the country.

By not seeing land reform as a means of bringing justice to the majority of Zimbabwe’s population (who were black), and in consequence refusing to help effect a smooth and non-violent redistribution of land, Britain and its Western allies missed a major opportunity to influence the course of events in Zimbabwe.

They not only wrongly interpreted what was going on in Zimbabwe, their support in 1999 of the formation of Tsvangirai’s opposition MDC, with the clear objective of regime change in Zimbabwe, only gave Mugabe and Zanu PF the fuel to use the power of incumbency to prevent an MDC electoral victory by any means necessary.

Furthermore, it made it easier for them to brand Tsvangirai and the MDC as “sell-outs” and a front for colonial interests. Strangely, Tsvangirai himself has not helped the cause of the MDC very much by not distancing himself from his foreign backers. That has played into the hands of Mugabe and Zanu PF, making it far, far easier for them to tell Zimbabweans that the British and their Western allies wanted to reverse the gains of land reform via an MDC electoral victory.

Interestingly, land redistribution has gone down well in the country. Hundreds of thousands of formerly land-hungry peasants received land during the redistribution exercise, and other citizens with a little money of their own were given even more land to go into commercial farming. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of criticism over the land redistribution, especially in the early years, as those close to the regime acquired some of the best land available. Twelve years into the reforms, agriculture has recovered appreciably to make farming an attractive venture and owning a farm a coveted enterprise.

The perception that Tsvangirai was a ‘front’ for foreign interests undermined his national appeal and divided the country. Nevertheless, during the 2008 elections, MDC won a majority in parliament and Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election – 47 percent to Mugabe’s 43 percent, but did not get the mandatory 51 percent to win outright.

Tsvangirai’s subsequent boycott of the second round of the presidential election, even though he had said several times before then that he would compete, handed a vital lifeline to Mugabe and Zanu PF. Tsvangirai’s decision (whoever advised him to change his mind did him a huge disservice) allowed Mugabe and Zanu PF space to breathe and regroup. It was a serious tactical mistake by Tsvangirai and the MDC.

Against a background of political and social upheaval, with inflation breaking all known records, a group of Africa’s ‘wise men’ persuaded the two MDC formations and Zanu PF to form the inclusive government, which was inaugurated in February 2009. The pact that established the inclusive government, called the Global Political Agreement (GPA), gave the day-to-day running of the government to Tsvangirai and the MDC. Though Mugabe remained as president, now the onus was on Tsvangirai, who became prime minister, and the MDC to prove that they had the ability to run a government and turn around the country’s fortunes.

Weeks before the coalition government came into being, the Zanu PF acting finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, introduced the use of a basket of three currencies (the US dollar, South African rand and Botswana pula) as the medium of exchange in Zimbabwe. This meant that the inflation-battered Zimbabwe dollar had to die a natural death. Today, the US dollar has become the main medium of exchange, its introduction bringing the country’s multi-trillion percent inflation rate down to a single digit almost overnight.

Now, life has returned to almost normal in Zimbabwe – the shops are full, car sales outlets are bristling with the latest models, and businesses are gradually returning to their former vibrant selves. However, unemployment is still very high, and even those in employment are generally on low wages. Life for most ordinary Zimbabweans is hard. The hope is that the elections will usher in a new phase of international confidence in the country, attract fresh investment and allow Zimbabwe to begin its economic and social recovery.

About the author:

Baffour Ankomah is Editor of the London-based New African magazine


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