Wednesday, November 5, 2008

October Themes: Zimbabwe in Turmoil

Civil society in Zimbabwe has been in chaos since the run-up to the elections earlier this year. Despite widespread abuses, ballot box-stuffing, forcible intimidation of likely voters, and outright violence on the part of some cadres of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC for the first time won the popular vote. Unfortunately, his margin of victory was not large enough to prevent a run-off election, from which, after thousands of MDC supporters were brutalized and Tsvangirai himself was arrested several times, he withdrew to prevent further harm to his supporters. Mugabe won the run-off, unsurprisingly, but the MDC retained the parliamentary majority it had won in the first round of elections, leading to a standoff.

On September 15, a vague and nebulous power-sharing agreement was brokered between the MDC and Zanu-PF. Deadlock over this agreement had dominated the news for the past month, as the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates.

Cabinet posts

The controversy has centered around the allocation of ministerial positions. Under the agreement, the MDC would control the right to 13 seats on the cabinet directly, with three reserved for an MDC splinter faction led by Arthur Mutambara. Mugabe is alloted 15 of the 31 ministerial positions by the text of the agreement, but he has unilaterally claimed every substantial ministry, including the home office (which controls the police), justice, and finance. As a result, the MDC have broken off talks several times, saying, "We will end up in but out of government."

Several times the MDC has broken off talks, after the two parties were “worlds apart” on the allocation of ministries. After one of these incidents, Tsvangirai gave this hopeful speech.

Most sensible draft power-sharing proposals that have been made public have allocated the key ministries between the two parties. In one, the MDC would receive finance and the home office, and Zanu-PF would retain defense. But proposals have been vexed by allegations that various parties have misrepresented their terms, and anyway have faced a more serious problem.

The military and the police

The police are the greatest barrier to the power-sharing agreement. If the MDC were to achieve control of either the home office or the justice ministry, it would be able to prosecute police officers for past atrocities, including the systematic beating, intimidation, and murder of the MDC’s civilian supporters. Naturally, the police are against this.

Similarly, military hardliners who have supported Mugabe for all these years fear retribution for their past crimes. The military organized the pre-runoff violence, and fears over the repercussions of their brutality have led the generals to petition Mugabe to ensure their safety. Some generals have called for Mugabe to form a government without the MDC and have threatened Tsvangirai’s safety. One general said that only one option remained for the country with Tsvangirai: “Take action.”

Thabo Mbeki and the SADC

Thabo Mbeki, pushed out of office in his native South Afirca, has been appointed to lead the South African Development Community’s attempts to negotiate a successful end to the power-sharing agreement. In a characteristically helpful moves, he closed the borders of South Africa to Zimbabwean refugees on September 28/29, reasoning that since he had stepped in to negotiate, there was no longer a situation in Zimbabwe that necessitated the extension of the right to asylum.

Mbeki has been widely accused of partiality in the negotiations, as he has historically favored Mugabe's government. Apparently, one of the first proposals he put forth after he joined talks was substantively identical to Mugabe’s unilateral self-allocation of the proposals. As a result, the MDC has called for the UN and African Union to intervene if the SADC and Mbeki continue to fail to resolve the situation.

The passport fiasco

Under international pressure to do something, the SADC called a regional summit in Swaziland -- and Mugabe's government denied Morgan Tsvangirai the passport he would have needed to travel through South Africa to the summit. The talks have since been rescheduled, but this show of utter contempt on Mugabe's part has begun to stimulate international diapproval. Ian Khama of Botswana, a long-time opponent of Mugabe's, has broken with the SADC and denounced Mugabe’s actions, calling for new elections in Zimbabwe. The MDC has said it will call for new elections if the talks fail to proceed.

Kgalema Molanthe, the new president of South Africa, asked the MDC not to boycott the talks after they were rescheduled. The MDC entered preliminary talks in Harare vowing to take a hard line and demand a fair division of power. The SADC claimed a certain measure of progress in the negotiations, but the MDC denounced these statements as misleading propaganda. Mbeki’s participation is now being recognized on all sides as a failure; and the farce has reached the heights of banning journalists from covering the talks for fear they would be destabilized.

After the failure of these early talks to resolve outstanding issues, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon publicly slammed Mugabe, accusing him of insincerity and the SADC of weakness and incompetence. This was another important public salvo in the anti-Mugabe fight. Tsvangirai has consented to attending the full summit of the SADC on Sunday for more talks.

The people starve

At the time of the elections the populace was on the brink of famine. According to Tsvangirai, food agencies were already feeding 4 million people, with the number set to rise to 5.5 million by early 2009. In the beginning of the month the UN World Food Program was calling for $140mn in extra funding to deal with the unfolding crisis, even with the Red Cross and other agencies intensifying their efforts to deliver food.

This article presented the real plight of a Zimbabwean farmer trying to plant his fields in the midst of the troubles. The systematic destruction of farmland undertaken by Mugabe in the early part of the decade, combined with the reallocation of farmland from white farmers to inexperienced black farmers to get votes -- not to mention the kleptocratic consolidation of large new estates owned by members of government-- had already eliminated any surplus capacity in this fertile country. The people of lush Zimbabwe now depend on food aid and remittances from abroad for basic subsistence. And the Zanu-PF apparatus is tightening its noose: the military has taken control of the distribution of basic agricultural inputs, like seed.

The deadlock over government has dovetailed with the unfolding fiscal catastrophe to make famine a reality. On Monday we suggested Zimbabwe's experience this decade would likely replace Weimar Germany as the new locus classicus for studies of hyperinflation. Paper currency is worthless; aid agencies find their available foreign exchange reserves confiscated (perhaps stolen is a better term) for government uses and corruption, instead of being spent on feeding Zimbabweans.

Zimbabweans are limited in the amount of cash they can withdraw from banks in a given week, but with inflation running at hundreds of billions of percent per annum, this amount is constantly revised upwards. Just before each increase in the withdrawal limit, poor families find themselves unable to eat, to send their children to schools, or to clothe themselves. The education system, once sub-Saharan Africa’s finest, has fallen to pieces. Cholera has broken out in Harare. Illegal mining is poisoning the country's rivers. Ordinary people are relying on wild foods to support themselves. Children are hit the hardest.

The cash withdrawal limit for enterprises is lower still than that for individuals; as a result, companies can neither maintain their operations nor meet payroll, let alone finance any import or export of goods. As a result, unemployment is running at a conservatively estimated 80%. But in this kind of situation the notions of unemployment and money themselves start to break down.


The most hopeful part of the process is the burgeoning realization throughout the international community that, one way or another, Mugabe’s days are numbered. The SADC is beginning to stand up for itself, with Mbeki out of power in South Africa. Individual nations like Botswana have denounced the dictator, and the UN may finally move toward intervention. Even if Mugabe retains power after this drama, we are seeing the beginning of the end of his reign. The only question is how much longer the innocent people of Zimbabwe will be made to suffer for an old man's power-mad ravings.

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