Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Looking for Signs of Change in Zimbabwe

Is political change imminent, and if so are opposition groups up to the task of making it happen?
By IWPR Srdan
As Zimbabweans struggle to survive in a country with the highest inflation rate in the world, high unemployment and chronic food shortages, there is no clear solution in sight to the ever-deepening political and economic crisis.

For the past six years, most Zimbabweans have assumed that something would happen to rein in their country's precipitous decline. Instead, they have watched as everything gets worse and President Robert Mugabe's regime entrenches itself even deeper.

Each successive election since 2000 has given rise to hopes of political change and economic revival, but Mugabe has dashed these hopes by using the machinery of state to manipulate election results in favour of himself and his ruling ZANU-PF party.

The economic decline has seen inflation soar to an annual rate of nearly 1,200 per cent at the latest count, far higher than the next worst performer, Iraq, with 40 per cent inflation. Gross domestic product, employment levels and real wages have plummeted.

The situation has led United States ambassador Christopher Dell to assert that both economically and politically, the country "has already passed the point of no return".

Despite the economic hardships suffered by all except the ruling elite and their associates, opposition politicians and political observers believe the fundamental problem is not economic, but political - and can only be solved if there is a sea-change in political thinking.

Many analysts and observers, both local and international, have prophesised the collapse of government and the end of Mugabe's rule by the end of this year. Others, including some senior opposition politicians, say that change is not as imminent as this, but that there could be a major shift following the next presidential election.

The vote will take place in either 2008 or 2010, depending on a government plan to amend the constitution to allow Mugabe to rule beyond 2008, when the current rules say the election should take place.

A recent report published in Harvard University’s Africa Policy Journal, and entitled "After Mugabe: Applying post conflict recovery lessons to Zimbabwe", warned that Zimbabwe was in a perilous state of decline and the transition could come at any time.

A briefing paper on "Zimbabwe's Continued Self-Destruction”, issued in June by the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, ICG, asserted that the end of the Mugabe presidency looms, as the government was "increasingly desperate and dangerous" and had no clear plan for resolving the country's multiple crises. ICG said Zimbabwe was hurtling towards the status of a failed state amid chaos and lack of security.

This view is shared by John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, who told IWPR he strongly believed that Mugabe could not last beyond the end of the year. No feasible solution to the crisis was apparent from either international or local players, but he said, "I believe something is bound to give”.

He explained, “This could be through civil strife. Without protests, Mugabe will not agree to go to the negotiating table, and it is only when he thinks an overthrow is imminent that he will agree to talk. I don't see this stalemate continuing beyond December. I don't see the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] on the verge of pushing for protests - but there will be a spontaneous uprising."

However, others, including senior figures in the two rival factions of the opposition MDC, said it was more likely that Mugabe would serve until at least 2008.

Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai, said that although government was paralysed and public services were collapsing, anyone who predicted an early end to Mugabe's rule was over-optimistic and unaware of the dynamics of Zimbabwean politics.

"People making those predictions don't know Zimbabwe, they don't understand the Zimbabwean situation," he said. "Mugabe has no intention of relinquishing power. He has power in his veins…. He will never give it up. He will not leave office.”

Biti said the presidential election was most likely to take place in 2010 given the planned constitutional amendment. He said as power struggles for the succession strengthen inside ZANU PF, those opposed to Vice President Joice Mujuru ascending to become head of state and government would push for Mugabe to remain in power until 2010 to give them more time to market themselves.

Biti said the mass protests which the Tsvangirai faction of the MDC is planning are intended not to remove Mugabe from power but to force him to the negotiating table to discuss an overhaul of the constitution that would guarantee free and fair elections.

The Tsvangirai faction promised in April to launch mass anti-government street protests - the biggest in the 26 years since Zimbabwe became independent - before the end of July. Tsvangirai said he would lead from the front, and added, "I am prepared to die in order to liberate the people of Zimbabwe from ZANU-PF's misrule."

Mugabe responded by warning Tsvangirai he would be "dicing with death" if he tried to take power through public protests. "If a person wants to invite his own death, let him go ahead… If you want an excuse for being killed, be my guest and go into the streets and demonstrate," said the president.

Tsvangirai and his MDC allies have since modified their position and now argue that demonstrations, for which no date has been announced and for which no obvious mobilisation efforts have begun, are now aimed only at pressuring the authorities into discussing constitutional change. Tsvangirai has not repeated his pledge that he would be being willing to die to end ZANU-PF rule.

David Coltart, a member of parliament the other MDC faction, agrees that change will not be immediate, and he cast doubt on the planned demonstrations, saying the situation lacked "the pressure cooker build-up" that was needed to make them happen.

"There is not enough tension in the country because of the safety valves provided by the diasporans. There are million of Zimbabweans in the diaspora who are [remitting money home and] enabling many families to survive," he said.

Joseph Kurebwa, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, said he did not foresee any eruption of anti-government protests even though many of the conditions were ripe, with the political situation in flux and public anger bubbling beneath the surface

Like Coltart, Kurebwa thinks the public are not ready to take to the streets despite the dire economic situation.

"People have adapted, which is a natural phenomenon. When it gets harder, people adjust,” he said. “I would be surprised if people marched onto the streets. We have to understand the political culture, and the older generation has gone through a lot of hardships in the past and this will influence the course of events. The political situation is unlikely to change any time soon."

Kurebwa said the modified position now adopted by the Tsvangirai-led MDC probably made sense, "The election route remains the only way forward. The only way forward is if the nation was to work towards the constitutional route."

However, others argue that the MDC has failed to display the unity and strength of purpose that would galvanise support for an effective anti-Mugabe front.

Makumbe said the opposition movement had missed many golden opportunities to mount protests and put pressure on the government. The two MDC factions appear more intent on publicly abusing each other than on putting forward constructive ideas to lead the country out of crisis, he said.

In a recent paper presented at a major security conference in Pretoria, Tony Hawkins, a veteran correspondent of London's Financial Times and professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of Zimbabwe, said he believed Tsvangirai and the MDC had "no willingness to lead, let alone follow, a campaign of protest".

Coltart, of the anti-Tsvangarai MDC faction, said change in Zimbabwe would not be brought about by any single force, but instead would come from a combination of the opposition, some members of ZANU-PF, civil society groups and the international community.

"Mugabe is a very hard man to soften up, and he is shrewd. Mugabe doesn't want to yield power - he has a lot more to lose by yielding power," said Coltart.

All those interviewed by IWPR agreed that United Secretary General Kofi Annan's mooted visit to Zimbabwe to attempt to broker an end to the national crisis was unlikely to yield positive results. Annan, who has yet to announce the date of the visit, would not be able to force Mugabe to the negotiating table, they said.

"Annan is a non-starter," said Makumbe. "He has no power, no teeth, no armed forces at his command and no capacity. He must go home and retire in peace. Yet the contradiction is that Kofi needs Zimbabwe as his last notch of achievement [before he retires at the end of 2006] - but in order to do so he needs the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the African Union."

Kureba agreed, saying, "I don't see Annan influencing or forcing Mugabe to the negotiating table. Why would he [Mugabe]? There is no direct threat to his rule that would make him want to surrender his power. I don't see those initiatives working."

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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