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

Too Many Cooks Could Spoil Mediation Process

Mediators face dilemma of whether to limit negotiations to the opposing political parties or to widen the debate to include a clamour of different interest groups.
By Norman Chitapi
The Zimbabwe mediation process being steered by the Southern African Development Community is fraught with dangers, analysts warn. Not only are the differences between President Robert Mugabe and his opponents close to irreconcilable, but there is a real possibility that the process could be derailed because there are simply too many voices trying to be heard.

Following the arrest and beating of opposition leaders and supporters on March 11 for trying to attend a banned rally, leaders of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, convened an emergency meeting in Tanzania at which they are reported to have expressed concern to Mugabe about rising state-sponsored violence. The SADC then nominated South African president Thabo Mbeki to take the lead in negotiating a solution to the political confrontation.

Analysts say that whether Mbeki tries to bring all interest groups into the negotiations or confines himself to talking to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, he will encounter difficulties.

“Mbeki might choose to narrow the discussion to accommodate the two main political parties,” said an analyst in the capital Harare. “This was the initial projection. What this means is that if the two parties agree on the minimum conditions for free and fair elections, these could be held as scheduled in March next year,” he said.

The presidential election originally due in 2010 is likely to be brought forward to coincide with next year’s parliamentary ballot.

The two MDC factions have used several meetings with Mbeki to make their position clear. Their demands include an end to violence, access to publicly-owned media for the opposition, the right to hold political rallies, a new constitution, changes to electoral laws, and free and fair elections under international supervision.

Mbeki has reportedly written to Mugabe, although details of their communication have not been made public.

The analyst warned that confining the negotiations to the main political parties would not satisfy all the interest groups lobbying for change in Zimbabwe. He said such a process was likely to create resentment as it would be seen as facilitating political change at the top without addressing fundamental issues that would benefit wider society.

“There are many people who would challenge the legitimacy of a process they saw as hurried for political expediency, rather than a comprehensive process leading to complete political, economic and social transformation,” he said.

The other option is a fully-fledged process in which Mbeki invites submissions from all interested parties. In principle, this approach would be “ideal”, the analyst said, but the danger would be that it would take a lot longer – possibly beyond the point when Mbeki could oversee it.

“This approach is ideal but has two ramifications,” the analyst said. “First, it means that Zimbabweans would have to defer next year’s elections indefinitely while they debate and discuss the transformation they require. But given that Mbeki’s term [as South African president] ends in 2009, he [could be] the wrong man for the task at hand and could… leave the process half-done. There is a serious dilemma here.”

A foreign diplomat in Harare said Zimbabweans themselves must decide which route best serves their interests, although prolonging the process could only make recovery that much harder.

“While Mbeki will need to be tough about what obstacles are placed in his way and keep his eye constantly on the watch, Zimbabweans must decide what they want,” said the diplomat, who did not want to be named.

Mbeki is expected to submit a preliminary report to the SADC on the progress he has made before the end of June. “He will have to report progress or failure. It depends on what Zimbabweans want. This is probably the best opportunity for the country to resolve its dire crisis,” said the diplomat.

But as well as the MDC, opposition-aligned pressure groups are also pressing for their voices to be heard – and their demands are for a different kind of process.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a lobby group that has been calling for a new constitution for years, said recently that civil society groups must be involved in the dialogue. He said politicians were obsessed with political power and not with fundamental transformation, and could not be trusted to negotiate fairly.

His comments suggest that non-government groups which hitherto appeared to speak with one voice with the MDC are now pursuing a different agenda.

In other remarks - this time speaking on behalf of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, SZC, a coalition of some 30 disparate groups ranging from students and labour groups to churches and political parties - Madhuku said the SZC grouping had drawn up a position paper which its members wanted Mbeki to consider before any serious dialogue went ahead.

Another umbrella group, the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, also said it was consulting stakeholders so that it could come up with its own position paper to submit to Mbeki. It said there were many important issues to be discussed - such as corruption, HIV/AIDS and unemployment – that had a directly impact on the lives of ordinary voters, but did not affect politicians.

There is a risk that too many competing agendas could be to the Mugabe administration’s advantage.

“Let’s hope all the people now wanting to get involved in the dialogue know what they are doing,” commented a journalist working for an independent newspaper. “Only recently, people were complaining that Mugabe was afraid to face the electorate. But their demands might just work in ZANU-PF’s favour if they agree to postpone the election. Whether Mugabe is sincere or not about negotiations, he would welcome [a delay] so long as he is not personally accused of stalling the process,” he said.

Mugabe has said he is not interested in a new constitution, since he blames the opposition for the public’s rejection of a revised document that he put to voters in a February 2000 referendum.

The journalist said an all-inclusive process like the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, Codesa, which led to the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa in 1994, could not be achieved in the period remaining until March 2008. But he warned that taking too many shortcuts would only store up bigger problems for the future.

Norman Chitapi is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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