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

Zimbabwe Talks: Compromise but no Solution?

Critics fear talks will hand the opposition a slice of power without achieving radical change.
By Mike Nyoni
After the euphoria which accompanied last week’s agreement by Zimbabwe’s parties to discuss a peaceful end to the political crisis, some analysts are warning that the negotiating process may be less productive than is hoped.

Some fear that President Robert Mugabe – re-elected on June 27 in a controversial run-off ballot from which his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out – will try to manipulate the talks process to achieve cosmetic improvements while remaining firmly in control, and suggest the opposition may be complicit in this process.

Others note that the talks agenda contains little new, as much of it has already been agreed in earlier negotiations between ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

The memorandum of understanding, MoU, was signed on July 21 by President Mugabe, MDC leader Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, who heads a minority faction of the MDC, under the watchful eye of the chief mediator, South African president Thabo Mbeki.

The document committed the opposing political forces to a dialogue resulting in “a viable, permanent and sustainable solution” to Zimbabwe’s problems.

After the signing, Tsvangirai declared that failure to find a solution to the crisis was “not an option”.

However, Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-government group which has lobbied for a new constitution, warned that the negotiations currently under way in Pretoria might not amount to much.

The agenda for the talks, and the fact that negotiators were given just two weeks to achieve a deal, suggests to Madhuku that it will be hard to “come up with anything sustainable, let alone permanent”.

Madhuku argues that the MoU gets things wrong from the start since its first item – “the objectives and priorities of a new government” – makes too many assumptions, when in fact the composition of such an interim administration is crucial and likely to be hotly contested.

“The underlying assumption is that a government of national unity already exists, and Mugabe sees himself as head of that government,” said Madhuku. “His task is straightforward – to sort out the economic and political crisis and secure the lifting of sanctions.”

Madhuku believes Mugabe sees himself presiding over the drafting of the new constitution mentioned in the MoU agenda.

“It is impossible to come up with a new constitution in a space of two weeks and any constitution they [the negotiators] come up with which is not subjected to a popular referendum will not be acceptable to the people of Zimbabwe,” he insisted.

The leading historian Professor Terence Ranger argues that there is no basis for negotiations as Mugabe is not amenable to compromise.

“There is nothing to be gained by calling for a government of national unity in Zimbabwe when Mugabe makes it clear that it can only come into existence on his terms,” he wrote in an article for The East African.

One important provision in the MoU comes in section 9, which says that as long as the talks are going on, neither side can make unilateral decisions that have a bearing on the agenda – for example convening parliament or forming a government.

Madhuku believes this was included at the MDC’s insistence, reflecting its “deep fears and anxieties… that Mugabe might proceed to swear in parliament and appoint a new cabinet without it”.

He suspects the MDC is out to secure a share of power for itself, and notes that there is talk of Tsvangirai becoming vice-president.

He warns that while such manoeuvring is “typical of politicians”, the MDC may end up settling for something that falls far short of the comprehensive change people have been hoping for.

“To me this is a sham process designed to defraud the people of Zimbabwe through a fraudulent political settlement,” he said.

Madhuku and a group of other civil society leaders are unhappy that the talks are taking place in such a narrow format, involving only the main political parties, and that they are subject to a media blackout. They have been demanding that the negotiating process be broadened to include non-government groups, women’s organisations, churches and others. On July 15, they issued a demand that any transitional administration should be headed by neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai, but by a neutral figure.

Not everyone is so pessimistic about the process. Eldred Masunungure, who lectures in politics at the University of Zimbabwe, argues that the MoU “layed a solid foundation” for a lasting peace.

He does not see the two-week deadline as a major problem. “Most of the issues in the MoU have already been agreed on during previous talks,” said Masunungure, referring to talks that took place between ZANU-PF and MDC in the months leading up to the March elections.

A senior official in Mutambara’s faction of the MDC, who did not want to be named, said it was immaterial what form the proposed new government took as long as it resolved Zimbabwe’s problems.

“You can call it a government of national unity or a transitional authority,” he said. “What is needed urgently is to get us out of this hole, by whatever means.”

Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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