PRESIDENT ROBERT Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe is 87, very frail and often visibly tired, and possibly at the end of his 31-year despotic reign. He is rumoured to have advanced prostate cancer and has visited Singapore at least five times since early March for medical treatment, possibly for cancer. Zimbabweans of all backgrounds, especially the politicians inside the dominant Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) sense a coming transition.
There are three likely scenarios. First, Mugabe could shortly call a national election to re-appoint himself as president and ZANU-PF as Zimbabwe’s leading party in parliament. He would do so because his party cannot win a national election without him and because he may soon be too ill to campaign properly. This last hurrah scenario would in theory enable Mugabe to revive ZANU’s flagging fortunes and create a plausible transfer of power to ZANU successors who could be trusted to protect Mugabe’s legacy and his family’s vast wealth.
This first scenario is problematic, however, because the MDC, backed by the South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has pledged to permit no Zimbabwean elections before a currently-debated constitution is fully negotiated between ZANU and the MDC and before the result is approved by voters in a referendum. Nor should there be any election until the admittedly out-of-date voters’ roll is revised from scratch. The MDC also demands that the Zimbabwe Election Commission be reformed, with authentic leadership that is not subservient to Mugabe.
If Mugabe calls a 2011 election before all of these criteria are met, how will South Africa and SADC react? Before a critical confrontation in Zambia in April, few observers thought that South Africa and SADC would respond at all. But in Zambia, for the first time, Mugabe was sternly warned to behave, to cease intimidating voters, and to move forward with a South African-brokered roadmap.
The roadmap has been in the process of being negotiated for a year. It sets out the way in which any election in Zimbabwe will be conducted, including provisions for a proportional representational method to be substituted for or added to the existing first-past-the-post electoral procedures. It also details how a new voters’ roll will be constructed. (The current one contains many who are long dead and thousands of 101-year-olds, many of whom were supposedly born on the same day.)
The roadmap further calls for a new, impartial, election commission, the end of state control of the broadcast media and the licensing of new on-air and television stations, an audit of all of the land taken since 2000 from commercial farmers and now controlled by ZANU operatives, and an audit of the country’s new diamond digging projects and its diamond millionaires. Most of all, it demands that the massive rural mayhem currently being perpetrated by legions of ZANU loyalists led by the army cease, and that the leading generals and police officials be deprived of their power and authority.
Although much of the roadmap has already been agreed between the MDC and ZANU, crucial provisions relating to the generals are still to be negotiated. If South Africa pushes hard, the roadmap will be completed and Zimbabwe will be able to move forward toward a stable transition. Without such a push, however, Zimbabwe’s future will remain in serious jeopardy and doubt.
The response of South Africa and SADC is also critical if Mugabe dies suddenly, triggering the second scenario. A cabal of generals led by the chief of the defence force, Gen Augustine Chiwenga, and Minister of Defense Emmerson Mnangagwa could take over, declaring themselves Mugabe’s rightful successors, despite constitutional provisions to the contrary. No one is sure what South Africa would then do.
Thirdly, if Mugabe dies with time left in his presidency, constitutionally parliament is supposed to elect his successor from among ZANU contenders (under the Global Political Agreement of 2009). Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC would continue in that role under the GPA, but a new president would be selected within 90 days of Mugabe’s death. During that interregnum, the current chief vice-president, Joice Mujuru, would become president (and a candidate to succeed Mugabe).
Two things could happen when the two houses of parliament meet jointly to elect Mugabe’s successor. First, Chiwenga and Mnangagwa could deploy troops around parliament and demand their own election. Once again, if force was used, what would South Africa do?
Alternatively, the parliamentary electoral college could cement a presently emerging alliance between Mujuru and Tsvangirai, with the MDC and “moderate” ZANU elements electing Mujuru for the remaining months or years of Mugabe’s presidential term. Tsvangirai, so the plan goes, would then exercise his rightful executive authority under the GPA. This supposed concord between Mujuru and the MDC is based on the belief that Mujuru, through her husband Gen Solomon Mujuru, a leader of the country’s independence struggle, commands the loyalty of large numbers of soldiers and generals. That loyalty is believed sufficient to overcome the Chiwenga/Mnangagwa cabal.
But in order to ensure such a peaceful post-Mugabe constitutional succession, everything hinges on South Africa (and SADC’s) willingness to oppose a soft or hard coup by Chiwenga et al. South Africa could close Zimbabwe’s borders, shut off its power supply, declare any coup makers outlaws and go to the UN Security Council to request intervention, as in Cote d’Ivoire. Then, presumably, outsiders would oust the illicit successors of Mugabe, as designated by the forces of world order.
But would they? Neither President Jacob Zuma of South Africa nor Thabo Mbeki, his presidential predecessor, have shown much spine in opposing Mugabe. However, neither Chiwenga nor Mnangagwa possess Mugabe’s liberationist credentials or his “legitimacy” as a first president. Nor do they have particular ties to South Africa or the SADC. Recently, too, South Africa and SADC appear to have begun to appreciate Tsvangirai’s undoubted popularity within Zimbabwe. He and the MDC have won a number of elections since 1999 only to be thwarted, over and over, by ZANU-perpetrated voter intimidation and widespread fraud. South Africa and its neighborhood also seem to have learned from Libya and North Africa. Despotism does not pay, and harbouring despots (such as Mugabe) is a recipe for disaster among neighbours. After denying voter choice and cosseting Mugabe the dictator, Zimbabwe’s neighbors in their own self-interest have decided to plump for legitimacy and democracy. At least that appears to be the message of the North African Spring translated into the “Southern African Autumn”.
When Mugabe calls an illegal election this year, or when he dies and the generals try to take over, these positive messages and Zuma’s resolve will be put to the test. War or peace in Zimbabwe, and continued violence or a stable succession, will be the result.
Published in Think Africa Press on June 2nd, 2011