Even by post-colonial standards, Zimbabwe is a young country. Prior to 1980, the region was known as Southern Rhodesia after the British colonist Cecil Rhodes. Like South Africa, political power was controlled by white supremacist parties, but a gorilla war waged by the African Nation Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) during the 1970s resulted in British brokered elections. Lead by the black revolutionary Robert Mugabe, Zanu PF swept to power, and by combining support among impoverished rural Africans with violent state repression, the party has remained in power ever since. Under Mugabe’s rule, inflation hit 11.2 million percent in 2008, Zimbabwe slid to 154th on the UN’s Human Development Index, and life expectancies plateaued at 40 years of age. In November of last year, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe was removed from office by the military. The initial reaction in Zimbabwe was jubilation, but his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, may not embody the change that Zimbabweans hoped for. In elections that were less violent than 2008, and yet still saw an attempted assassination and the killing of protestors by the army, Mnangagwa won with 50.8% of the vote. Zimbabwe’s opposition; The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has rejected the results as fraudulent. This has provoked a massive crackdown by the security agencies. Whist the MDC’s leading light, Nelson Chamisa, has managed to postpone Mnangagwa’s inauguration until the Constitutional Court has ruled on it, few believe this will break Zanu PF’s sinewy grip on power. What is the likelihood of one-party rule continuing? and what shape can international response be expected to take?
One Man, One Party:
History does not encourage hope for a peaceful transition from one-party rule to real democracy. Mugabe is gone, but Zanu PF was never a one man show, despite its characterization as such in the west. The death of Stalin did not transform the Bolshevik Party into a benign government. Bashir al-Assad was heralded as a moderate when he replaced his dead father as head of the Ba’ath Party in Syria. In both instances and many more, the political apparatus that surrounded these leaders had not been taken hostage by them, but actively participated in their crimes. To claim Mnangagwa was a conscientious-objector throughout the crackdowns, famines and massacres that Zanu PF inflicted whilst he was Mugabe’s right-hand man is absurd.
Mnangagwa is nicknamed ‘The Crocodile’ for a reason
Mnangagwa is nicknamed ‘The Crocodile’ for a reason. He may have avoided the tyrant trap of winning by 99.9%, and claimed to be as “soft as wool”, but his long career at the heart of Zanu PF speaks for itself. Less inducive still to a climate of genuine democratic transition is the fact that Mugabe was not overthrown by a popular revolt, but by the army, who subsequently installed Mnangagwa. Events in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was toppled illustrate how rarely a military takeover results in a period of durable democracy. Even in the peaceful parliamentary elections that preceded the presidential poll, the EU Election Commissioner to Zimbabwe noted that Zanu PF votes were counted first. His observation that he had, “yet to learn why they will be released last”, is a lesson in assiduous acidity.
While not as violent as the 2008 presidential election in which Nelson Chamisa suffered a fractured skull, the army shot and killed six civilians protesting the three-day delay on election results. Ongoing reports suggest killings and disappearances continue in Harare’s suburbs. Following Mnangagwa’s victory, arrest warrants have been issued for eight opposition leaders, belying any claim that the new president represents a meaningful break with the past. Outside of the capital, towns suspected of supporting the opposition have been blockaded by the army. Zanu PF’s litany of massacres is likely letting Mnangagwa employ a highly credible threat of force rather than genuine extreme violence to subdue dissent. The MDC have a history of backing down in the face of such violence, having withdrawn from the second round of the 2008 election to protect their activists. Should it come to outright conflict, Zanu PF are surely confident that the opposition would bulk once more.
The Global Response:
Unfortunately for Zimbabwe’s opposition, Nelson Chamisa is regarded by many as somewhat of a charlatan, having lied about an offer of American aid if the MDC had won the election. There are also broader geopolitical reasons for the MDC to fear a lack of US support. Zimbabwe has been subject to twenty years of American sanctions. However, the Trump administration may be willing to tolerate a similar regime with a less toxic leader. The US is losing out to China all over the world, and Africa is leading this realignment. The US may view the fall of Mugabe as an opportunity to combat this trend, and have condoned far crueler regimes than Zimbabwe’s out of strategic expedience in the past. China has long been Zimbabwe’s primary arms supplier, but some analysts have suggested that the fall of Mugabe could destabilize Sino-Zimbabwe relations.
The US is losing out to China all over the world, and Africa is leading this realignment.
This might present opportunities for the US to exploit at the cost of the MDC. Furthermore, the relatively impoverished nature of Zimbabwe’s neighbor states has always protected the regime. Even on the rare occasions when African governments break with decorum and criticize another African government – as Botswana did in 2008 – no regional power would be able to provide the humanitarian aid necessary to accompany a military intervention. In any case, Zambia’s refusal to offer opposition politician Tendai Biti asylum suggests regional powers are going to align with Mnangagwa. Whilst much of this is conjecture, Zanu PF is a consummate survivor. The chance of revolutionary upheaval is slim, and the regime has a monopoly on deadly force. If the international community proves more tolerant of Mnangagwa than they did of Mugabe, one man and one-party rule could well continue, with only a slight change in personal. The appalling violence that has disfigured Zimbabwe’s brief history is in remission, but to subvert Ernst Fischer’s remarks about Soviet communism, Zimbabwe remains a panzer-democracy.