Negotiated Settlement the Only Solution to Political Crisis

A Zimbabwean newspaper vendor reads a state-owned paper headlined "Cholera hits city suburbs," on Jan. 31 in Harare. Cholera has infected at least 10 people in two suburbs of Zimbabwe's capital following a breakdown in municipal services. (Photo: Desmond Kwande / AFP-Getty Images)

It has been ten years now since the geopolitical situation in Zimbabwe started to deteriorate in significant terms. The issue of when the crisis started is a matter for historians, but the overwhelming public consensus is that life in Zimbabwe is increasingly becoming insurmountable for the common man and woman, to say the least.

Nineteen eighty-seven saw the establishment of an executive presidency which made Mugabe one of the most powerful political leaders in the world. His office became the most dominant creation of the post-independence constitutional arrangements. Today the president has become stronger and more fearsome, the economy is rapidly getting weaker, and the people of Zimbabwe are becoming more and more destitute.

The political environment has never been as tense and volatile as it is now. The writing is already on the wall — Zimbabwe is now a failed state and it will take strong, charismatic and strategic leadership to initiate any moves meant to resuscitate the socio-economic fabric of this once-prosperous country. This is the time to see who has the country's best interests at heart. It may be an opportune period for a negotiated political settlement to restore confidence in people that at least somebody cares.

In order to understand how a negotiated political settlement can help resolve the political impasse in Zimbabwe, it is important to retrospectively look at the central issues of the Zimbabwean crisis in chronological order:

Following President Mugabe's assumption of the executive presidency in 1987, the ensuing years brought with them a chronicle of problems that were to grip the country for the foreseeable future. The mid-1990's and early 2000's were dominated by an economic crisis characterized by the dismal failure of the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) and World Bank; the introduction of the controversial legislation, and lack of comprehensive support for the land reform program; unbridled, huge government deficits caused by unbudgeted payments to the 1970's war veterans; the unjustified expansion of the government bureaucracy; controversial governmental involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo war; ever-increasing defence expenditures in the absence of war; and economic mismanagement, greed and corruption.

The I.M.F. withdrawal of the crucial Balance of Payments (B.O.P.) support following the government default on loan obligations; imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and E.U.; withdrawal of donor support; increasing "brain drain"; and an increase in HIV/AIDS cases worsened the economic crisis in Zimbabwe. All of the above problems have a major bearing on the critical political and constitutional quagmire.

The formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) in the late 1990's; the rejection of the government-sponsored referendum on a new Constitution in 2000; the seizure of white-owned farms beginning in 2000; and the controversial election results of 2000 and 2002, all created an atmosphere of conflict and perpetual hostility between political actors — principally, the ruling Zanu PF and the M.D.C. This period ushered in a new era of political instability characterized by government crackdowns on its opponents as the state was rapidly militarizing. The conflict has been mostly violent, resulting in the deaths of civilians and numerous accusations of human rights abuses on both sides of the political divide. Zanu PF, as the ruling party, has been widely accused of abetting these abuses, as well as creating a "siege mentality" and fear among the majority of Zimbabweans.

The Zanu PF government has also been accused by its critics of taking extreme measures in its attempts to consolidate grip on power and obliterate any dissenting voices. These measures include the passing of draconian media laws as well as legislation that restricts the freedom of expression, movement and association. While the Constitution of Zimbabwe protects the right to freedom of speech in Zimbabwe, it has still become criminalized, as everyone in and from Zimbabwe knows that there is no freedom after speech.

In 2005, the government embarked on the unpopular Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) — ostensibly to rid urban areas of illegal structures, illegal business enterprises and criminal activities — that adversely affected about 300,000 persons (according to the International Organization for Migration — I.O.M.). The operation and its aftermath epitomized the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe and widened the rift between the government and the opposition M.D.C. supporters.

While the government has repeatedly stressed that the political conflict in the country is an internal matter for Zimbabweans alone to resolve, the instability, violence and disregard of human rights in some cases continues to raise eyebrows around the world. It appears that the political and socio-economic instability within Zimbabwe serves to divert government attention from other critically important issues that the country faces today — mass starvation, hyperinflation, economic malaise, unemployment and HIV/AIDS, inter alia.

In view of the above, there are compelling reasons why there is an urgent need for new initiatives for a negotiated political settlement to stop the rapidly deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Zimbabwe. Previous efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table failed, and repeated attempts by African leaders — Presidents Mbeki of South Africa and Obasanjo of Nigeria — to renew peace efforts also failed due to alleged intransigency and lack of interest by the Harare administration. There is a general consensus amongst Zimbabweans that the country is in a state of crisis but no agreement as to how to extricate the people from an increasingly grim situation. Zanu PF, the M.D.C. and other stakeholders acknowledge that the situation as it currently stands is dire and unsustainable, but cannot agree on how to resolve it.

Defining the nature of the crisis in Zimbabwe requires input from intellectuals, against the background of propagandistic views by the establishment as to who is really responsible for causing the current crisis. Real intellectuals, not the "professors of doom and gloom," usually help in providing a diagnosis of the economy, state, politics, policies and strategies. Their role has never been as important as it is now. These intellectuals, who include university lecturers, professors, researchers and heads of institutions, have played, and continue to play, a pivotal role in helping to identify problems, proposing strategies and solutions.

However, in some individual's cases, their contributions have become very cynical and suspicious in the eyes of the people, especially when they become politicized and partisan in their views. A number of intellectuals have either been neutralized or compromised because of their involvement in partisan party politics. In essence, the work of intellectuals is based on the norm of "value neutrality." It is then up to the major players to accept their advice or not.

The following are some of the proposals that have been made by the various intellectuals, analysts and some opposition thinkers in Zimbabwe over the years:

First: a negotiated transition of power within Zanu PF, with or without the approval of President Mugabe.

This view is also shared by the U.S. Institute of Peace. But how viable is a transition process without Mugabe's blessing? The current boardroom politics in Zanu PF today is such that a compromise on Mugabe's succession is a distant reality especially when the party has resolved to extend his term of office to 2010. Transition of power within the Zanu PF caucus can only happen if and when Mugabe sanctions it. The nation therefore should not bank on any immediate hopes of a Zanu PF transition of power. Ironically, there is allegedly a lot of lobbying, and a gladiatorial war of succession between the major power contenders in Zanu PF. It is unfortunate that the reformists in Zanu PF are outnumbered by "hardliners" and "yes men" who cannot challenge anything from the presidium.

Second: mediation between Zanu PF on one hand, and the M.D.C. factions supported by other political stakeholders such as the National Constitutional Assembly (N.C.A.), civil and human rights organizations and labor, on the other.

Mediation can be facilitated by neutral and respected national organizations such as churches or NGOs. The question is who among the church leaders in Zimbabwe is credible and not partisan. Retired judges may be preferable as long as they have the confidence of the two parties. International institutions such as the U.N., S.A.D.C. or even the Rome-based Catholic lay organization of Saint Egidio that was instrumental in negotiating peace between the Frelimo and Renamo political parties in Mozambique, are acceptable.

For the record, the Catholic order has the respect of President Mugabe as well as Western governments including the U.S., U.K., and member states of the E.U. Mediation by African leaders alone, especially those who have failed before, is insufficient without the backing of major foreign powers with huge influence on both Zanu PF and the M.D.C. Synchronized peace efforts from U.S., Russia, U.K., France and China may hold the strongest prospects for breaking the deadlock between the M.D.C. and Zanu PF, leading to non-violent political change through mediation efforts.

Third: direct talks between Zanu PF and M.D.C. factions.

It is important to state that while the balance of power in Zimbabwe appears to be shifting away from Zanu PF, it has not shifted sufficiently enough for significant changes to occur. Zanu PF still has the ability to capitalize on historical grievances, and its liberation credentials make Zimbabweans — particularly in the countryside — feel indebted to such a degree that any change without Zanu PF influence may not be conceivable.

Unfortunately, the opposition M.D.C. is not in its strongest state due to their fractious nature following their unfortunate split in 2005. Any attempts by the opposition to put their house in order and forge some kind of unity will increase their bargaining power. The dichotomous character of the M.D.C. presents serious challenges in terms of their relevance and effectiveness in any serious negations for a political settlement in future. As long as they remain divided Zanu PF will always call the shots, perhaps until 2010.

Only political will and a deep sense patriotism in the face of a collapsing nation is required to overcome the immense socio-economic difficulties facing Zimbabwe today. The conditions for direct talks are there; Zanu PF and the M.D.C. have engaged before, albeit at a low level, so l do not see any reason why they should not do so again given the current high stakes.

It is an acknowledged fact that Zanu PF's senior members including President Mugabe, Joseph Msika and John Nkomo are experienced negotiators, having participated in the contentious Lancaster House Talks in 1979 and the Unity Talks with PF Zanu, which concluded in 1987. By the same token the opposition led by Morgan Tsvangirai, Thokozane Kuphe, Tendai Biti, Arthur Mutambara, Welshman Ncube, Priscilla Misihairambwi and Gibson Sibanda are also experienced and credible negotiators by any standards.

However, the major stumbling blocks could be Zanu PF's insistence that the M.D.C. drop court petitions for the 2002 and 2005 elections over a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Zanu PF government in the aftermath of an election that was allegedly marred by voting irregularities. Ostensibly there should not be any preconditions for direct inter-party talks.

In spite of the aforementioned, direct talks between Zanu PF and the M.D.C. offer the greatest hope and should focus on the following issues:

  • Drafting a new democratic, Constitution for Zimbabwe

  • No change of date for the 2008 presidential elections

  • Cessation of violence and harassment of opposition leaders and activists

  • Universal application of the rule of law

  • Depoliticization of the military and its former charges

  • Setting up of an independent human rights commission to investigate all alleged rights abuses

  • Immediate halting of fresh farm invasions and persecution of white farmers

  • An independent land audit aimed at bringing closure to the land reform process

  • Immediate abrogation of draconian legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA)

  • A major shake up of the economic, monetary and fiscal policy, including perhaps the appointment of a new, more technically-informed and focused Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) governor

  • Appointment of a new Registrar General

  • A bipartisan approach aimed at restoring relations with the international community including multilateral finance institutions such as the I.M.F. and World Bank

  • Setting up a transitional governing authority with the mandate to organize fresh democratic elections in 13 months, supervised by international observers

  • President Mugabe's retirement conditions, including his financial package

Both Zanu PF and the M.D.C. can set up their negotiating committees and timetables of how and when to achieve set objectives. Ideally, should the parties agree to engage, their talks should be concluded before the 2008 presidential elections.

On a related development, it is amusing that M.D.C. faction leaders Tsvangirai and Mutambara recently made progressive statements on the current crisis in Zimbabwe and the possibility of inter-party talks. Tsvangirai stated that he was willing to engage Zanu PF moderates in an attempt to presumably initiate a negotiated settlement. Similarly, Mutambara seemed to suggest that the current crisis was beyond the power and influence of the official opposition alone, meaning that it will take the efforts of all stakeholders to bring about positive change.

In short, both leaders have admitted that they are ready to negotiate with anyone with Zimbabwe's best interests at heart. The readiness of the opposition constituency and its leaders for a negotiated political settlement should be treated as a vote of confidence in their constitutional role to engage government on matters of national interest.

In conclusion, I wish to state that the above strategies should be considered seriously by all to resolve Zimbabwe's mounting socio-economic and political problems. The country cannot afford continued isolationism and further impoverishment in a society with the highest literacy rate in Africa (90.7 percent). Elections have come and gone without bringing any change, while the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans continue to deteriorate. Mass demonstrations including "final pushes" have come and gone and still things are not getting better.

It appears there is no other civilized way of bringing political and economic stability in Zimbabwe except through a negotiated political settlement. This option might seem inconceivable today but history has taught us that dialogue is the main strategy for a sustainable resolve to any conflict situation no matter how insurmountable. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to compromise one's values and principles in order to succeed in politics. Intransigency and violence have never paid any dividends and should never be tolerated. Perhaps Zimbabwe can learn a lesson or two from the Codesa process in South Africa which brought them democracy after several painful years of violence and intransigency.

Crisford Chogugudza is a London-based political commentator.