The owl has no horns, but Zimbabweans should tread carefully…

''The shift has come about not out of a newfound love for democracy within the ZDF, but as a result of Mr. Mugabe shifting his support from the war veterans – and by extension the ZDF...''

Understanding the political transition in Zimbabwe

If the prospect of Zimbabwe sliding into further authoritarian rule frightens you, then it is worth spending time trying to understand how it might be avoided. A Kenyan colleague recently remarked how much she feels a part of the extraordinary developments in Zimbabwe. She is not alone. Following the seizure of power by the Military in Zimbabwe, there is a general sense of achievement, euphoria and renewed hope amongst Zimbabweans. However, our prevailing vision of democratic transition – and the politics intended to deliver it – are at odds with what is happening in Zimbabwe and the road ahead is littered with land mines and fog.

At the core of the uncertainty over Zimbabwe’s future is the manner in which the transition has come about and is unfolding. The Generals have staged what looks like a ‘coup d’état,’ although they are claiming that they have not seized political power. They have placed President Mugabe under house arrest and, with that, driven the country into unfamiliar territory. While many are happy to see Mr. Mugabe go, the transition has brought into question our commitment to democratic practice.

To be clear, Zimbabwe is still on a dangerous precipice. President Robert Mugabe is reportedly still asserting his ‘right and legitimacy’ to power, putting to the test the Generals’ plans, although what these plans may be has yet to become clear. What is clear is that loyalties have shifted dramatically, resulting in recent events. The powerful liberation ‘War Veterans Movement,’ which has for long been a power within the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), as well as Mr. Mugabe’s ardent enforcer and last line of defence, has shifted allegiance.

The shift has come about not out of a newfound love for democracy within the ZDF, but as a result of Mr. Mugabe shifting his support from the war veterans – and by extension the ZDF – to an alternative faction from within ZANU PF, the ruling party, which is under the nominal leadership of his wife. Thus the Generals move can be interpreted as a last ditch effort to revive their own faction’s leadership within ZANU PF, along with the economic interests this represents, rather than an effort to restore democracy. 

Heads of State within the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a powerful economic and political grouping, have not offered a clear position on the situation. Meanwhile, the Generals are enjoying growing support amongst ordinary citizens and increasingly around the world, the motives for their actions notwithstanding.

It is easy to understand why the Generals’ actions have galvanised national and international support. First, Mr. Mugabe has come to personify the worst excesses of power and corruption. His disdain for fellow Zimbabweans; contempt for basic human rights; inept leadership and seeming attempts to ensure that succession established a Mugabe ruling dynasty, have paved the way for a humiliating fall from grace.

Second, Zimbabweans are standing up for their future. Unlike other jurisdictions where the international community has intervened, the Generals have taken issues into their own hands. So far that process seems to be enjoying strong support, lending it some legitimacy in the process.

Third, the planning and execution has so far been supremely proficient. The Generals have seemingly conducted themselves in a calm, compassionate and clear manner. The public messaging has been effective, portraying the intervention as an attempt to instil discipline and bring to justice ‘criminals surrounding the President.’ For now, at least, that messaging appears to be working. And Harare, the Capital of Zimbabwe, is remarkably business-as-usual.

Finally, the Generals have demonstrated that getting rid of Mr. Mugabe and the elements of tyranny within ZANU PF with which he is aligned is possible. They have, as the Shona tribe would say, exposed that ‘the owl has no horns!’

No doubt, the prospect of change in Zimbabwe is beguiling and the euphoria has consumed many. However, the deal is not yet done and everything could go pear shaped. Mr. Mugabe is reportedly attempting to assert his authority and refusing to accept transitional arrangements that do not guarantee his hegemony. . But whilst the Generals may well succeed in getting rid of Mr. Mugabe, their intention is not necessarily to get rid of tyranny and authoritarian rule. At this stage, their actions can be interpreted as simply supporting an alternative faction in the ruling party, ZANU PF which guarantees their continued ascendancy and which is led by Mr. Munangagwa, who himself has been accused of being the architect of much of Mr. Mugabe’s tyranny 

And, of course, regional and international governments are conflicted. Even though this change in power has popular support within and beyond Zimbabwe, the actions of the Generals do not represents legitimate manner in which to transfer power within a democracy. Even assuming the Generals do intend, and are successful at creating a thriving democracy once again, the censure of a ‘coup' by other governments and the lack of support for a transition that this will lead to, will further complicate transition efforts.

So what to do?

Looking ahead, the time is right for all Zimbabweans and the International Community to raise their voices in support of a transition process that embraces and strengthens democratic practice and democratic institutions in Zimbabwe. Achieving this depends on how, and if, the Generals move towards that goal. The idea of a transitional authority is a good one. But if this transitional authority is to be legitimate, it must embrace the opposition and assume the form of a Coalition Government, with a tightly defined mandate and longevity.

This mandate should prioritize: (i) stabilising the economy (ii) defining, agreeing and implementing a political process which can guarantee free and fair elections and (iii) begin the process of strengthening the now severely weakened State and Civil Institutions that will guarantee all aspects of governance in the future of Zimbabwe.

Not only is this what Zimbabwe needs but also this is the only option open to the Generals if they wish to maintain popular support and legitimacy. History will judge the Generals not by their actions up to this date but by what comes next. Whatever their motives for initiating what under ‘normal circumstances’ in a democratic state would be considered an illegitimate and unpopular ‘coup’ denounced by all, their actions have instead been received with support and enthusiasm from the majority of Zimbabweans up to this point. 

But it is what happens next that will determine how long this support lays and how the Generals actions will be remembered. Now is the time for Zimbabweans and the international community to use whatever means they have at their disposal to ensure the Generals put their short term interests aside and Bring the future of the country to the fore. Most Zimbabweans like history to remember them favourably. The Generals are no exception.

The people’s will has a greater chance of prevailing this time. My late friend and economics mentor Dr. Ivan Bond once said to me ‘Nothing ever stays the same. Even in Zimbabwe, things will change.’ He would have celebrated the unfolding events but waiting with trepidation to see where it will lead. As is my Kenyan friend.

#GeneralsDoTheRightThing

Maxwell Gomera