Zimbabwe 2018: ‘new dispensation, new possibilities’?

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Joe Devanny looks ahead at likely political events in Zimbabwe in 2018. The new year has seen a continuation of President Mnangagwa’s international charm offensive, but also a new movement that challenges his legitimacy.


Since his military-assisted rise to the presidency in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa has executed a sustained charm offensive to improve Zimbabwe’s international relations. For example, in a January 2018 op-ed, the UK’s Financial Times called for ‘step by step’ Western re-engagement in Zimbabwe, in which the international community could ‘play a cautiously supportive role’ to help Mnangagwa to become a ‘transformative figure’ by reforming the predatory and authoritarian Mugabe-era system.

That op-ed followed the FT’s lengthy interview with Mnangagwa, which was itself supplemented by Mnangagwa’s television interview with Bloomberg. The culmination of this new year blitz of international publicity was Mnangagwa’s declaration that Zimbabwe was once again ‘open for business,’ during his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

President Mnangagwa’s visit to Davos was the latest peak in the wave of his media and public relations engagements since assuming the presidency during what the FT deftly described as the ‘“non-coup” coup’. (What better way, for example, for the septuagenarian Mr Mnangagwa to signal his relative youthfulness and modernity, than by becoming Zimbabwe’s first presidential user of Twitter?)

For the FT, Mr Mnangagwa might well be deeply ‘compromised’ by his long association with Mr Mugabe, but ‘he deserves a hearing…[and] a clear message that he will be judged by his actions, not his words.’ Certainly, the UK government appears to agree on the need for that hearing. The top official at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Simon McDonald, recently squeezed a visit to Zimbabwe into his busy schedule of foreign travel, tweeting about the ‘new dispensation, new possibilities’ of reintegrating Zimbabwe into the international community and normalising UK-Zimbabwe relations under Mr Mnangagwa.

Sir Simon’s official trip was sandwiched between two UK ministerial visits to Zimbabwe, by Rory Stewart (then the UK Minister for Africa) in November and Stewart’s successor as Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, just last week. After Baldwin’s visit, there were reports that Mnangagwa is considering Zimbabwe’s re-joining the Commonwealth.

This well-choreographed and impressively swift programme of high level UK visits will inevitably raise questions about an opinion voiced prior to Mugabe’s fall, that the UK explicitly favoured a Mnangagwa succession. But the renewed international attention to Zimbabwe is not a solely bilateral UK-Zimbabwe affair. Not to be outdone by the UK, it is reported that the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, may soon visit Zimbabwe. We can only speculate whether the UK will respond to Lavrov’s visit by sending a full Cabinet Minister – Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, or perhaps more reliably the new International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt.

Not too hot, not too cold: getting re-engagement just right

The FT essentially presented Western policy as a Goldilocks challenge: if it re-engages too quickly with Zimbabwe, and its support becomes too hot, then Mr Mnangagwa will assume he can avoid meaningful reforms and make do with the veneer presented to the press and on social media; but too cold a response from the West, and he will have no incentive to turn away from the violence, fraud and abuse of state resources that underpinned and prolonged Mr Mugabe’s long rule. So how to get the balance just right? The hinge of this question will be the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe.

The op-ed stresses that Western re-engagement should be premised on holding Mnangagwa to his word on allowing electoral observation missions from the EU, UN and even the Commonwealth. In his interview with Mnangagwa, the FT’s Alec Russell rightly observed that as important as the plurality of different national and multinational missions accredited to observe the elections is the length of time these missions are in country prior to election day. One might also add a further rider, that the missions’ resources and freedom of action once in country will also be crucial.

An independent electoral commission, a clean electoral roll, and diaspora voting rights were also listed by the FT, seemingly as necessary prerequisites for Western re-engagement (or the continuation of a re-engagement strategy executed prior to the elections). This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means — the military’s role supporting ZANU-PF in rural areas is another important electoral issue, as is the wider question of levelling the playing field for, and refraining from attacks against and harassment of all opposition parties. The key issue is whether this challenging list is one that Mnangagwa is likely to accept, practically as well as rhetorically.

The implication of the FT’s opinion piece is that the UK and allied governments should be willing to sequence increased assistance for Mnangagwa prior to his successful holding of more peaceful and less fraudulent elections. Those elections are due by the end of August, with Mnangagwa intimating that he might call them earlier, in four or five months’ time. If these elections fall short of the West’s fresh expectations, then the window for engagement would again close, leaving Mnangagwa as dependent as Mr Mugabe was before him on a ‘Look East’ policy, placing most of Zimbabwe’s eggs (and diamonds) in Chinese baskets.

But does it make sense for Western governments to re-engage ahead of elections? (Jeffrey Smith and Todd Moss caution against hasty re-engagement here.)

A central issue for Western policymakers is their assessment or political forecast about how probable freer, fairer elections and genuine reforms are under Mr Mnangagwa. Absent a rigorously justified and well-supported belief that Mnangagwa intends to deliver on reforming Zimbabwe’s economy and government, and liberalising its political space, there would be few reasons to change course, unless these governments were willing to concede that the broad sweep of nearly 20 years of their respective Zimbabwe policies had essentially failed, and might as well be jettisoned now that the figurehead (Mr Mugabe) has been removed, even if the major lines of his policy continued under his successor.

The FT speculates that Mnangagwa might gamble on the likelihood that his electoral victory is assured, even in free and fair elections, because (1) he is not Mr Mugabe and (2) the Zimbabwean opposition is divided, both internally within individual parties and across the different parties. But how much weight should Western states place on this assessment when considering prospects for re-engagement prior to polls?

Forecasting elections in 2018: what might happen?

Forecasting future political events is difficult. If nothing else, Brexit and the Donald Trump’s election should tell us that national votes can bring about unexpected results. But based on past evidence and a close reading of Mr Mnangagwa’s early moves in office, I think there are some good reasons to doubt that meaningful reforms and an election campaign that most FT readers would describe as free and fair will be the likely outcome (50+ per cent likely) in Zimbabwe this year.

In fairness to the FT, its own recent coverage of Zimbabwe has raised most of these issues, which I would group into two categories — one focused on events prior to the ouster of Mugabe last November, and the other on Mr Mnangagwa’s record during his first few months as president. First, the historical record shows the indisputable connection between Mr Mnangagwa, the security state and Mr Mugabe’s legacy of political violence. Mnangagwa came to power on the back of a military operation, Operation RESTORE LEGACY, that essentially placed the sitting president under house arrest and compelled him to resign. Mnangagwa then appointed to his Cabinet several of the senior military officers who planned and executed this seizure of power.

Further back in Zimbabwe’s recent political history, in 2008, Mnangagwa conspired with several of these same individuals to ensure that Mugabe did not need to make any compromises with the electorate that had rejected him and his party (ZANU-PF), unleashing a campaign of violence and intimidation that killed several hundred people and drove the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, to pull out of the presidential election run-off. Securocrats are now indisputably in control of both party and state, making the military whip hand over ZANU-PF’s political strategy even more commanding than in previous elections.

Mr Mnangagwa is a veteran politician, but he does not himself have a strong track record of electoral success, at least at constituency level. And let us not forget that he was outmanoeuvred within his own party in the battle to succeed Mr Mugabe — he had to rely on the army to help him secure the leadership of ZANU-PF, which shouldn’t inspire anyone’s confidence in Mr Mnangagwa’s ability to win hearts and minds outside of his party.

Second, Mnangagwa’s choices since ascending to the presidency suggest he knows only too well how to play his most potent cards. Zimbabwe has a predominantly rural population, meaning that a successful political campaign must entail a successful rural strategy. Mr Mnangagwa’s strategy includes following through on Mugabe’s pledge to provide expensive vehicles to local chiefs; appointing a feared military officer, Air Marshal Perrance Shiri, as Agriculture minister, and appointing another military officer as the party’s political commissar, who will coordinate its operations ahead of the election campaign. And there are other reports that the party intends to make the military a major part of its election campaign. Moreover, the military has already reportedly been active in rural areas as part of the ‘Command Agriculture’ programme since last year.

As for the FT’s other stipulations, Mr Mnangagwa already appears to have ruled out conceding the right of diaspora Zimbabweans to vote from outside of Zimbabwe, whilst the independence of the electoral commission hangs in the balance, with the jury still out on the judge recently appointed as its new chairperson, and the deeper question of changing the relationship between the commission and the government. Overall, there is little evidence so far that Mr Mnangagwa is willing to make himself a hostage to fortune by failing to load the dice in his favour on each of these variables.

It should be stressed that none of this suggests that a re-run of the violence of 2008 is a likely outcome. Rather, Mr Mnangagwa is most likely to build on the more carefully prepared effort that led to Mr Mugabe’s and ZANU-PF’s controversial victory in the 2013 elections. On that basis, overt violence will most likely be kept to a minimum; every opportunity to find a competitive advantage from government incumbency will be taken, ensuring the appointment of pliant electoral officials and denying diaspora votes; dispensing patronage and largesse, especially to key figures in rural areas; deploying soldiers and youth militia to intimidate voters and remind them of the physical consequences of voting ‘incorrectly.’

A New Patriotic Front?

Deprived of power and in some cases driven into exile since the November coup, the losing side within ZANU-PF’s civil war has not been silent. One leading figure in that faction (the so-called G40 faction), former minister Jonathan Moyo, has given a series of media interviews (e.g. here and here) and become very active on Twitter decrying the new dispensation.

Moving from media criticism to in-real-life politics, a new party, the New Patriotic Front (NPF), appears to have been created by some members of this faction –the party’s creators are thus far strangely coy about declaring themselves openly.

The NPF is essentially an anti-coup movement (read its consultation document here and also a good commentary on its significance by Alex Magaisa). The most openly-associated with the NPF is Patrick Zhuwao, a former minister and relative of former president Mugabe. Zhuwao reportedly circulated the new party’s consultation document last week.

Timed for maximum embarrassment for President Mnangagwa during his attendance at a recent African Union (AU) summit meeting, the NPF recently disseminated a petition (the full document is available here) to the AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), calling for both organisations to repudiate the coup and therefore reject the legality and legitimacy of Mnangagwa’s presidency.

Although clearly a partisan document, the NPF petition contains several specific allegations that should be treated seriously, including that the military has already embedded 2000 former senior officers as commissars across the country ahead of the 2018 elections (p.19 and Annex p.8). Paradoxically, the petition also unintentionally undermines the legitimacy of the Mugabe presidency, describing the 2008 election violence as a ‘silent military coup’ (p.17).

Of course, nobody, most likely including the petition’s authors, could reasonably expect such a document to change the position of either SADC or the AU (the democratic principles of both organisations notwithstanding). The petition’s real purpose was surely to hijack Mnangagwa’s AU visit, to secure more publicity for the NPF’s counter narrative and to undermine Mnangagwa’s public campaign to declare Zimbabwe ‘open for business’ and ripe for international re-engagement.

Deprived of access to the mobilisation network and resources of ZANU-PF, and embattled by corruption investigations, the G40/NPF’s senior figures are unlikely to pose a significant electoral challenge to President Mnangagwa later this year, but their significance as a spoiler and thorn in his side (both in public and behind the scenes) should not to be too readily dismissed.


As a leading figure in Mr Mugabe’s government, who saw first-hand the consequences of electoral complacency in 2008, as well as the instrumental power of political violence ahead of the 2008 presidential run-off, Mr Mnangagwa is unlikely to miscalculate, take for granted or become inebriated by the appearance of his newfound popularity, whether in the pages of the Financial Times, on social media, or in Davos. The most plausible forecast of his actions between now and the elections is that he will use the extensive means at his disposal to maintain the unequal electoral playing field in Zimbabwe. Indeed, calling an early election, as Mr Mnangagwa recently indicated, might be just another way to suffocate the reform process, denying the time and space necessary to effect substantial changes.

The success or failure of this strategy would depend on at least three factors. First and most obviously, on the choices of Zimbabwean voters — assuming, of course, that the process of counting votes adheres closely to the way in which votes are cast. In the wake of Mugabe’s ouster, we are in new territory: we simply do not know how Zimbabweans, who came out onto the streets during the events of November, would react to another seemingly stolen election. There must, however, be a high probability that this military-backed government would respond firmly to large-scale protests.

Second, the success of Mnangagwa’s strategy will depend on his finely calibrating any electoral concessions to appear more meaningful than in fact they are, e.g. in opening up to more international observers, but subtly (and perhaps less subtly) denying those same observers the means to hold his campaign fully to account.

Recent efforts to reform the leadership of the police force have indicated that Mr Mnangagwa and his securocrat allies might not always agree on specific points, but they will be unanimous on the major strategic objective: being able to declare victory in the election.

Finally, Mnangagwa’s success would depend on the political will of regional and international actors, especially on an inversely proportional relationship between, on the one hand, Mr Mnangagwa’s tried and tested, patiently executed electoral strategy, and the appetite of Western states (1) to invest sufficient resources to exercise rigorous monitoring of Zimbabwe’s political landscape over the next six months, and (2) to calibrate their own policy decisions closely to the extent to which Mr Mnangagwa has genuinely reformed Zimbabwe and created conditions for freer and fairer elections.

As the ever-excellent Alex Magaisa puts it: ‘While Western countries do not vote in [Zimbabwe’s] elections, they have a crucial role in the judgments they pass over the elections.’ Another well-informed commentator, Alex Noyes, recently stressed the importance of Western governments carefully coordinating their respective policy responses. In essence, there are two hurdles for Mnangagwa to jump: (1) winning the election and (2) ensuring that he wins in a manner that unlocks significant Western re-engagement. There is a difficulty here, not just for Mnangagwa but for Western states too.

One important precondition for effective Western decision-making about Zimbabwe will be high quality information-gathering and analysis, enough to determine the truth between claims and counter claims as the elections approach. Relative to other national security issues facing the UK and US governments, Zimbabwe can hardly be thought of as being close to the top of the tree, but lower tier priorities still require investment if policy is to be based on good evidence and wise counsel. Legislative oversight committees — in the UK, US and other states — have a role to play here in calling on governments to explain their preparations and emerging strategies, if necessary in closed sessions.

The FT noted a likely Western willingness to give Mr Mnangagwa the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ but this must not translate into a willingness to look the other way, either actively (by ignoring actions that conflict with the ‘new dispensation, new possibilities’ narrative) or passively (by failing to invest sufficiently in the capability to uncover and make sense of the full spectrum of such actions).

Joe is programme director for security at Ridgeway Information and a former research fellow at King’s College London. You can follow him on Twitter. 

This is a revised and updated version of an article that previously appeared on the Ridgeway Information blog.

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