Reflecting back, Looking forward: Zimbabwe Democracy Institute

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To mark the new year, Democracy in Africa has asked key groups and individuals across Africa to reflect on developments in 2012, and look forward to 2013. We have invited them to share with us their insights and predictions, their hopes and their fears. In the first of this series, we talk to the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute about developments in Zimbabwe.

To start, could you tell us a bit about ZDI and what you hope to achieve?

The Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) is a politically independent and neutral public policy think-tank based in Zimbabwe. Founded and registered as a trust in terms of the laws of Zimbabwe, ZDI serves to generate and disseminate innovative ideas and cutting-edge research and policy analysis to advance democracy, development, good governance and human rights respect in Zimbabwe. The Institute aims to promote open, informed and evidence-based debate by bringing together pro-democracy experts to a platform that offers new ideas to policy makers with a view to entrench democratic practices in Zimbabwe. Our ultimate overriding agenda is to realize a democratic Zimbabwe by aiding the political transition in the country to produce and sustain democratic governance system via credible elections. For more details of our work, you can visit our website

2012 has been a politically tense time for Zimbabwe. Looking back over the year, what were the most promising developments for democracy in the Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe is a country that is characterized by state-organized, colossal, human rights violations under the regime of President Robert Mugabe. The signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in August 2008 between Mugabe’s party ZANU PF and formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came as a reprieve to victims of human rights violations. Constitutional Amendment Number 19 established under the GPA calls for the enactment of a number of constitutional commissions. Among these was the enactment of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission in 2012. It was hoped that the commission would assist to halt impunity associated with the prior regime of Mugabe. The successful holding of the Second All-Stakeholders Constitutional Conference on the proposed new supreme law of the land, which went undisrupted, was another critical highlight of the year with many hoping that a new democratic constitution that entrenches the supremacy of the rule of law could assist the facilitation of a democratic political transition. Thirdly, the continued insistence by SADC, during its meetings in 2012, that democratic reforms must be implemented before elections are held in Zimbabwe was also a sign that the region body would not accept a violent and manipulated poll in Zimbabwe. 

Do you think that these developments will be sustainable in the next year and beyond?

Zimbabwe’s political transition is complicated primarily because Mugabe’s regime remains in total control of the State and its repressive machinery. It is, therefore, difficult – without sustained and organized domestic, regional and international pressure for democratic norm compliance – for democratic legitimacy to return to Zimbabwe. For instance, despite the successful holding of the Second All Stakeholders Conference, the Draft Constitution is yet to be taken to referendum because: Mugabe is insisting on having an imperial and unaccountable executive branch; ZANU PF does not want devolution; the party resist dual citizenship and they oppose an independent prosecuting authority. The Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), Professor Reginald Austin, has just resigned stating that the commission has had a lack of autonomy, resources and commitment from the government and, therefore, it has not been allowed to investigate rights violations.  This development suggests that human rights violations and impunity will remain part of the political system for some time.

What do you believe are the key challenges to democracy in Zimbabwe, and how might these be tackled?

The overriding challenge to Zimbabwe’s democratization process is the ubiquitous role of the military and other state security organs in the political and electoral affairs of the country.  The security apparatus, working ‘hand in glove’ with their political handlers (led by President Mugabe), have shown in past elections that they have a capacity to block a democratic political transition in the country through their partisan and unprofessional conduct. This was especially the case in 2008. Efforts to reform or re-align the security establishment should be enhanced to make them aware that politics is not their domain of competence, as argued by scholars such as Samuel Huntington. Linked to this is the role of the military in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), a body that is supposedly independent. An unaudited and unreformed ZEC secretariat cannot manage credible elections given its past performance in the 2008 disputed elections.

What new and potentially surprising developments do you see on the horizon that will become increasingly important to the way in which democracy functions in Zimbabwe, and beyond?

President Mugabe is turning 89 next month. He is the presidential candidate for ZANU PF. His health has been a subject of considerable speculations in the past year. Should his health deteriorate, the succession problems in ZANU PF could affect the democratic transition if consensus on a new leader is not found among the factions in his party.

With the current state of affairs, SADC and the international community could be surprised when ZANU PF returns to its usual and old tactics of political violence if the party believes that without coercion it can’t retains power. An increasing and overt interference by the security sector in the electoral affairs of Zimbabwe is a huge possibility: the prospect of losing the colossal economic resources they have accumulated through illegal diamond mining makes it all the more likely that the military will take this blatantly unconstitutional position.

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