If the World Hesitates, Zimbabwe Could Be Lost

By Sydney Masamvu and Donald Steinberg

Sydney Masamvu is Senior Analyst for Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group (www.crisisgroup.org). Donald Steinberg is Deputy President for Policy at the International Crisis Group and served as Senior Director for African Affairs under President Clinton.

It has now been almost three months since Morgan Tsvangirai and his compatriots in the Movement for Democratic Change took a leap of faith and joined a unity government with their long-time opponents and oppressors. At the time, many in Zimbabwe and abroad supported this decision, and many opposed it. Today, both have evidence to back up their cases.

Optimists can point to a new sense of hope in Zimbabwe, reflecting small but clear signs of recovery. Many schools have re-opened, prices have stabilised, basic stocks are returning to shops, and civil servants are being paid at least a modest stipend. The cholera epidemic is subsiding somewhat. The new unity government is functioning after a fashion, and a new political dynamic is starting to emerge in the parliament, including cross-party collaboration needed to adopt a new constitution and pass major reform legislation foreshadowed in the Global Political Agreement.

Skeptics can cite efforts by some old regime elements, especially hardline generals and other loyalists of President Robert Mugabe, to thwart the new government, motivated by fear of prosecution and loss of power and its financial sinecures; hatred for Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC); and/or a belief that they are the guardians of the country's liberation. These forces are continuing to arrest and detain MDC and civil society activists, refusing to carry out some government orders, seeking to drive out the last few hundred large commercial farmers and stalling on the appointment of provincial governors and other key posts. True to form, Mugabe has himself taken actions that call into grave question his commitment political and economic reforms and national reconciliation.

The stakes in this process could hardly be higher, both for Zimbabwe and the region. A successful recovery would provide jobs to alleviate unemployment now estimated at a stunning 90 per cent and reverse a 14 per cent drop in national income over the past year alone, thus permitting millions of emigrants in South Africa and elsewhere to return home. It would provide stability and security needed to reinvigorate the agricultural sector, restore the once-proud health and education sectors, and encourage foreign trade and investment. It would also encourage similar exercises in reconciliation throughout the region and beyond.

By contrast, failure would likely lead to a new seizure of power by Mugabe and his hardline allies, even greater repression and isolation, and new hardship and abuse for the long-suffering Zimbabwean people.

The regional grouping of the Southern African Development Corporation (SADC), has recognized the stakes, and is putting its money where its interests are, including through new financial support from South Africa and Botswana. It is time for the broader international community to do the same.

While there has been some welcome expansion of humanitarian assistance, too many foreign donors - including the United States and the UK - are adopting a "wait-and-see" posture towards recovery and reconstruction assistance. This approach could doom the new government to failure. In fact, hesitation risks thwarting the very changes the international community is seeking, both by weakening the hand of the MDC and moderates in Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, and by undercutting popular support for the reform process.

It would be premature for foreign governments to remove targeted sanctions - travel bans and asset freezes - against those thwarting the transition, or to adopt a "business-as-usual" posture toward the unity government. But in concert with SADC governments, they should take act to help make the reform process irreversible. They should:

  • Pursue a "humanitarian plus" assistance strategy that supports revival of the education, agriculture, health and water sanitation sectors, a functioning civil service, and key infrastructure. Such assistance would be channeled through transparent and accountable mechanisms.

  • Support programs to reform politicized government institutions, including the judiciary and the police, and to strengthen civil society that has been fractured in recent years by Mugabe's divide-and-rule tactics, including religious, press, labor, academic, women's and youth groups.
  • Promote the retirement of the military's senior leadership, in order to counter the real risk of an attack against Tsvangirai or a military take-over. This could be through a law that offers immunity to senior generals from domestic prosecution for past political crimes - excluding crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide - in return for retirement, and should explore appropriate transitional justice mechanisms such as a truth commission and vetting processes.
  • Some worry that such a strategy would prematurely reward Mugabe and his hardline supporters or reduce the pressure on them to cooperate with the reform process. In truth, it would strengthen the hands of moderates and make it more difficult for the extremists to again seize power. As Tsvangirai himself has said, "Don't make us pay for working with Mugabe."