In the Face of President Mugabe's Intransigence: Next Steps in Zimbabwe

by Anita Sharma

Jan 11, 2002

Zimbabwe has been convulsed by political violence perpetrated by the Robert Mugabe government since 2001, notably through government seizure of white farms, harassment of opposition, and decimation of the economy. The escalation of oppressive and violent tactics by the ZANU-PF party suggests the Mugabe regime is attempting to consolidate power prior to the March 2002 election. The downward spiral of Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, the increase in state-sponsored violence and a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, make the need for sustained engagement especially urgent.

At the Wilson Center on Friday, January 11, 2001, four Zimbabwe experts discussed the current situation in Zimbabwe, regional and international efforts to mitigate the conflict, and future scenarios. Speakers addressed U.S. and international diplomacy toward Zimbabwe; recent initiatives to influence the Mugabe regime through inducements and punitive measures; and internal attempts to stabilize the country.

Since the intensification of Zimbabwe's political, economic and humanitarian crisis following defeat of a government-sponsored constitution in a national referendum nearly two years ago, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has documented the escalation of state-sponsored violence and erosion of the rule of law. Recently, they published an Africa briefing titled, "Zimbabwe's Election: The Stakes for Southern Africa," which calls for robust action by the international community, especially Zimbabwe's neighbors and partners in the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Isaac Maposa from the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), noted that Zimbabwe has gradually descended into lawlessness, underscored by two recent events that the international community needs to pay attention to. First, Mugabe rammed through parliament draconian legislation that criminalizes opposition activities and severely restricts the role of independent media. Second, the military command announced recently its support for the government in the coming elections. Maposa suggested such events portend not only a violent internal conflict, but a potentially destabilizing regional security threat as well. He added that while the MDC was committed to the elections process, the party doubted that such elections would be free and fair. He noted that the "horse is already out of the stable, so there is little to gain by locking the stable doors." Maposa called for immediate action by the international community in response to the violence perpetrated and encouraged tacitly by the ZANU-PF.

Speaking for the U.S. State Department, Special Advisor Jim Dunlap noted that the Bush administration has expressed concern about the political deterioration in Zimbabwe and is sending a delegation to Harare to make its views more explicit.

Dunlap read a portion of the January 11th U.S. State Department press release condemning the violence in which it called "upon the government of Zimbabwe to disavow the statements made by the chief of the defense forces," he read. The statement called "upon the government of Zimbabwe to cease its campaign of violence and repression and move immediately to create conditions for free and fair elections this March."

The strong statements condemning the violence and repressive tactics of the Mugabe regime made recently by South African President Thabo Mbeki and Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, were signs that the neighboring countries are urging restraint and reform, he noted.

Furthermore, the United States is prepared to implement sanctions against Zimbabwe if the government does not abide by the electoral standards established within the region, to which Zimbabwe is a signatory, he said. Dunlap also called attention to recent U.S legislative action that would double funding for democracy programs in Zimbabwe and calls for U.S. support of election observers to the parliamentary and presidential elections. Titled, "Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001," the bill allows the Administration to implement travel and economic sanctions and freeze assets of individuals responsible "for the deliberate breakdown of the rule of law and politically motivated violence." However, Dunlap stressed that the future of Zimbabwe—and whether the country continues its downward spiral or begins recovery—is in the hands of the government. The U.S. government has not decided yet what path to take regarding sanctions after the elections, preferring to wait until President Mugabe decides his fate, he added. "The gun is loaded, it's half cocked, and it's in the government's hand."

Dick McCall, executive director of the Conflict Prevention Task Force at USAID, reiterated U.S. suspension of aid to Harare except to civil society groups, education, and AIDS programs. McCall discussed USAID programs in Zimbabwe, noting that since the end of 1999, USAID has focused on a series of strategic interventions to mitigate the current social, economic, and political crises. To counter the repressive tactics of the government, U.S. assistance is aimed at helping civil society increase its participation in economic and political decision-making. USAID is particularly concerned with the debilitating AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe (one in four adults is infected with HIV). The United States remains the leading bilateral donor in efforts to reduce HIV transmission and is implementing new programs to combat the disease.

John Prendergast, co-director of the Africa Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), summarized the main points of the ICG report (www.crisisweb.org) on Zimbabwe, which call for immediate concerted international sanctions in the face of what appears to be a flawed electoral process. He also emphasized that international efforts (in particular, the United States and EU) need to be coordinated with the opposition and civil society.

Noting that several scenarios were possible, the conduct of the election should determine what type of action the international community takes, Prendergast said. Policy choices depend on whether the election is democratic and whether ZANU-PF accepts the results should they lose. Elections to be "freer and fairer" must represent the will of the people, he said. Prendergast suggested that with strong encouragement--including pressure to allow election monitors, the implementation of targeted sanctions, the provision of information and short-wave radios and stressing to the military that they must support the elections and not the regime--the international community sends strong messages. Communicating that every vote counts and every vote is secret, and that the international community is committed to encouraging a better future for Zimbabwe, would bring more people to the polls, he added.

However, if in the next month it becomes blatantly obvious that President Mugabe will do whatever it takes to retain power—by enacting additional repressive laws, encouraging violence and intimidation, and flouting international pressure—the international community must be willing to act forcefully and multilaterally, Prendergast urged. As noted in the recent ICG report, if the election and its results are deemed fraudulent, SADC "should make it clear that Mugabe's legitimacy as leader and his historical legacy will be jeopardized. Regional governments would be advised to prepare contingency plans, in case Zimbabwe descends into further chaos and a state of emergency is applied."

Related Links

Experts & Staff