Zimbabwe, Don’t Pop the Champagne Just Yet

This might seem like the dawn of a new era in Zimbabwe. On November 15th, the Zimbabwean military placed Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe under house arrest, and on November 21st, Mugabe resigned the office of President of Zimbabwe, ending his 37 year tenure. While under house arrest, Mugabe saw his own political party elect a new leader and witnessed members of Zimbabwe’s parliament begin impeachment proceedings against him. By the 24th of November, Zimbabwean politics looked radically different. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former Vice President, was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s interim President, marking the first time in Zimbabwe’s modern history that a man not named Mugabe would run the country. Following Mugabe’s resignation, Zimbabwean MPs celebrated, applauding the end of a tyrant’s rule. In the streets, citizens sported banners and posters, crying out hopeful messages of “Dawn of a New Era” and “No to Retribution.” At his swearing in ceremony, Mnangagwa pledged that “free and fair elections” would proceed next year as scheduled while promising to restore democracy. It is easy to see why Zimbabweans are excited and hopeful. Mugabe’s rule was characterized by economic mismanagement, oppression, and corruption. However, with Mugabe’s downfall and Mnangagwa’s ascent, Zimbabwe is still not on the path towards democracy or prosperity. It will take more than just a leadership shuffle to fundamentally change the direction of Zimbabwe’s future. Mugabe’s removal was a crucial first step, but it is not yet time to celebrate the end of tyranny in Zimbabwe.

To understand the rearrangement of Zimbabwean leadership, it is important to examine the political makeup of Zimbabwean ‘democracy.’ From 1922 to 1980, native Zimbabweans were ruled by an all-white government in the state of South Rhodesia. Deprived of their rights, black citizens voiced their outrage through both nonviolent and violent means. By 1972, guerrilla warriors began to fight the all-white government, with rival ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) forces operating out of Zambia and Mozambique, respectively. Eventually, Zimbabwean nationalist forces won out, gaining independence and international recognition. In 1980, ZANU won Zimbabwe’s first parliamentary election with ZANU’s leader Robert Mugabe becoming the country’s first Prime Minister. In a show of good faith, Mugabe included ZAPU’s leader Joshua Nkomo in his cabinet, but fired him just two years later in 1982, consolidating his own power. Since then, Zimbabwe’s political history has been littered with examples of power grabs, fraudulent elections, and intimidation.

As Mugabe gained power and combined ZANU and ZAPU to form ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front), he ensured that opposition parties would have a limited role in governing. Since 2000, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has mounted electoral challenges against Mugabe and ZANU-PF. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai eroded ZANU-PF’s parliamentary majority. By 2003, Tsvangirai was arrested on treason charges for allegedly plotting to overthrow Mugabe and his government. His arrest came during a week of opposition protests, and Tsvangirai was later acquitted, illustrating that his detention was likely just a political maneuver by the party in power. In the 2008 presidential election, Tsvangirai mounted a campaign to unseat Mugabe, winning enough votes for a runoff election. However, Tsvangirai was later forced to drop out of the runoff race, citing intimidation and fearing attacks against MDC supporters. Although the MDC would later enter a power sharing agreement with ZANU-PF, this unity government would collapse by 2009. In the wake of the unity government’s collapse, Mugabe further consolidated power and stifled opposition. By 2017, ZANU-PF figures dominated top offices, with ZANU-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa serving as Mugabe’s Vice President and Mugabe’s wife Grace viewed as the likely successor. When Mugabe fired Mnangagwa in early November, Mugabe sealed his own fate. The Zimbabwe Defense Forces stepped in, placing Mugabe under house arrest and installing Mugabe’s former deputy.

So yes, the resignation of Robert Mugabe is a big deal. Zimbabwe has only had one leader in its 37-year history, and Mugabe’s tenure has been particularly incompetent, destructive, and tyrannical. However, Mnangagwa’s ascent does not illustrate the characteristics of democratic change. First, the role of Zimbabwe’s military cannot be overstated. For years, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) provided Mugabe with protection and loyalty, putting down popular rebellions when necessary and claiming, “the ZDF will never accept any unconstitutional change of Government” and “we stand firm and unequivocal by the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe” as late as 2016. However, the ZDF was instrumental in the coup that ousted Mugabe, which was clearly an unconstitutional change of government and a show of no-confidence in Mugabe’s abilities. This example illustrates the capriciousness of the military’s support. Even though the military supported Mugabe in 2016, they acted as the catalyst for his removal in 2017. The military showed its ability to act outside governmental institutions and constitutional mechanisms. Even though the military installed Mnangagwa and ousted Mugabe in 2017, what is to stop the military from ousting Mnangagwa should they become unhappy with his performance? Mnangagwa owes his office to the ZDF, and thus will be incapable of effectively overseeing the ZDF in the future. Military intervention in governmental change sets a dangerous precedent because it erodes the notion of civilian rule of the military. That oversight is crucial to establishing a stable, democratic government. Currently, Zimbabwe just does not have it.

Further, the replacement of Mugabe by Mnangagwa does not represent as dramatic a change as some would like to think. Both Mugabe and Mnangagwa belong to the ZANU-PF political party, and both have been instrumental in the degradation of democratic bodies and institution of repressive rule in Zimbabwe. When Mnangagwa was Minister of Rural Housing and Social Amenities, Zimbabwe launched an ‘urban clean-up’ program. By bulldozing shantytowns and urban stalls, this campaign displaced 700,000 citizens. This is an example of Mnangagwa’s complicity in Mugabe’s maladministration. Surely, the Minister of Rural Housing would be in a position to question the viability or necessity of a program that would ultimately leave thousands without homes. Obviously, Mnangagwa did not step out of line, and the brutal clean-up program commenced unhindered.

In addition, Mnangagwa might not be the democratic hero that some want to believe. During the contentious 2008 election and subsequent power sharing agreement, Mnangagwa served as the Minister of Defense. In the years following the power sharing agreement, MDC officials claimed that the military and police forces instigated violence at constitutional conventions and against MDC party members. During this period, the military presented a tremendous obstacle to the progression of a new Zimbabwean constitution and power sharing government. Obviously, the Minister of Defense would have the clout to make these policy decisions or reverse them. Presented with that choice, the military, under the command of Mnangagwa, ultimately stood in the way of democratic progress. Now, with Mnangagwa serving as the interim President of Zimbabwe, there is a possibility that Mnangagwa could once again stand in the way of Zimbabwe’s democracy.        

While the ousting of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is promising, it should not be understood as a guarantee of imminent democracy. Like in Egypt following the military coup to oust Mohamed Morsi, the involvement of the military in governmental change poses a threat to the democratic ideal of civilian oversight of the military. Although the military has installed Mnangagwa, there is no mechanism in place that would prevent the military from replacing Mnangagwa with someone else later. Until the military becomes subservient (rather than equal) to the state, democracy’s development in Zimbabwe will be hindered. Further, while many Zimbabweans want to see Mnangagwa as the man who will lead Zimbabwe to democracy, his past involvement with both ZANU-PF and Mugabe illustrates that he might not represent a change from the incompetent and repressive regime of the past. Until Mnangagwa participates in a peaceful transition of power, it is impossible to determine whether he wants democracy or is simply seeking personal gain. Finally, democracy is not built from one rebellion or under one leader. Rather, democracy is a tradition that must be fostered. For the last 37 years of Zimbabwe’s existence, this democratic legacy has been hindered. It will take time before a stable democratic tradition can take hold. Mnangagwa can help, but he can also hurt. It is not quite time to celebrate yet.