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Southern Africa's Zimbabwe Divide

Author: Stephanie Hanson
June 12, 2008

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As the date of Zimbabwe's runoff presidential election draws closer, speculation about the fluid political situation runs rampant. Some Western diplomats and rights groups say a coup has put the military in charge (Times of London). Ruling party insiders reportedly, meanwhile, say President Robert Mugabe still holds control but plans to step down next year (SA Times). Other regional media outlets suggest Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, and the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), might even be discussing a national unity government (Business Day). Yet there is widespread agreement on one point: The state-sponsored campaign of violence and intimidation documented by human rights groups precludes a fair runoff election on June 27. Zimbabwe's fate, experts say, will hinge on mediation by African negotiators, most likely led by the South African Development Community (SADC).

To date, SADC, a regional body that grew out of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, has been loath to censure Mugabe directly. Taking its lead from South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, the group has opted for "quiet diplomacy." Mbeki-led talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC last year failed to produce results ahead of March's elections, and in the aftermath of the disputed poll SADC produced a halfhearted statement that called for the release of election results but did not even mention Mugabe by name.

There are distinct signs of a shift within the fourteen-member body, however, particularly among Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia. A recent policy briefing from the International Crisis Group says the three countries agree "Mugabe needs to go, a transitional government should replace the current regime, and, for this to happen, the South African mediation must be broadened." Further, the reluctance of some countries to challenge Mugabe's legitimacy also appears to be wavering. In mid-April, Angola and Namibia both refused to allow a Chinese ship to unload weapons and ammunition bound for Zimbabwe. (Unfortunately, as journalist Joshua Hammer recounts in the New York Review of Books, the arms eventually reached Zimbabwe via the Democratic Republic of Congo, in "another example of how a lack of SADC solidarity in the face of Mugabe's abuses had emboldened and strengthened one of the world's most abusive regimes.")

The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James D. McGee, told reporters on June 6 that Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, and "even Angola to a certain extent" have been pressing for more robust action. McGee added, however, that "we do need to see a rapid step-up from SADC on how they’re dealing with the situation in Zimbabwe." In a separate interview (NPR), he also noted instances of ZANU-PF supporters harassing, and in once case beating, a local U.S. embassy staffer. Both Europe and the United States have called for political reform in Zimbabwe, but McGee acknowledged that the broader international community holds limited sway in the country's domestic politics.

What does this mean for the Mbeki-brokered talks on the formation of a power-sharing government? Much continues to hinge on the opaque stance of South Africa's president. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai maintains that Mbeki is a biased mediator (NYT), but experts agree that South Africa remains the indispensable regional power in future negotiations. Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says options will narrow for both sides as the economic crisis deepens. "Behind the scenes, no one is ruling out anything, especially the idea of a unity accord," he writes in the Guardian. Africa analysts say that any such accord would need to win the support of Zimbabwe's military and security apparatus. Documents obtained by the BBC indicate the military is running Mugabe's reelection campaign. High-level security officials could be "violent spoilers," write J. Stephen Morrison and Mark Bellamy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As this Backgrounder discusses, analysts are divided on what role the security forces—many of whom fear prosecution for past misdeeds—might play in a post-Mugabe government.

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