Ignoring Zimbabwe Could Be Costly

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It has been less than four months since heavily manipulated elections gave Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party complete control over the executive and a supermajority in Parliament, and already the international community is signaling that it is ready to move on. Admittedly, other countries in Africa pose more urgent threats in terms of war, terrorism, and mass atrocities, but Mugabe’s return to unfettered power in Zimbabwe could erase the democratic and economic gains the country has achieved over the past five years. It could also lead to the subversion of democratic governance across southern Africa, a politically fragile region that is nevertheless home to several of the continent’s few genuinely free societies.

Reversing Progress

Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity (GNU), established after disputed elections and political violence shook the country in 2008, failed to implement many of the reforms required under that year’s Global Political Agreement. But there is no denying that the lives of citizens improved over the five years that Mugabe and ZANU-PF shared power with Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Remedial economic policies, largely implemented by the MDC-controlled Finance Ministry, helped Zimbabwe recover from the calamitous economic collapse that characterized the previous decade. In fact, according to figures provided by the African Development Bank, real gross domestic product growth went from -17.7 percent in 2008 to 10.6 percent in 2011, making Zimbabwe one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.

Just as important were improvements in the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, marked by a notable opening of the media environment and a thriving civil society. These gains were bolstered through the adoption of a new, more democratic constitution in early 2013. Outside help was crucial, with the international community working actively to promote reform among political parties, government institutions, and civic organizations. The United States alone has invested over $90 million in democracy assistance since 2009.

Unfortunately, these gains are in serious jeopardy now that Mugabe and ZANU-PF are back in control. Although few overt attacks against citizens’ rights have taken place over the past three months, there have been some alarming developments. In September, for example, Parliament passed Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013 on Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations, requiring all mobile-phone subscribers to provide telecommunications companies with their personal information, which providers are then obliged to hand over to the government. This law is a serious threat to the privacy of citizens and reduces their ability to engage in open democratic debate without fear of retribution.

Further repressive measures appear more likely given the weakness of the opposition. Following its overwhelming electoral defeat in July, the MDC is sharply divided between supporters of Tsvangirai and those who are calling for him to step down as party leader. Civil society groups, which are essential for defending recent democratic gains, have also been shaken by the disappointing results of the elections and are struggling to devise strategies for this new political era.

Dangers to Democracy in the Region

Zimbabwe’s influence beyond its borders waned during the GNU era, largely because Mugabe could no longer unilaterally dictate the country’s foreign policy and interventions. He is now once again in a position to push southern Africa in an authoritarian direction.

In August 2014, Mugabe will assume the chairmanship of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC); he is currently serving as deputy chairman under Malawian president Joyce Banda. Over the next year, six SADC member states will hold elections, including a number that are at a democratic crossroads, such as Malawi and Mozambique. While there is some question as to SADC’s ability and political will to enforce its own democratic principles, the body does often push member states to at least acknowledge their obligations. Even stalwart autocrats in the region, such as King Mswati III of Swaziland, conduct superficially democratic elections in a bid to avoid SADC criticism.

With Mugabe at the helm, any hope that SADC will promote even a small measure of democratic governance is all but lost. The Zimbabwean leader is known for his successful campaign to defang the SADC Tribunal, a regional court where citizens could seek redress when their civil and human rights had been violated by member states. The first case brought before the court was filed by white farmers whose land had been seized by Mugabe’s government. When the tribunal ruled in favor of the farmers, Mugabe convinced other leaders to remove its mandate to hear cases brought by private parties, as opposed to member governments, rendering it largely useless for human rights purposes.

Mugabe’s informal influence may be more dangerous to democracy in southern Africa than anything he can accomplish formally as SADC chairman. As a hero of the anticolonial struggle and a political fixture in the region, he is still respected by many of his neighbors, and some are even beginning to follow his example. Since assuming office in 2011, Zambian president Michael Sata has overseen increased harassment of independent media, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and a concerted effort to limit civil society activity. Banda, Malawi’s supposedly reform-minded leader, has been accused of meeting with the same Israeli firm that allegedly helped Mugabe steal the July elections.

It is worth noting how warmly Mugabe was welcomed back into the fold by his peers after seriously flawed balloting, with Banda congratulating “Comrade Robert Mugabe for conducting peaceful elections” and wishing him “continued support as a member of the family.” South African president Jacob Zuma offered similar praise, just months before his own country is set to hold a national vote.

The World Is Not Watching

By shifting its focus away from Zimbabwe since the elections, the international community is increasing the likelihood that the country will slip back into an authoritarian crisis, and that the region will increasingly look to follow the Mugabe example. Both developments would be disasters for the countries and citizens in question, but they would also present huge challenges for the world’s established democracies. Only a prompt and sustained effort to support civil society, press for additional reforms, and enforce regional and global human rights standards can forestall the need for much more difficult interventions down the road.

This post is the third in a three-part series on Zimbabwe.

Photo Credit: GovernmentZA

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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