How to Save Democracy From Technology
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly
In 2016, as President Robert Mugabe celebrates his 92nd birthday and 36th year in power, Zimbabwe stands on the brink of another meltdown. The country’s current economic insecurity and political conflict are reminiscent of 2000–08, when hyperinflation and electoral violence were rife. This time, however, the stakes are even higher as a floundering authoritarian regime faces a leadership succession with little clear guidance on how to navigate the transition.
From its independence in 1980 to 2009, Zimbabwe was dominated by Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). A strong showing by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the 2008 general election led to the country’s first-ever coalition government in 2009. But that government fell with the controversial 2013 elections, which were decided in favor of the ZANU-PF by implausibly large margins. Now unrivaled once more, the ruling party has failed to offer anything in the way of economic or political reforms. But, if anything, recent electoral success has weakened the ZANU-PF by concentrating political competition within it.
As if struggles within the ZANU-PF over the succession to the presidency weren’t bad enough, Mugabe’s advanced age and failing health have also left him increasingly unable to control events. And so the country is transfixed by a macabre death watch and an internecine power struggle, and the longer they go on, the more likely that any political transition will be unpredictable, disorderly, and perhaps even violent.
After a brief period of recovery earlier this decade, Zimbabwe’s economy has sharply declined. GDP is effectively flat, manufacturing enterprises are rapidly closing, and unemployment is skyrocketing. Revenues from diamonds, platinum, and gold—mining is Zimbabwe’s most productive sector—rarely reach the national treasury. As a result, an insolvent government is unable to pay civil servants and pensioners on time (it gives priority to the armed forces and war veterans). Meanwhile, private-sector banks and their customers face acute shortages of cash. Up to nine out of ten Zimbabweans now piece together their livelihoods through petty trade, subsistence agriculture, or artisanal activities, and many families depend on remittances from relatives working in southern Africa or abroad.
The country is transfixed by a macabre death watch and an internecine power struggle, and the longer they go on, the more likely that any transition will be unpredictable.
Economic hardship has been exacerbated by climate change and an El Niño–induced drought. After crop failures in the south and west of the country, an estimated three million people will face food insecurity this agricultural season. International relief agencies, funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), continue to help plug the food gap. Yet hungry rural dwellers are vulnerable to the ruling party’s use of food as a weapon; they must often prove their loyalty to the ZANU-PF as a condition for access to relief aid. And in urban areas, essential services—especially household water—are increasingly unreliable, although imports have largely eased electricity shortages.
The government recognizes that it has to respond to the economic decline. But its efforts to date have been lacking. The minister of finance, Patrick Chinamasa, has admitted that recovery will require international financial aid, which would come with strict conditions of debt repayment and cuts to the country’s bloated public sector. At the same time, Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwao—the minister of youth, indigenization, and economic empowerment—calls for private firms to cede majority shareholdings to “indigenous” (meaning black) Zimbabweans. Mugabe himself blows hot and cold, backing one policy faction and then another depending on pressure from political clients and the state of the government’s finances. The resulting uncertainty—reflected in recent government decisions to take over all diamond mining operations and to introduce a quasi-currency known as “bond notes,” which are used as a substitute for cash—leaves foreign investors and local consumers alike increasingly jittery.
Confusion over land ownership also blocks recovery. Private property rights are in tatters: as a result of the ZANU-PF’s chaotic Fast Track Land Reform Program—violently launched in 2000—the state now owns most agricultural land. Large-scale commercial agriculture was not the only victim of land reallocation: small-scale producers on resettled land and subsistence producers in communal-use areas also lack secure tenure. As a result, farmers are subject to arbitrary dispossession, usually at the whim of political predators. Against this background, tentative announcements about possible compensation for dispossessed landholders hardly seem credible.
Overshadowing all Zimbabwe’s other problems is uncertainty about leadership transition within the ruling party. By all appearances, Mugabe intends to serve a life presidency, die in office, and have his body transferred directly from State House (the official presidential residence) to Heroes Acre (the burial ground for national liberators). First Lady Grace Mugabe has even floated the creepy idea that Mugabe might rule posthumously from the grave. The presumed indispensability of the country’s founding father lies at the crux of the ZANU-PF’s dilemma: how to make a peaceful change of leader while preserving the party’s dominance over state institutions.
Outcomes are hard to foresee in good part because the rules of succession—often obscure and untested in autocratic regimes—are especially murky in Zimbabwe. The 2013 national constitution stipulates that if the president dies, resigns, or is removed the first vice president assumes office until the end of the presidential term. In last-minute bargaining over the implementation of the constitution, however, this provision was deferred for ten years; it will only apply after elections in 2023. Until then, the vice president who last acted in the president’s absence will serve for 90 days while the ruling party determines a successor. The problem is that the ZANU-PF party constitution, which was reportedly revised in 2014 to address the party’s internal procedure for replacing its leaders, has never been made public.
The 90-day window for the party to choose a successor is likely to be turbulent. Intraparty dynamics were once understood as a struggle between two main factions: one led by Joice Mujuru, a liberation war heroine and former vice president; the other by current Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a hard-line fixer and party grandee. The ZANU-PF was thus split on vertical lines between two influential barons, each with their own regional followings and presumed power bases within the security services.
But the established political balance shifted sharply in December 2014, when, following lurid accusations from Grace Mugabe of plots to assassinate the president, Mujuru and her key lieutenants were purged from the party. For a moment it seemed that the way had been cleared for Mnangagwa to be anointed as Mugabe’s successor. But, within months, Grace (her position now confirmed as Mugabe’s most influential advisor) turned her ire on the new front-runner, this time alleging that his allies intended to slay her son. Now, for the first time, the main divide within the party is horizontal; that is, across generations. It pits Mnangagwa’s old guard of liberation war fighters (known popularly as Team Lacoste to reflect their leader’s nickname of Crocodile) against the so-called G-40, an insurgent group of younger politicians, who were born too late to take part in the independence struggle and have attached themselves to the first lady’s high-fashion coattails.
Overshadowing all Zimbabwe’s other problems is uncertainty about leadership transition within the ruling party.
In this imbroglio, the security sector is likely to be a decisive player. The army, police, and intelligence services have long been the ZANU-PF regime’s enforcers. In 2008, they pushed for Mugabe’s reinstallation after he lost the first round of presidential elections; and in 2013, “boys on leave” from the armed forces, in conjunction with war veterans and youth militias, played a key part in disciplining the electorate. Since then, however, the security sector has fallen prey to some of the same factionalism as the ruling party, and there is speculation that it might put forward one of its own as a contender for the throne. Whether it supports a civilian or acts on its own account, the security sector will be a forceful and possibly decisive contestant in the struggle to determine Mugabe’s successor.
The political opposition, meanwhile, has imploded. The humiliating defeat in the 2013 elections caused an already fractured MDC to splinter even further: leading party critics of mercurial MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai—such as Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma—have founded boutique party offshoots. A new element emerged in early 2016 when Mujuru, now exiled to the opposition wilderness, established Zimbabwe People First, whose ZPF acronym parodies (and thereby implicitly claims the true mantle of) the ruling ZANU-PF. The fragmented opposition, however, neither inspires the public nor frightens the governing party. With the exception of the Tsvangirai wing of the MDC, all opposition entities remain marginal or untested. Yet in a step forward, most now acknowledge—at least rhetorically—that they will have to come together before the next elections in 2018.
Zimbabwe’s civil society was also wounded by the country’s reversion to one-party dominance. Western donors, fatigued by a decade and a half of seemingly ineffective democracy promotion, have withdrawn or reduced assistance to activists. Surviving organizations within the pro-democracy camp have been forced to reconstitute and reposition themselves, including by taking on broader charitable or developmental tasks. The trade union movement, once the backbone of opposition organizing, is reportedly bankrupt. The churches—always reticent and increasingly led by preachers of a gospel of personal prosperity—remain uninterested in politics. And a once vibrant and critical academia has now either been co-opted or closed down. In search of a strategic vision, some civil society groups are now encouraging popular debate about the 2013 constitution, in particular about legal reforms to protect basic rights and freedoms.
The involvement of Zimbabwean citizens in the political process is central to any transition to a more democratic regime. But getting them to join in won’t be easy. Because rulers do not hesitate to violently suppress dissent, citizens are risk averse and acquiescent. According to Afrobarometer, an independent survey of public opinion, nine out of ten Zimbabweans say that they must be “very careful what [they] say about politics,” the highest level recorded across 36 African countries in 2014.
Yet, as economic conditions deteriorate and the ruling elite devours its own, some citizens are waking up. Sidewalk vendors resist expulsion from city centers, disaffected youths occupy Harare’s Africa Unity Square, and a Baptist minister’s patriotic poem (#ThisFlag) trends on Twitter. Civil servants threaten to strike over delayed salary payments, and protests over police roadblocks and new import restrictions have turned violent. Most significantly, Tsvangirai recently led mass rallies in Harare and Bulawayo to condemn immoral and incompetent government. They were attended by thousands. Growing poverty and official corruption (and the connection between the two) were powerful rallying tools for a pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, plummeting living standards and failing social services are again prompting a downwardly mobile citizenry to act.
After years of strained relations with the outside world, Zimbabwe is now seeking to mend fences. For instance, in a bid to reenter the international financial system, the country is currently attempting to repay almost $2 billion that it owes to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and African Development Bank. In return, the government hopes to receive medium-term loans to keep Zimbabwe’s ailing economy afloat. Any assistance from international financial institutions, however, will be conditional on difficult economic reforms—such as public sector payroll cuts and the privatization of state-owned enterprises—that prominent elements within the ZANU-PF are known to oppose. Successful implementation of these reforms will be difficult.
Zimbabwe’s move toward financial responsibility is welcome, however tentative it may be. Yet contrary to the position taken by the European Union, which has moved to normalize relations, the United States should remain guided by the requirements of the 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA). This legislation promises to restructure the country’s debt and to support an equitable land reform program in exchange for clear political and constitutional conditions, including free and fair elections, an end to political violence, and the subordination of the armed services to elected civilian authority. This last requirement is critical. If Zimbabwe’s security sector remains unified, it will be a force for order but also for continued authoritarianism. If it divides into armed political factions, however, a much more volatile transition looms.
Although the victims of drought and HIV/AIDS should still receive international humanitarian aid, now is not the time to ease restrictive measures against the corrupt officials and human rights abusers at the pinnacle of Zimbabwe’s ruling party. In particular, Western governments should be cautious about embracing the siren song of so-called reformers within the ZANU-PF. As some of the richest people in the country, these political and security elites stand to benefit personally from greater access to the global economy. But, since their goals include the maintenance of the ZANU-PF’s dominance after Mugabe’s inevitable demise, their commitment to political reform is highly questionable. The United States and like-minded allies should make it clear that any leadership transition that fails to follow the rule of law or to meet popular aspirations will not be considered a transition at all.