The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
On July 30, Zimbabweans will vote in their country’s first ever presidential election without former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot. A free, fair, and credible vote could be the first step in Zimbabwe’s recovery from 38 years of a repressive and rapacious dictatorship that brought the country to its knees. Over the past two decades, millions have fled. The vast majority of those who stayed have seen their standard of living decline dramatically, and over 70 percent now live in poverty. The country has become an international pariah. Emmerson Mnangagwa—Mugabe’s longtime enforcer who took over the presidency after a military coup last November—needs the election to go well in order to gain international legitimacy and a bailout for the bankrupt economy.
We recently travelled to Zimbabwe as part of an independent delegation of former senior U.S. diplomats with long experience in the country in order to see for ourselves what had changed since Mugabe’s departure. Despite the fact that the ruling elite is mostly the same as it was during Mugabe era—the cabinet is more than two-thirds filled by holdovers—Mnangagwa has drawn praise for pledging bold reforms to restore democracy, begin national healing, and create jobs. We spoke with a wide range of political, religious, business, and civil society leaders to gain insights into the country’s prospects and the most productive course for U.S. policy. We hoped to find signs of genuine progress that would justify a significant change in U.S. policy and new commitments to working with Zimbabwe’s government. Unfortunately, we came away convinced that what we witnessed was more political theater than good faith, and that the United States should be deeply wary of engagement with Mnangagwa.
At first glance, the upcoming vote in Zimbabwe has the potential to be the country’s fairest election ever. The government has invited international election observers, allowed opposition parties to campaign, and created a new biometric voter roll, which should help to guard against fraud. These steps qualify as major progress in Zimbabwe.
Yet the election itself appears to be less an effort at restoring the voice of Zimbabwe’s long-suffering citizenry than a charade aimed at the international community. Its shortcomings are overwhelming. Manipulation of the voter roll has been a major feature of election-rigging efforts in Zimbabwe in the past. This time around, the roll has been has been shrouded in unnecessary secrecy and released for review only after it was too late to correct the many errors that civil society groups say they have found, while government representatives have ignored fair questions about the security of ballots and counting systems. No one we met outside of government had faith in the independence of the electoral commission. Despite a provision in Zimbabwe’s constitution explicitly giving citizens living outside the country the right to vote in elections, the government has made no provisions for diaspora voting, which effectively disenfranchises at least one-fifth of Zimbabweans. State media, which is the only outlet reliably available in rural areas, remains heavily biased toward the ruling Zimbabwe African Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) party.
The election itself appears to be less an effort at restoring the voice of Zimbabwe’s long-suffering citizenry than a charade aimed at the international community.
Human rights monitors are collecting reports of organized intimidation across rural Zimbabwe, where small teams of plainclothes military are suddenly appearing in villages. Subtle threats in Zimbabwe are chilling because voters remember vividly what happened just ten years ago when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change won the first round of the vote. Mugabe refused to concede and instead launched a vicious campaign of violence that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless.
Most worrying of all is the threat of the military. Few Zimbabweans believe that the generals ousted Mugabe only to hand over power nine months later to the opposition, led by 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa. In fact, the November coup was led by General Constantino Chiwenga (now Mnangagwa’s vice president), the same man who organized the 2008 election violence. Several activists asked us how a free and fair election is even possible if the military has already decided there is only one acceptable outcome. Although we anticipate that election day itself will be peaceful, pre-election conditions on the ground are not conducive to a truly fair, transparent, and credible exercise.
We found another charade on human rights. Many Zimbabweans have lived through torture, police beatings, and other state-sponsored violence. From the massacre of 20,000 civilians in the southern region of Matabeleland during Gukurahundi (or “the rain that washes away the garbage” in local language) in the 1980s to the mass displacement of Operation Murambatsvina (“clear away the filth”) to the vicious crackdown on opposition supporters in 2008, Zimbabwe’s history is one of unhealed, and too often unacknowledged, wounds. Some Zimbabweans have been waiting for over 30 years for information about what happened to their loved ones, or for someone to be held accountable for their losses.
Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution provides for a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which the government boasts as evidence that it is serious about dealing with the past. But the commission is already halfway through its ten-year mandate and has barely done anything. At a recent meeting to hear testimony about past atrocities, the commissioners inexplicably failed to bring more than a single speaker of the local language, leaving survivors feeling angry and frustrated. Even low-hanging fruit remains unpicked. The government continues to withhold reports from past Commissions of Inquiry from the public. Repressive laws used to intimidate those who have dared to challenge the government in the past remain on the books. The state, of course, prefers to not engage in truth and reconciliation work because many senior officials, including Mnangagwa, were architects of the violence.
The third charade concerns the economy. Mnangagwa’s slogan, “Zimbabwe is open for business,” is a mantra repeated by officials at every opportunity. Much of the international optimism about Zimbabwe’s immediate future is based on the president’s promised economic reforms. He has partly rescinded a law that required local ownership of every business, announced plans to sell off state companies, and pledged to issue 99-year leases for land to try to bring order after the chaos of Mugabe’s farm seizures which began in 2000 and decimated the farming sector. Mnangagwa has also welcomed international investors.
This kind of rhetoric may be encouraging, but it does not square with the facts. Zimbabwe’s economy is in a perilous state. The government is more than $10 billion in debt and there is almost no physical cash in the country. Civil servants—the tiny lucky minority with formal jobs—are supposedly paid in U.S. dollars, but there are few actual dollars in circulation. A friend recently waited hours at the bank for his $20 daily withdrawal allowance, only to be given a plastic bag of ten-cent “bond coins.” In Zimbabwe, even fake money is in short supply.
The government knows that it needs to address the cash crisis and create jobs. But it seems highly doubtful that the very same people who destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy through mismanagement and theft have suddenly seen the light and can now credibly pilot a turnaround. Indeed, the leaders of the economic policy team, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Central Bank Governor John Panonetsa Mangudya, are both Mugabe-era relics. Given their track record, one would need hard evidence to believe that this is a new era for the economy.
Few of the heralded reforms have actually been implemented. Government wages still gobble up more than 90 percent of state revenues. Plans for repaying old loans depend on mystery saviors and magical thinking about investor largesse. A highly touted anti-corruption campaign is little more than a selective attack on political opponents. And the government’s courting of international investors is less about true private commerce and more about securing sweetheart mining and trade deals for companies controlled by the political and military elite.
Zimbabwe’s desire for legitimacy and need for new financing create a window of leverage for the United States. Although some international actors may be satisfied to bless an election if it is merely nonviolent, Washington should stand with the people of Zimbabwe by holding their government to its own standards, clearly articulated in Zimbabwe’s constitution. Washington should proceed cautiously and with eyes wide open. It will be up to savvy observers to make a judgment call if the intimidation, voter repression, and electoral malfeasance have been sufficient to swing the election result. If significant issues like voter roll integrity and privacy of the vote are not resolved, the United States should not hesitate to withhold endorsement. If intimidation or vote rigging has altered the final outcome, Washington must say so publicly. And if the election is disputed or the military intervenes again, the United States should make it clear that debt relief and international legitimacy depend upon a verifiable return to democratic governance.
The same is true for human rights and any economic assistance. Washington should insist that the victims, not the perpetrators, determine any decisions about forgiveness or “moving on.” And the United States should be wary about granting Zimbabwe debt relief or international aid before the government has come up with a realistic economic plan and made concrete progress. Doing otherwise would not help ordinary Zimbabweans but would further entrench the military and political elite.
For too long, Zimbabweans have had to survive repeated crises caused by their own repressive and corrupt government. When Mugabe was finally ousted, it was relief as much as ebullience that brought the people out onto the streets. But they also see this moment, when their government is so concerned about appearances, as an opportunity to demand better governance before, during, and after the election. As one activist recently told us, “a door has been cracked open … we need to insert a wedge so it cannot be closed again.”