Zimbabwe: New Verse, Same as the First – Analysis


The renewed crackdown against the political opposition in Zimbabwe sparked by fears of an Arab-style uprising illustrates how the illusion of a power-sharing government has merely served as plaster over a gushing wound.

By Derek Charles Catsam for ISN Insights

Nearly three years after the disputed presidential elections of 2008, Zimbabwe continues to function as if it were President Robert Mugabe’s own private fiefdom. While he has ostensibly been engaged in a power-sharing government with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, and by all accounts the rightful winner of the 2008 election – Tsvangirai’s post has been made curiously ineffective, with all of the most vital cabinet slots answering only to the president.


Mugabe still (officially) controls the men with guns, the police, the military and various security agencies; more alarmingly, however, it is starting to seem like it is rather he who is under their control. From this perspective, Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), are being kept in power because these armed groups believe it to be in their own best interests. Whatever the situation, the military brass, closely connected as they are to Mugabe, are rumored to continually refuse to salute Tsvangirai: not a good omen for the likelihood of the security apparatus accepting future electoral results which do not fit their agenda.

Hoping to ward off an Arab-style uprising, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF recently launched a drive to hold parliamentary elections this year. But regional leaders – with South Africa at the helm – have been responding with concern that premature elections would lack democratic credibility, and spark more violence. Zimbabwe demonstrates that elections are a necessary, but hardly sufficient, condition for democracy to bloom. South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has called for the next elections to be a “watershed” in Zimbabwe’s history: peaceful, and properly monitored by international observers. Tsvangirai and the MDC have opposed early elections all along, believing the country is not ready, and the political climate not right, for a vote intended to be free and fair.

A recent crackdown on key MDC leaders serves as a reminder that Mugabe and his supporters are able to turn the spigots of chaos on and off at will. Earlier this month, police arrested the Minister of Energy and Power Development – who also just happened to be a member of the MDC – on charges of criminal abuse of office in a deal to procure fuel.. Further to this, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court – widely seen as partial to Mugabe – also invalidated the election of an MDC politician to the position of Speaker of the House of Assembly, despite him having been in the position since 2008. Tsvangirai issued a statement in response, saying the country was in “crisis”.

Zimbabwe’s volatile political situation reveals the deep flaws in power-sharing governments when the requisite parties do not enter with equal stature and status. The fiction of a ‘coalition government’ provides a convenient façade for Mugabe, who has maintained all real power. Tsvangirai has been left with the scraps – and the hope of being able to reform the system from within. The Zimbabwean situation should give pause to those who look to power sharing as a possible way out of the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire; as appealing as such an entente might be, it would inevitably serve as little more than plaster over a gaping wound.

Whisperings of revolution

There have been whisperings in Zimbabwe – and across the border in South Africa – that perhaps only a Maghreb-inspired revolt will help knock Mugabe from his perch and set the country on the path toward democracy. It is precisely this type of revolutionary uprising that Mugabe hopes to squelch through his myriad machinations: The recent ZANU-PF’s crackdown against the opposition appears to have been spurred by anxieties about the emergence of an Arab-style revolution in Zimbabwe. The party’s fear has been so pronounced, in fact, that it recently ordered the arrest of 46 individuals for simply watching news reports about the Arab uprisings.

While Zimbabweans may dream of a Tunisia-style uprising, reality dictates that mass action will almost certainly lead to a brutal response from police and security forces, military and ZANU-PF loyalists, echoing the situation in Libya.

Dr Derek Charles Catsam is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, where he teaches Modern African history and Modern US history with an emphasis on race, politics and social movements. He is also a senior writer for the Foreign Policy Association’s Africa Blog and has lived, worked and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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