August 14, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Zimbabwe's Ticking Time Bomb

As of mid-August 2012, an unholy alliance of sorts remains in place in Zimbabwe. In 2008, opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai shocked the world by winning 48 percent of a first-round vote for the presidency, despite heavy voter intimidation by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Tsvangirai's five-point win sparked a vicious crackdown by Mugabe's security forces, and Tsvangirai, recognizing that ZANU-PF would not surrender power, withdrew from the contest to spare his supporters further violence.

Ultimately, Zimbabwe's neighbors in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) managed to pressure Mugabe into a power-sharing arrangement between ZANU-PF and the two rival wings of Tsvangirai's  Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the Tsvangirai group and the smaller faction led by Welshman Ncube. While Tsvangirai became prime minister in the resulting Government of National Unity (GNU), the administration's prospects were widely regarded as dim as Mugabe refused to surrender control of the media, the police, the army, or the country's intelligence service, and he kept the National Youth Service pumping out indoctrinated paramilitary gangs trained to batter the MDC.


A Hint of Progress

Europe and the United States favor regime change in Zimbabwe, and have largely refused to engage with the GNU. The MDC has thus been left to manage the policy gridlock on its own — and has done surprisingly well. In fact, the unity government has exceeded all reasonable expectations. The dollarization of the economy under Finance Minister Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the MDC branch loyal to Tsvangirai, has halted Zimbabwe's terrifying hyperinflation (which at one point in 2008 had surged to a monthly rate of 79.6 billion percent!). And, although it took years longer than expected, the MDC has managed to negotiate a constitutional draft that contains several vital reforms, including the devolution of power to the parliament (including parliamentary checks on the military and police), the popular election of provincial governors (who have hitherto been appointed by the president), and the creation of an independent prosecuting authority. Structural economic reforms are still needed, of course, and there is probably little likelihood of the constitution actually becoming law. ZANU-PF spokesmen say the new constitution contains "alien ideas" and are refusing to organize the referendum without overhauling the draft. But many of the provisions are popular, and the MDC is self-assuredly digging in its heels.  

Failure to make progress on the constitutional referendum puts the presidential elections in jeopardy, as the SADC process requires that the constitutional referendum precede the compilation of a new voter roll and elections. That, however, may not be a bad thing as the focus on elections has caused Western observers to overlook the GNU's biggest accomplishments. Also, having a position in the government has greatly enhanced the stature of the MDC, which despite its internal schisms and general lack of competence is a far more credible party today than it was in 2008.  

The ongoing policy disputes between ZANU-PF and the MDC have usefully highlighted the ideological differences between the camps, which the MDC has often shown to its advantage. At the same time, Mugabe's well-deserved loss to the opposition in 2008 has eroded the aura of inviolability that had surrounded his presidency. High-ranking members of his own party have been chatting with American diplomats about a post-Mugabe era, internecine battles in the ruling party's politburo have recently spilled into the open, and some ZANU leaders have even urged Mugabe to declare a successor. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable prior to 2008.


Lingering Schisms

ZANU-PF, a half-century-old machine that began as a national liberation movement with a socialist ideology, is facing its first leadership transition in three decades. Mugabe is now almost 90 years-old and rumored to be suffering from cancer. As the party begins to fracture, rival factions led by Vice President Joice Mujuru and Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa have developed powerful constituencies. Zimbabwe has assuredly entered a period of change and uncertainty, and ZANU-PF may very well emerge as a weaker, less unified, and much less popular party.

That doesn't mean, however, the MDC is ready to take the helm. MDC leaders have also been tarnished by internecine squabbles, and have historically poor relations with the West. Further, many international policymakers do not view the MDC as a credible alternative to ZANU-PF rule. This lack of an attractive political alternative has left the West, particularly the United States, with little incentive to re-engage in Zimbabwe.

And Western opinion is increasingly divided as well. The European Union is ready to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe in the wake of a credible constitutional referendum, suggesting a desire to engage constructively with Harare at a pivotal moment. In contrast, the U.S. is maintaining sanctions and will in all likelihood remain a passive spectator to the conflict. Although the State Department may try yet again to pressure South Africa into imposing sanctions of its own, Pretoria is unlikely to comply.

SADC's intervention in Zimbabwe under South Africa's leadership has been half-hearted and is likely to remain that way. In turn, South African President Zuma has already opted for the most pragmatic, and arguably sensible, approach available to him: he is urging ZANU and the MDC to postpone elections until security, political and electoral reforms have been implemented.

Such standards for action provide a constructive degree of clarity in the midst of the increasing geopolitical complexity in Zimbabwe. Still, given the often intractable nature of African politics in many corners, it would be a mistake to ever confuse simple with easy…or certain.


This report was produced in collaboration with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.



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