Zimbabwe’s Looming Elections Are a Test for the United States

July 26, 2018

Zimbabweans will elect a new president on July 30. For the first time in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history, Robert Mugabe will not be running. His much younger wife’s greed and  outlandish political ambitions  drove Zimbabwe’s military to depose the 93 year-old despot last November. Former Vice President Emmerson Mnangawa, who fled Zimbabwe after threats from Mrs. Mugabe and her political supporters, returned to take control of the ruling party ZANU-PF. On Nov. 24, he assumed the presidency.

Mnangagwa swiftly scheduled new elections, but to many observers his new government looks like a military junta. Will it stand down if an energized and reform-minded opposition alliance, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), wins on July 30? Few believe it will, or that Zimbabwe’s electoral commission will proclaim any result other than a win for Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF. A bitterly disputed election could rob Mnangagwa of the legitimacy he needs to get international backing and re-float Zimbabwe’s fast sinking economy.

Most of Zimbabwe’s African neighbors will accept any election result as long as the process is free of the kind of violence and obvious rigging so common under Mugabe. Far more important, however, is Washington’s position. Without American backing, Zimbabwe will find it very hard to renegotiate its crushing debt or access new international lending. Mnangagwa also desperately wants an end to targeted U.S. bilateral sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s election is thus also a test of American readiness to promote democratic change in Africa. Endorsing a flawed election result would be to invite long incumbent elites to continue the misrule of the Mugabe years. It would be far better for the United States to insist that, whatever the election outcome, significant reforms must be enacted to demonstrate that the transition is real before any major changes in American policy occur.

I was part of a five-person delegation from the Zimbabwe Working Group that visited Zimbabwe in May 2018. The group is an independent, Washington-based unofficial collective of former senior US government officials, scholars, and activists with experience and expertise in Zimbabwe. As a retired senior career American diplomat with three decades of experience in Africa, I co-founded this working group in 2017 with fellow Africa-watchers concerned about Zimbabwe’s future. Our delegation met with a wide range of political and economic actors, government officials and diplomats. We came away convinced that Mugabe’s forced retirement, for all the jubilation it triggered on the streets of Harare, will matter little if a corrupt and repressive ZANU-PF stays in power under new management.

The ‘Crocodile’ Plays Nice

Mnangagwa is a shadowy former confidante of Mugabe with deep connections to Zimbabwe’s military and intelligence apparatus. He is also considered the likely architect of some of the worst human rights violations of the Mugabe era. His “crocodile” nickname denotes stealth and lethality. Mnangagwa has played his cards well since assuming the presidency. He invited a wide range of international monitors to the upcoming elections. He has allowed opposition party rallies and protest marches. He has called repeatedly for overcoming the country’s “poisonous” partisan divisions. Every Zimbabwean we spoke to conceded that the fear so pervasive under Mugabe had receded somewhat and that previously closed political space had opened for civil society and the media.

Mnangagwa has also repeatedly reached out to international audiences with the message that Zimbabwe is “open for business” and that he will facilitate and protect foreign investment. The reason for this charm offensive is clear: Zimbabwe is in a deep economic crisis. The country has no national currency, using instead the U.S. dollar. As our sources in Harare explained, Zimbabwe holds only an estimated $250 million in real dollars, but Zimbabwean individuals and businesses have between $8 and $10 billion on deposit in banks. The Zimbabwean government is circulating “bond notes” — in effect, a ghost currency pegged to the U.S. dollar but backed by nothing. Zimbabweans can withdraw a maximum of $20 a day from their bank accounts, but only in “bond notes,” not actual dollars, and usually only after a two or three hour wait. Businesses often wait months to access the dollars needed to finance imports.

Apart from the liquidity crisis, Zimbabwe is essentially bankrupt. It is carrying about $10.8 billion in external debt. It is more than $1.7 billion in arrears to the World Bank and African Development Bank. It owes domestic creditors another $4 billion. Meanwhile, real economic growth is negative, poverty levels are rising and as many as 2.5 million Zimbabweans risk food insecurity this year.

Who is Really in Charge?

The Zimbabwe Defense Forces did not put Mnangagwa in office in order to fix the economy. They did so to block Grace Mugabe from forcing her way into the presidency. Senior military and ZANU-PF officials run diamond and platinum mines and other key areas of Zimbabwe’s economy as private fiefdoms. Grace Mugabe and her entourage of were bound to disrupt these arrangements. So how far can Mnangagwa really go, if he is actually sincere, in tackling the pervasive corruption at the heart of Zimbabwe’s economic ills? Our sources in Harare pointed out that Mnangagwa’s few anti-corruption measures thus far have only targeted Grace Mugabe or her supporters.

Mnangagwa is surrounded by senior military figures to whom he owes his rescue from exile. Recently retired generals serve in many key positions in government and the party, including as Vice President, Foreign Minister, Lands Minister, High Court Chief Judge, and Chairman of ZANU-PF’s commissariat and Politburo. But we do not know how cohesive the ruling party and security forces are. When ousting Mugabe, the military manhandled and sidelined Zimbabwe’s police and intelligence services, creating fractures in the security sector. In May, ZANU-PF’s primary elections turned chaotic when military factions looking to secure their own seats in Parliament turned against a number of party candidates loyal to Mnangagwa. The president himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in June that was clearly organized by disgruntled factions in either the security services or ZANU-PF.

An Energized Opposition on an Uneven Playing Field

By contrast, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and allied smaller parties have coalesced around 40-year-old challenger Nelson Chamisa  who has excited large crowds even in the heartland ZANU-PF territories of Mashonaland. However, the MDC lacks the national organization of ZANU-PF and is strapped for cash. It is up against incumbents that dominate the media, have all assets of the state at their disposal and are subtly reminding voters, especially in rural areas, that failing to support ZANU-PF has historically had fearsome consequences.

Many observers have serious misgivings about the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Adopting an exceedingly narrow interpretation of its mandate, the commission has consistently “missed opportunities” (in the words of international observers) to improve the transparency of the election process. The commission was slow to develop the biometric voter roll and share it with the MDC and rejected calls for a comprehensive independent audit. It has refused MDC access to the ballot paper printing process. (Faulty voter rolls and suspect ballots have marred past elections.) Just two weeks before the election, the commission added a requirement that each voter must be visually observed by election officials while in the voting booth.

Failure to assure Zimbabweans of the secrecy of their ballot may be the most significant problem for the coming election. More than a quarter of Zimbabweans fear the government will know how they voted. Adding to their concern, Zimbabweans awoke recently to a text from Mnangagwa urging them to vote for ZANU-PF. Such a targeted mass message is hard to imagine without access to the electoral commission’s confidential voter registration data.

Some senior ZANU-PF officials have warned that the security forces will not accept a MDC victory. Reports persist of military personnel circulating in rural areas to drum up ZANU-PF votes. In early July, when asked if the military would allow an opposition victory, a defense force spokesmen replied that the military would “uphold the constitution.”  The same formulation was used to rationalize the coup against Mugabe.

Critical Role of International Observers

Despite the uneven playing field, an Afrobarometer poll released July 19 shows the MDC coalition has closed to within three percentage points of ZANU-PF (37 percent vs 40 percent), with 20 percent of voters undecided.. Although Mnangagwa has banked heavily on promises to rebuild Zimbabwe’s economy, more voters (42 percent to 32 percent) now believe Chamisa is the better bet to create jobs.

The role of international and domestic observers will be crucial in determining the validity of the election. The U.S. embassy in Harare, the National Democratic and International Republican Institutes, and the European Union have teams in place. The Southern African Development Community) and African Union are also sending observers. All these foreign actors will need to rely on Zimbabwean civil society’s election monitors to spot irregularities and assess the fairness of the polling. A key indicator of fairness will be whether these Zimbabwean counterparts have unrestricted access to polling centers and counting stations.

With few exceptions, African election observers have in past years largely refrained from criticism of Zimbabwean election, even when they failed to pass the most basic standards of fairness. Nothing suggests these observers will be more exacting now than in the past. The United Kingdom, a strong past critic of Mugabe, appears to be banking on Mnangagwa as the best bet for taking Zimbabwe forward. In a gaffe skeptics saw as proof of British partisanship, then U.K. High Commissioner to Harare, Catriona Laing, was photographed at 10 Downing Street earlier this year wearing Mnangagwa’s trademark regalia — a boldly multicolored scarf.

All Eyes on Washington

All sides told our delegation the judgment of the United States matters most, both in terms of the elections and in the aftermath. The reason is straightforward: U.S. sanctions, enacted in 2003, targeted ZANU-PF elites and government entities judged to have undermined democratic institutions. While the sanctions had little to do with Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown, they are seen as a red flag to the rest of the international community. Mnangagwa hopes a credible election will prompt Washington to lift the sanctions. Chamisa and the MDC want sanctions lifted too — but only after conclusive evidence that democracy is actually being restored.

Sanctions aside, the United States also holds the key to Zimbabwe’s re-engagement with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Paris Club group of international creditors. American opposition in any of these institutions would make it almost impossible for Zimbabwe to clear its arrears, renegotiate outstanding debt and attract new foreign lending. Without an infusion of outside capital — and given the reluctance of even China to extend new credits to — Zimbabwe has no visible route to solvency or to an easing of its economic crisis.

The likeliest outcome is a generally orderly ballot after which electoral commission declares Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF winners by a small margin. Observers will note irregularities and anomalies significant enough to question the credibility of the process, but will stop short of challenging the verdict. The MDC will cry foul and demand a new election under tighter international supervision. It will not be the untarnished result Mnangagwa hoped for.

Washington has a rare opportunity to help shape a more democratic and prosperous future for Zimbabwe. The people of Zimbabwe, however, gain nothing if the United States endorses a flawed election to justify re-engagement with a government that has not yet begun a process of serious reform. In such a scenario, Mnangagwa and the military hardliners around him would be under no pressure at all to continue opening political space or address issues of corruption and economic mismanagement.

Washington should view even a relatively clean win by Mnangagwa, or an unexpected MDC victory or power-sharing agreement between the MDC and ZANU-PF, only as a starting point for re-engagement. The United States has many ways to gradually incentivize a Zimbabwean government that is serious about real political and economic reform. It can, for example, progressively relax sanctions, facilitate Zimbabwe’s re-entry into international financial markets, put Zimbabwe on a path to the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s development assistance programs, and even offer to re-professionalize Zimbabwe’s military. The key is use these and other tools judiciously to leverage a sustained transformation away from decades of repressive and corrupt rule under Mugabe.


Mark Bellamy is Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons College in Boston and senior adviser for Africa at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. A career foreign service officer, he was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and U.S. Ambassador to Kenya under President George W. Bush. His first posting in Africa was in Harare, Zimbabwe in the 1980s.

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