Events of November 2017 in Zimbabwe represent the culmination of a crisis whose tenets include a crisis of legitimacy. One of the most urgent tasks for Zimbabwe’s new government is the restoration of legitimacy, in its various forms.
Judging by his closing statement at Zanu-PF’s just ended extraordinary congress, Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is aware that the events of November 2017 represent the culmination of a crisis of legitimacy. He stated, “As we approach the 2018 harmonised elections, let me reiterate that these will be credible, free and fair… We must always be mindful that no party, however rich its past, has a divine right to govern. That is something we must earn at the ballot box.”
Two aspects within this statement are worth noting: the promise of a “credible, free and fair election”, and the assertion that Zanu-PF can no longer claim a right to govern, solely on the basis of liberation credentials. This statement, I posit, was not only meant for the immediate listeners, but, perhaps more important, for the international community.
In the immediate context, a perceptibly free and fair election would restore full legitimacy to a political process, euphemistically accepted by the region as a “military-facilitated transition”. When looked at within the longue durée of Zimbabwe’s crisis of legitimacy, Mnangagwa’s pledge raises questions about whether his party is ready to jettison rule by coercion and legitimation through liberation memory, for more a more persuasive band of politics. In other words, is this a quest for real legitimacy?
The crisis of government legitimacy in Zimbabwe has been most acute since 2000. There is a view that elections in Zimbabwe, though regular, had become a choice-less endeavour, marred by (state-sponsored) violence, intimidation, allegations of massive vote rigging and irregularities. A comment by one Twitter user in the wake of Mugabe’s forced resignation captures this disillusionment by suggesting that Zimbabwe should have a coup every five years since this has proven to be more effective, bloodless and less costly than elections.
Since 2000 in particular, one cannot successfully argue that the ruling Zanu-PF has relied on popular consent to govern. Instead, legitimation through means other than popular consent became prominent. Liberation memory, (in essence, we are entitled to rule in perpetuity because we fought for the liberation of this country), patronage, populism and coercion became the central pillars for power retention. Within the discourse of liberation memory, Zimbabwe’s military – whose hierarchy is still dominated by veterans of the liberation struggle – sees itself as the custodian of the nation. The recent coup can be seen in that regard. Mugabe’s insistence at one time that he would not leave office until he had completed the mission of giving land back to his people speaks to legitimation through liberation, patronage and populism.
Mugabe’s incessant vitriol against the West, regardless of how one feels about it, was in part an attempt to legitimate himself domestically by creating enemies abroad, while simultaneously securing regional and international legitimacy by positioning himself as a champion of Pan-Africanism and reform of global governance architecture.
To be sure, it is arguable whether Zimbabwe has ever had electoral legitimacy. Violence has been a constant feature of the country’s political history dating back to the colonial period, and has been central to the ruling Zanu-PF’s power retention since 1980. In the 1980s, the party’s quest for a one-party state resulted in the massacre of an estimated 20,000 people in a military-led violent campaign against perceived opponents. Due to the international geo-politics of the time, this received relatively little international attention. However, post-2000, the context had changed, making it difficult for Zimbabwe’s government to retain domestic and international legitimacy with the same political methods.
A confluence of factors informs this changed context. The land question in Zimbabwe – one of the most internationalised conflicts – came to a head, drawing more attention to the events and politics in Zimbabwe. Attacks on white farmers triggered an outcry from the United Kingdom and the rest of the Western world. The growing opposition in Zimbabwe exposed the state’s violent methods of dealing with opponents. This was unfolding in a regional and global context of growing democratic optimism, the so-called “democratic wave” in the south. Furthermore, a new democratic South Africa was expected by the West to influence further democratisation on the continent. That Zimbabwe seemed to be moving in the very opposite direction contributed to the loss of international legitimacy. The blatant violation of bilateral trade and investment agreements undermined investor confidence and weakened Zimbabwe’s standing within the community of nations.
It is useful to point out that governments derive legitimacy from multiple sources, with regular, credible, free and fair elections whose outcome can be reasonably accepted as representing the will of the majority, as just one such source. Governments must be seen to be working for everyone, delivering services, meeting people’s expectations and winning public confidence, among other things. While in the 1980s and, to some extent, 1990s, Zimbabwe’s government retained some service and welfare legitimacy, an entwined political-economic crisis meant loss of legitimacy in its various forms.
Mediation efforts by South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki, dating back as early as 2002, were in essence an attempt at restoring the Zimbabwean government’s legitimacy, both domestically, regionally and internationally.
Further deterioration in the economy, and the political situation – the near loss to the MDC in 2008 and a bloody presidential re-run – left Mugabe without an iota of legitimacy. Even the Southern African Development Community (SADC), hitherto lenient in its assessment of elections in Zimbabwe, could not legitimate the outcome of the 2008 presidential run-off. The 2013 election, though less violent, could not restore full legitimacy due to several technical loopholes. At the same time the economy, which had started to recover during the inclusive government, took a dive and the government continued on a populist path which included, among other things, violation of bilateral and international commitments. Consistent public opinion surveys by Afrobarometer and Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) reveal acute loss of public trust in government and key state institutions. Mugabe’s old age raised questions for both domestic and external players about his capacity to perform as head of state. All of these factors might explain the tacit approval of the coup by the region, and massive support within Zimbabwe.
Given the foregoing, it stands to reason that Zimbabwe’s new government is in search of legitimacy at home and abroad. The question however is whether they are willing to do so without resorting to shortcuts or smoke screens? Thus far, both domestic and external constituencies have been very generous, accepting the new government in spite of the questionable means through which it came into being. The elections in 2018 and the preceding period will test President Mnangagwa’s pledge.
That the new government appears to care about legitimacy and how it is seen by the region and international community may present an opportunity for leverage. The new president is on a charm offensive including encouraging millions of Zimbabweans in the diaspora to help rebuild the country. Mugabe simply did not care. When SADC pressed him for reforms, he threatened to pull out of the bloc – something he did with the Commonwealth. Mnangagwa has been consistent about building bridges, and to this end, a credible election will go a long way. This should include a diaspora vote – since citizenship entails not only duty (to rebuild the country) but privilege as well (to vote, inter alia). If Mnangagwa is to be judged by what he does between now and July 2018, it is not impossible for Zanu-PF to win a free and fair election and restore legitimacy. This may be Zimbabwe’s best opportunity.
The new administration appears to have been more enthusiastic about economic reforms and less about political reforms. Improving service delivery, growing the economy, creating jobs and re-engagement with the international community will go a long way towards restoring public confidence in government, and international legitimacy. However, concerns are being raised about increased militarisation of key institutions, including electoral management, and abuse of state media by the ruling party, inter alia. It is in this regard that SADC, the African Union and civil society within and outside Zimbabwe need to hold Mnangagwa accountable to his word. In the next piece, I will demonstrate how the implementation of the 2016 revised SADC Guideline on Democratic Elections can assist Zimbabwe’s quest for legitimacy. DM
Showers Mawowa is Deputy Director, Southern Africa Liaison Office (SALO).
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