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6 December 2017

Zimbabwe: Slip sliding away?

Change in Zimbabwe is happening; and is driving a Tsunami of expectation.  But there are many different perspectives on that change, offering the prospect of a spectrum of reactions over time ranging from assertively expressed self-interest to popular disillusionment and discontent.  None of this is to propose that Zimbabwe cannot have a secure, stable, prosperous future.  But to secure these goals, quite a number of issues will need to be managed well, and in an integrated fashion.

Reasons to be cheerful: One…

Following the events of November 2017, the interests of people, party and state are probably the most aligned that they have ever been – and will ever be again in the future.  Although the motivations of the various actors are not always the same, the consensus around a future Zimbabwe characterised by jobs, a functioning economy, the rule of law, services and accountability is currently secure.  For some – particularly the ruling elite (not much changed from before) – these commitments represent a rhetorical yet pragmatic need to differentiate themselves from what went before.  For others – particularly the broad mass of citizens – this is a real and present need which they now dare to hope will be fulfilled.


Set amongst a generalised sense of powerlessness on the part of the population, recent events have given citizens two significant levers which – pulled wisely – will help them to secure what they want and need from recent changes.  The army – and more latterly the Government – have been at pains to earn legitimacy with the population.  Initially derived from just being (and speaking in terms which are) different to the former regime, the principle power which ordinary people have is to withhold legitimacy pending actual change in their lives.  Linked to this desire for legitimacy is a need, on the part of those in the new regime whose roots lie in the old, to ensure their survival. 


And there are signs that the new Government understands that they need to be – and be seen to be – more responsive to popular concerns. The new President’s first attempt at appointing a Cabinet appeared to break the rules on the proportion of appointees not drawn from the ranks of elected MPs; and the appointment of serving members of the security sector to the Cabinet.  It also failed to include any women.  Following an outcry, and within only two days, the President revised the composition of his Cabinet to include a (lone) woman; and to remain within the rules over the appointment of non-MPs.  Although only time will tell if he also manages to resolve the status of the military officers in his Cabinet, this episode suggests that – unlike his predecessor – the new President is at least susceptible to popular concerns.

There may be trouble ahead

But these positives all share a darker underside.   The amount of time which people are prepared to wait for their “change dividend” is limited.  And the elite will not want to wait long for the legitimacy which they crave.  These pressures of time offer potential for turbulence in the run up to the next elections.

At the moment, the “new” ZANU-PF could probably win an election on the basis that it, with the support of the army, has removed the person (or two) most closely identified with the difficulties faced by the country.  But this effect cannot last for long.  As the cold light of post-transition reality is revealed to look very much like pre-transition jobless-ness, economic peril and kleptocratic practice, the transition bump will fade.  In terms of people who have come to believe that their long standing service delivery and employment woes are about to be addressed, there must be a question about ZANU’s ability to bounce through the next election (due by August 2018) on promise alone.

As time passes, and completely understandable challenges hinder the delivery of overhyped expectation, the political opposition might expect to profit.  There are some signs that attendance at biometric registration centres is up; and that this is on the back of a small but growing desire to vote ZANU out of office.  The question of whether the opposition – now much more fragmented and diverse than it has ever been – is capable of organising to win an election, take power and deliver is moot. 

The army is revered for the calm and professional way in which it has initiated and overseen the transition.  The police – hitherto an expensive and daily headache for the population – are still all but invisible on the streets.  But as the military tries to play the role of the police, it will inevitably run up against difficult situations which, handled poorly, will quickly cause the population to cool on them.  The military leadership will be keen to return (metaphorically) to barracks as quickly as possible – every day they remain in visible control is a threat to their reputation.

These dynamics could interact unhelpfully, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the new government; and consequently, threatening the self-interest that really put it in place.  The military – on record as saying that they will not serve someone who was not a liberation fighter - are highly unlikely to tolerate an electoral process which removes ZANU from power and threatens their interests; and ZANU – an organisation with an adaptive survival instinct – is unlikely to allow itself to be removed.   This means that if there is a national election in 2018, ZANU will want to win it convincingly. 

At present, ZANU clearly plans to hold and contest the election.  But the new President’s pragmatism might yet get the better of him.  Confronted with a choice between cheating and winning or playing fair and losing, the logical choice would be to defer the election until a later date and form a Government of National Unity (thereby co-opting the opposition).  To do so would avoid a potentially divisive and violent election campaign, retain ZANU’s effective hegemony and protect the interests of the ageing elite as they walk slowly towards the sunset.  And it would give election-weary Zimbabweans a break.

17 November 2017

Zimbabwe: The transition from a State of Grace to Pandora's Box


Change is happening in Zimbabwe.  But its nature is unclear, its trajectory is unknown and any assumption that it is for the better is very tenuous.  What is clear, however, is that it ought to be an opportunity to lever better outcomes in the future.  Managing the change will be a bumpy ride for people, administrators, government and parties.  It will be disorienting for some; and will fail to satisfy the (inflated) expectations of others.  Understanding the context within which the change is happening and how it affects ordinary people will be key.  Helping people, and the groups that they form to represent them, to lever the potential of whatever change is on offer would be an investment in their resilience in uncertain times.

The real fragile moment

It is increasingly clear that what is happening in Zimbabwe now is really internal ZANU-PF politicking being played out with military means.  In that respect, it is not really a coup – yet.  The military, as a function of the Party, is seeking to ensure that their interests are protected.  That the majority of Zimbabweans appear to believe that this is a good thing is a sign of the extent to which the Party (specifically its elites) have captured the state.

Some kind of resolution will almost certainly be achieved.  The delay is probably because the one lever which President Mugabe retains is his ability to deliver the fig leaf of constitutional due process.  What happens next will be vital.  The most likely outcome – either within the next week or by the end of the year (after the ZANU Congress) – will be a transition from Mugabe to Emerson Mnangagwa (the military’s preferred candidate).  This will almost certainly be followed by some kind of Transitional National Government (TNG) including people (if not parties) from the current opposition.  Vitally – and potentially controversially for the international community – any such arrangement will almost certainly include the deferral of the 2018 elections by anything from five to ten years.  (All Zimbabweans, but not apparently all foreigners, know how divisive and violent a near term election could be.)

Although the military and their political allies are really fighting for their own interests, many ordinary Zimbabweans particularly in the urban and peri-urban areas, have invested a great deal of expectation in the change which they imagine is coming.  And the military have done little to manage that expectation to reasonable levels. Any post-Mugabe solution will be accompanied by fever pitch excitement and an assumption that there really will be jam tomorrow.  Against a backdrop of an almost totally failed economy, high unemployment and collapsed public services, even the best intentioned of governments is likely to disappoint the majority of the population.

And Mugabe is not without supporters – at least by default.  Older, rural people are likely to view his departure as the removal of the one certainty – albeit not always a good one – which has featured in their lives.  Powerless aside from their regular vote in support of him, rural people are ill-equipped to understand and engage with the changes which will affect them.

The real fragile moment in Zimbabwe, then, is not now as the big beasts are manoeuvring for advantage, but later when ordinary people realise that their lives have not improved greatly – if at all.  This offers the potential for significant future destabilisation as the vice-like grip that Mugabe has employed to date is replaced by a new regime which, by definition, is vulnerable to external forces and internal bickering.

The opportunity

Recent events in Zimbabwe were not unplanned – although the timing may not have been that which Mnangagwa or the military might have chosen.  The smooth and hitherto peaceful way in which the military has acted suggests a significant amount of prior preparation and planning.  This has almost certainly extended to planning for post-Mugabe government.  Mnangagwa knows that he must re-start the economy; and that this needs to translate swiftly into visible change for the ordinary citizen.  His early statements when in office will almost certainly focus on moves to correct the "errors" of the past (five years or so) and steps to attract investment and promote economic activity – and thereby employment followed by future tax revenue.

In order to move beyond mere rhetoric, Mnangagwa’s government will need to be seen to deliver.  That it is likely to be a TNG will simultaneously limit his room for (political) manoeuvre and require him to take into account opposition demands for service delivery and accountability.  This will, in effect, be an invitation to the population to collaborate with the TNG to articulate their needs and to hold government to account.

14 July 2017

Kenya: It's not (all) about the next elections

Kenya is approaching its next round of elections; and although close it is clear that the process is unlikely to throw up any real surprises.  The entitled highland elite - across the political spectrum - will continue to dominate the distribution of power and wealth.  And even if Odinga makes the breakthrough he and his group covet so much, it is not clear than even then a new form of politics will have gripped the country.  Insight from ISS is here.

But it is possible that the real issues facing Kenya are not those on offer to the electorate in 2017.  There is no doubt that the country can carry off a credible election; and that despite likely outbreaks of violence, things will be kept manageable.  The national consciousness is still scared by the election violence of 2007.  And the question of whether or not there might be violence is yesterday's news to most Kenyans.

The real - much more existential - question facing Kenya is about the next elections.  What will it take to break the strangle hold of the highland elites on the body politic?  How much longer can they go on taking it in turns to "eat" as Michela Wrong might put it?  The insecurity and generally hostility of the northern parts of Kenya mean that not very much attention is focussed on those parts.  But the (relative) wealth of the beef herds, and the demographic changes expected to seize Kenya leave one wondering if the highlanders have ben considered the prospect of a change driven by the communities - ethnic Somali and others - from the north.

Is it possible that the 2017 election is not the key one?  Is it possible that the next election might deliver a seismic change in Kenyan politics which will leave the country's traditional allies and partners wondering quite what happened to their influence and "eating" opportunities?  Perhaps.

6 July 2017

Central African Republic: When the solution to insecurity isn’t security at all

Central African Republic (CAR) has been in one form or another of political or security crisis for a very long time indeed.  More recently, the political crisis has been overshadowed by the security crisis, with control over the use of force significantly contested; and the international arbiter – a United Nations peace support operation – failing to act with legitimacy or credibility.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the solution to this problem is the reinforcement – either through transformation or funding – of the security sector.  But to do so in a political context which is so weak would simply create another, more influential and forceful actor in an already crowded space.    Alongside this conventional approach to security sector development sits a sense that the architecture of government needs to be strengthened, transformed and/or generally improved.  And it probably does.  But in a context where everything is important, how does one decide what to do and when to do it?

Improving the security situation in a country is not just about strengthening (or limiting) the security actors; nor just about making them both effective and accountable.  Sometimes it is about leadership and vision – essential elements in a country deciding what it wants from its future and how it is going to get it.  In the case of CAR, although all branches of government – and the experience of governance for ordinary people – are critically weak, the stand out problem is a lack of vision.  CAR’s politicians are not providing the leadership that people want and need, and are therefore unable to compete with the overwhelming logic of submitting to the nearest, strongest actor.  It is this lack of vision, rather than an overweening and broadly out of control security sector, which is the country’s most signal weakness and failure.

Addressing this weakness ought to be relatively straightforward.  Surely the good voters of CAR would be susceptible to a credible vison articulated by person, or group of people, able to speak to the issues of daily concern to the citizen.  Curiously, the obstacles to this are a form of unconscious isomorphic mimicry.  CAR’s political leaders are trying so hard to work out how to be attractive to international donors and investment that their political platforms address issues such as debt, legislative agendas and investment strategies rather than the issues likely to be of more direct interest to ordinary citizens – human security; health; education; and access to markets.  Oh, and community security.

In the teeth of an impressive track record of failure, there is an emerging view amongst CAR’s political elite that the problem might be the forms of international alliances on offer.  Where La Francophonie has apparently failed, might perhaps something more Anglo-Saxon be better?  But this apparently binary choice belies a deeper problem.  Not that of choosing between imported value sets and spheres of influence, but the need to develop a much more CAR owned and led vision for the future – drawing on the ideas and resources available in the word today, unlimited by colonial throwbacks and artificial ties.

So the first step in identifying the answers to CAR’s security and development problems should lie not in choosing someone else’s agenda, but in the decolonisation of the minds of the country’s political elite and the solutions which they both propose and seek.