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Zimbabwe: The Politics of National Liberation and International Division


Despite the rising humanitarian costs of the crisis in Zimbabwe, the international community remains deeply divided about its response, allowing President Mugabe to believe that he can exploit the policy fissure between – broadly – the West and Africa. The foreign media’s emphasis on the plight of white commercial farmers plays into the regime’s liberation rhetoric, reinforcing the erroneous but widespread belief in Africa that the West is concerned about Zimbabwe only because white property interests have been harmed. What is happening in Zimbabwe and the lack of a continental response have damaged perceptions of Africa in the wider international community, weakening in the process the promising but still embryonic New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU).

Zimbabwe’s crisis of governance is the primary cause of its economic tailspin and food emergency. The ruling ZANU-PF party has consolidated nearly absolute political and economic power in the aftermath of the stolen March 2002 presidential election and the similarly flawed 28-29 September local elections. Both were marked by systematic state-sponsored violence and intimidation, but ZANU-PF officials went even further in the latter case, telling local chiefs and headmen in some areas that if they did not produce a ruling party victory, they would not receive food. Indeed, food is increasingly being used as a political weapon to undermine opponents and reward loyalists.

If current trends are not reversed, there is a real prospect that its political, economic and social foundations will collapse, leaving Zimbabwe a failed state. At the least, the escalating economic crisis will further destabilise the region, particularly South Africa, by driving tens of thousands more refugees out of Zimbabwe and into the neighbouring states. Destruction of the commercial farming sector, the backbone of the economy, ensures that this is no short term emergency.

Despite government rhetoric, the land invasion strategy has not reformed ownership inequities. Its real objectives – as with the abuse of food aid – have been to punish the opposition and to reward its own supporters. Large estates have routinely been given to ZANU-PF officials and military officers, creating a class of absentee landlords who are growing few crops in the midst of intensifying famine. Mugabe believes that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will disintegrate without white farmer support. He wants to retain many white farmers since his government needs the foreign exchange they can generate, but as docile supporters of his party. He has calculatingly taken a temporary hit in production to break the back of commercial farmer support for the MDC. Politically compliant farmers will be allowed to remain, while the assault will continue on those who are more politically active.

The international response is still characterised by too much bark and too little bite. Mugabe himself may be virtually impossible to influence at this stage, but to affect ZANU-PF calculations, key actors must increase the regime’s isolation. More credible targeted sanctions – wider, deeper and better enforced than those presently in place in the U.S. and the EU – are a necessary start.

Without serious regional movement, however, there is little hope for achieving meaningful change in Zimbabwe. South Africa and its negotiating partner, Nigeria, can provide ZANU-PF an honourable way out of the crisis by resuming the process they began last spring, before the ruling party walked out, for negotiation of a transitional or interim government leading to an internationally supervised new election.

However, South Africa does not yet appear to be sufficiently convinced of the imminence of the threat to its own stability to act with sufficient energy, especially as it seems to fear the impact of Mugabe’s charges that it is in collusion with the West. Therefore, the U.S. and EU, although they should not drop their insistence that more vigorous action regarding Zimbabwe could engender greater support for NEPAD, should, eschew public and presently counter-productive pressure on Pretoria to do more, while increasing quiet engagement with and pressure on the other countries of the Southern African Development Commission (SADC) and Nigeria. If they can be persuaded to act more resolutely, even if only behind the scenes while many remain relatively supportive of Mugabe in public, this will have a positive impact in turn on South Africa’s willingness to act.

If it wishes to energise a timely and effective regional response, the wider international community will also need to develop and demonstrate greater understanding of the land issue as it is strongly felt throughout the continent, especially in southern Africa.

The objectives remain an end to the political standoff, restoration of the rule of law, timely retirement of Mugabe and creation of conditions for free and fair elections so that Zimbabwe’s citizens can determine their leaders. The division of labour between states applying public pressure and those working in private is the most realistic tactic by which to resolve the crisis before Zimbabwe collapses entirely or more widespread violence erupts.


To the governments of South Africa and Nigeria:

1. Revive efforts to negotiate an inter-party (ZANU-PF and MDC) solution, with civil society input, which will require initial pressure to bring ZANU-PF back to the table.

2. Coordinate regional (SADC) and broader African pressures to ensure that ZANU-PF no longer obstructs the process, which should be directed toward achieving a negotiated inter-party solution that includes restoration of the rule of law, genuine land reform, an exit strategy for Mugabe, and establishment of conditions for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections to be held significantly ahead of the regularly scheduled dates.

To the wider international community, especially the governments of the U.S. and EU:

3. Undertake a more nuanced two-track policy of strong and public unilateral actions to isolate the ZANU-PF regime while quietly engaging with and applying back-stage pressure on key African states and SADC to encourage them to more resolute action.

a) To isolate the ZANU-PF regime:

  • enforce existing targeted sanctions rigorously, tighten loopholes and, when international legal obligations require host states to permit Zimbabwean officials to attend conferences, restrict delegates narrowly to the immediate conference area of the city in question;

  • expand the list of those targeted to cover the regime’s commercial supporters and bankers (including safari operators fronting for ZANU-PF economic interests), key army and police officers, ZANU-PF officials one tier below those currently on the list, and family members of those targeted, particularly those studying in the West;

  • use the International Convention Against Torture to arrest senior members of ZANU-PF responsible for Zimbabwe having one of the highest rates of torture in the world if these individuals do travel into their jurisdiction without the benefit of international legal immunity;

  • mount a campaign to expose the extent of stolen assets for which ZANU-PF is responsible, particularly by identifying assets held outside Zimbabwe in countries that will not participate in any asset freeze against ruling party officials; and

  • increase assistance for civil society and opposition institutions, particularly in the form of direct budget and operational support, to lay the foundation for a return to democracy.

b) To engage quietly with key African states and SADC and apply back-stage pressure to encourage more resolute action:

  • reduce the rhetoric that plays into Mugabe’s anti-colonial posture and stimulates regional concern about being perceived as carrying out the West’s policies;

  • continue quietly to condition support for NEPAD upon more robust regional action on Zimbabwe; and

  • concentrate efforts at persuasion upon Nigeria and the members of SADC other than South Africa.

4. Engage more directly and systematically on the issue of land reform, focusing initially on listening to the concerns of southern African governments, opposition parties and civil society organisations about unequal ownership.

To the Food Donors and Operational Relief Agencies:

5. Shine a spotlight on the politicisation of food aid in Zimbabwe and make all food relief conditional on ensuring that everyone receives assistance regardless of political affiliation.

6. Specifically target displaced persons.

7. Work urgently with the government to have more implementing partners approved for food distribution.

8. Minimise controversy by providing maize wherever possible from non-genetically modified supplies or, if this is not feasible, substituting as necessary other grains such as wheat.

To the Government of Zimbabwe:

9. Return to the negotiating table with the MDC, cease violence and repression against the opposition and civil society, and ameliorate the food crisis by stopping use of food as a political weapon, liberalising its import, and approving additional implementing partners to distribute it.

To the Opposition MDC:

10. Clarify the party’s position on land reform and the differences between it and ZANU-PF on implementation.

Harare/Brussels, 17 October 2002


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