Zimbabwe - the tangled web

In the early 1970s I carried out a number of delicate missions assisting African liberation movements, including those within Zimbabwe. At the time Robert Mugabe was in prison and the ZANU party was led by Rev Ndabaningi Sithole. ZAPU was led by Joshua Nkomo. It was said then that ZANU was a party without a leader and Nkomo was a leader without a party. There were always Africans "semi hitch hiking" as they walked between village and city and some would guardedly accept a lift from this white man. I would ask whom they thought should lead the new Zimbabwe and the invariable response, from those who would answer at all, was "Mugabe".

It was inevitable that Mugabe and other nationalist leaders would be released from prison in 1974 in order to enable them to take part in settlement talks and Mugabe immediately set about gaining control of the ZANU party. In 1976 the "Patriotic Front" was formed as an alliance of the two parties but, with the weakness of ZAPU, the united party became dominant under the name "ZANU-PF". After independence in 1980, Nkomo was further weakened by being sacked from the government and by a campaign of serious government violence carried out in his Matabeleland stronghold. Nkomo finally died in July 1999.

Under the Lancaster House Agreement of December 1979, 20% of seats in the independence parliament were reserved for the white minority. This provision was abolished in August 1987. Robert Mugabe signed the Lancaster House Agreement but Russell Johnston reported, in 1980, that Mugabe had said to him, "I accepted a pluralist solution at Lancaster House, and I will stand by it. But I must say to you that I believe that one-party states are just as democratic and often more democratic than pluralist ones. Tanzania is more democratic than Britain." There were eleven amendments to the constitution in its first ten years, most of them designed to entrench the President's authority.

Bit by bit Zimbabwe became an increasingly autocratic state, underpinned by Mugabe's recourse to the running sore of land reform. This is not an academic issue. At the time of independence, the white farmers, who made up around 1% of the population, owned some 70% of arable land, including all the best parcels. Under Lancaster House there was a provision for the British government to compensate farmers who gave up their land over the decade following the Agreement. Inevitably this only covered a small part of the farms and Mugabe was able to exploit the lack of transfer of farms to indigenous Zimbabweans. The issue became more and more violent and white farmers were thrown off their land by force.

This was bad enough in itself but those who took over the farms proved incapable of working them efficiently and production levels declined steeply. Arguably the white farmers should have done much more to prepare their workers for the inevitable changes, but what became all too obvious was that, in order to remain in power, Mugabe was prepared to cut off the country's nose to spite its collective face. Zimbabwe rapidly became a one-party state, with manipulated elections, and a collapsing economy. What food was produced was sequestered by the state and distributed to ZANU-PF party members in order to maintain their loyalty in the face of widespread antagonism to the regime.

From 1992 to 1999 increasing efforts were made to pressurise the white farmers off their land. These were largely unsuccessful but Mugabe's attempt in 2000 to change the constitution to permit land acquisition without compensation was heavily defeated in a referendum. This was the signal for the regime to embark upon a systematic campaign of violent repression of dissident opinion and of attacks on white farmers.

By 1999 a formidable opposition to Mugabe had at last appeared. The Movement for Democratic Change was formed, largely out of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, in order to contest the 2000 constitutional referendum and, following its striking success, it continued under the leadership of Morgan Tvangirai as a political party to contest the rigged elections of 2002 and 2005. Despite occasional tactical errors, no-one can doubt the courage of MDC leaders and activists in the face of politically motivated violence and personal attacks. The MDC split and splintered but Tvangirai doggedly continued to oppose the Mugabe regime.

In the face of catastrophic inflation and widespread poverty, appeals were made to other Southern African presidents to intervene and to broker a settlement that would ensure legitimate elections to take place towards a transfer of power. Thabo Mbeki was invested with the role of mediator but no changes were visible as the 2008 elections arrived. Amidst the criticism of Thabo Mbeki and other Southern African leaders for their failure to prise power from the hands of Robert Mugabe, there is one shining light from the region and that is the Southern Africa Development Community.

It was SADC that brought about the crucial changes at the first round of the last election. The election of a majority of anti-Mugabe MPs, the placing of Morgan Tsvangirai at the top of the presidential poll and, perhaps most surprising of all, the confirmation by the electoral commission of the twenty-three disputed results, came about only because SADC insisted that the results of the voting in every polling district be published at each polling station. This ensured that parties and observers alike were able to tally the figures for themselves rather than having to rely on the government's manipulated results. On this basis Tvangirai clearly led on the first round and a majority of MDC MPs were elected. It is this latter fact that has underpinned Tsvangirai's negotiating position. Without the evident solidarity of the MDC MPs - including those from a breakaway faction - Mugabe would simply have ignored all approaches.

Those of us who are often called upon to assist young democracies and to advise electoral commissions, are well aware that the publication of the voting figures in each polling station is a vital tool of transparency without which the whole electoral process can be subverted at the behest of the power brokers.

SADC's role is vital in the Zimbabwe situation. It is a federation of fourteen Southern African countries, formed in 1980. Being comprised of neighbouring African states, and with representatives nominated by African governments, its legitimacy cannot be denied. However, not even SADC could ensure a fair second round. Faced with the ferocious violence meted out to MDC activists, Morgan Tvangirai had an impossible choice to make and, with the protection of his followers in mind, eventually pulled out of the race.

Then, a bare month after the farcical unopposed second round of elections, Thabo Mbeki appeared to have persuaded Mugabe that his position as president was illegitimate and untenable. Talks commenced on power sharing but there still appears to be no agreed sustainable outcome. Mugabe initially tried to do deals with small factions within the MDC in order to buy time, possibly preparing for even more intensive violence against his opponents - as happened after talks with Joshua Nkomo in 1987. Mbeki's preferred solution of a figurehead Mugabe presidency and an executive Tvangirai premiership, was clearly rejected by Mugabe, and Tvangirai was heavied into a power sharing deal giving him as Prime Minister insufficient authority to deal with Mugabe's congenital authoritarianism.

At the time of writing Mugabe has unilaterally appointed ZANU-PF loyalists to all key ministries involved in the control of the security forces, together with two acolytes as Deputy-Presidents, thus threatening the whole agreement. Morgan Tvangirai continues to maintain a very difficult balancing act between losing support through apparent weakness or insisting on too much power and prolonging the suffering of the Zimbabwe people.

It is quite possible that the content of any deal is now out of Mugabe's hands. Whereas on sheer pragmatic grounds there could be a case for granting Mugabe himself indemnity and permitting him to go into exile, similar terms could hardly extend to his military high command and other top officials who have been responsible for horrific beatings and murders. Fearing the probability of being put on trial - or even being transported to The Hague to face war crime indictments - these powerful acolytes may well decide to sink or swim with Mugabe, in which case they will not permit him to escape justice on his own.

So the nightmare continues for the Zimbabwean people. It is estimated that around 3.5 million have already fled the country, many of them to South Africa. In addition there are large numbers of internal migrants, often forced out of their homes to prevent them voting in the elections. The cash economy has collapsed and poverty levels are shockingly high and increasing.

Meanwhile the MDC bravely sticks to its task, managing to hold its MPs together in order to elect an MDC Speaker of the Parliament and refusing to endorse Mugabe's attempted impositions. Thabo Mbeki's impending forced exit from office in South Africa weakens his authority but it is still up to him and to SADC and its constituent countries to bring structural change. The twenty year old "trade union" of liberation leaders just doesn't have any further legitimacy in the face of such cynical exploitation for the sake of personal power. SADC is not like Britain whose interventions can be painted by the Zimbabwe regime as the utterances of neo-colonialists who want still to control them. The situation in Zimbabwe is so abysmal that such allegations are now wearing very thin but the British Government would be wise to avoid statements that are so provocative as to be counter-productive.