How the Situation in Zimbabwe Could Proceed

President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe listens as Prof. Alpha Oumar Konare, chairman of the Commission of the African Union, addresses attendees at the opening ceremony of the 10th Ordinary Session of the Assembly during the African Union Summit in Addis Ab aba, Ethiopia, Jan. 31, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock) (Released)

The military is currently holding Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, under house arrest, likely seeking the president’s cooperation.

In the aftermath of the November 15 military intervention, there are credible rumors that negotiations are underway at State House in Harare for a deal that confirms the transfer of power from Robert Mugabe while retaining him as a ceremonial head of state. Unconfirmed rumors suggest that the negotiations are including such major opposition leaders as Morgan Tsvangirai and ZANU-PF politicians that had been previously removed by Mugabe, including Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Under one scenario, the goal would be the establishment of a transitional government that would include representatives of the formal opposition; it would function like a government of national unity and prepare for genuine, democratic elections in the future, perhaps in two or three years. It would be headed by Mnangagwa, restored as vice president. To sweeten the deal, there would be guarantees for the well-being of Robert Mugabe and his family, but corruption investigations would still likely target supporters of his wife, Grace. The minister of finance has already been arrested, and other cabinet officers associated with Grace are in hiding.

Such a deal requires Mugabe’s acquiescence and there is nothing in his past that would indicate that he would accept what would, in effect, be the loss of power. Further, Grace and her supporters in the ZANU-PF would be deprived of political roles. On the other hand, the situation is entirely new for Mugabe, who has never before been in the custody of the military. He might also consider that there has been no outpouring of support for him in the streets. His wife and children, widely hated for their abusive behavior and conspicuous consumption, at least in Harare, would receive immunity from prosecution, so there is a good chance that Mugabe will deal for his and their sake.

What is the extent of Grace Mugabe’s influence in Zimbabwe?

The extent to which Grace can control or influence Mugabe in unknown. Certainly, as he has become feebler he has become ever more dependent on her. Would she accept political marginalization? What are her alternatives? (There are rumors, denied by the military, that she has somehow escaped house arrest and has fled to Namibia.)

If Mugabe refuses to deal with the military, the latter will face a dilemma. It could keep him and his wife under permanent house arrest and cut them off from contact with the media, though it is still unlikely it would depose him as head of state. This move would be risky, however. Mugabe’s base of popular support in the countryside has thus far remained quiet, no doubt awaiting the outcome of the negotiations. If the perception grows that their “icon” of the struggle against white supremacy, who transferred white-owned land to Africans and thus to whom they have to thank in part for the land they own, is being disrespected or abused by the military, a rural grassroots opposition may develop.

Weighing a Possible Regional or International Response

The African Union and the Southern African Development Community, the relevant regional organizations, oppose coups as a matter of principle. Thus far they have been muted about the change. If the military government drags on, it will likely be subject to increased African and Western criticism. The longer there is no clear way forward, the greater the possibility that the impressive unity on display by the military could begin to break down and that the coup and its eventual opponents could move in a radical and violent direction. There is also the risk of igniting ethnic conflict, always smoldering below the surface in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is a Shona, and that ethnic group has typically been a part of his power base.

Hence, the best outcome would be a deal between Mugabe and the military that strips him of power but retains him as a chief of state with all of the due honors in a transitional government that moves toward the establishment of democratic and legal norms. Once again, however, such a favorable outcome is highly dependent on Mugabe, and even if he does cooperate, there is no guarantee that Zimbabwean governance improves after the transition.

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at Council on Foreign Relations

Via Council on Foreign Relations
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