Getting to a Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe

By Gayle E. Smith
Monday, June 23, 2008 4:03 PM

Zimbabwe's race towards oblivion has triggered literally thousands of condemnatory statements but little in the way of imagination. In proposing in Sunday's Outlook section that Europe induce a military coup by temporarily withdrawing its recognition of Robert Mugabe's government, Paul Collier certainly gets high marks for creativity.

Collier knows more than most about the downward spiral that spins out of control when war and poverty collide, and his proposal that the international community reject the legitimacy of governments that willfully deny humanitarian assistance provided by the UN to their citizens adds a new option to the usual list of pressures -- sanctions, the threat of legal prosecution and diplomatic approbation -- that are imposed on recalcitrant regimes. As well, it is a proposal that could give teeth to the "responsibility to protect," a doctrine that has won the verbal support of a majority of the world's governments but which has yielded nothing in the way of meaningful action.

Offered with understandable reservations, Collier's suggestion that this pressure be used to "guide" a coup by the military, however, is fraught with difficulties. First, Zimbabwe's military has a direct and prominent role in orchestrating the ongoing campaign of violence, and there are clear indications that its senior leadership has vested interests in maintaining powers that are on par with Mugabe's. According to insiders, it was the security forces -- including the military -- that persuaded Mugabe to hang tight when he briefly contemplated conceding to his opponent for the presidency, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Second, Zimbabwe's military has neither a monopoly on the use of force nor, necessarily, the means to thwart the spread of the violence that is now being triggered not just by the security services, but also by the Veterans' Association and gangs of armed and unemployed young men organized as "youth militia." Third, acute pressure might cause Zimbabwe's highly-politicized officer corps to dump Mugabe, but it is unlikely to cause them to embrace his opponent or oversee truly free elections. Fourth and finally, there is the danger that the military will fail to act, and that Mugabe will, as he has for the last decade, exploit the isolation triggered by Europe to justify a new round of bloodletting.

There is another way, and one that has a different starting point and might lead to a different outcome. Rather than giving Mugabe the opportunity to spin the temporary withdrawal of recognition by Europe, or even the UN, in the terms of "us versus them," recognition should first and prominently be withdrawn by African governments.

Many, including the citizens of Zimbabwe, are frustrated by and disappointed in the failure of southern Africa's regional point man, South African President Thabo Mbeki, to forge a solution over the last several years. Fortunately, others are now stepping up to the plate. The governments of Botswana, Angola, Tanzania and Zambia -- all countries that share Zimbabwe's legacy in the struggle against apartheid -- are now challenging the status quo, as are 14 former African heads of state and Kofi Annan. The Prime Minister of Kenya, whose leadership emerged out of his country's own post-election crisis, has called on Mugabe to resign. It is these voices that should lead an international charge to deny Mugabe's government its legitimacy -- as they can also deny him the chance to invoke an external enemy as the rationale for his continued rule.

But equally important as who leads with the pressure is the shape of the incentives that are put on the table. There are three scenarios for change in Zimbabwe. Given rampant violence and the withdrawal of opposition leader Tsvangirai from the June 27 run-off, it is unlikely that the electoral process will yield anything more than to redouble Mugabe's lust for power. The government of national unity proposed by South Africa has been rejected by both Mugabe and Tsvangirai, and neither man is likely to budge in the near term. The most viable scenario is one in which the combination of internal and external pressure forces Mugabe to exit the State House, either under his own steam or, as Collier suggests, at the point of a gun.

If the Africans lead in providing the pressure, the rest of the international community should lead in providing the incentive. To hedge their bets -- against a military coup and in favor of Mugabe's forced but peaceful departure -- the European Union, United States, World Bank, UN and other donors should put on offer to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and the region a robust transition package designed not only to help Zimbabwe recover, but also to re-establish its status as a productive member of southern Africa's economic and political future.

With an inflation rate now topping 1-million percent, its once-healthy institutions weakened and abused, and its people dependent on the outside world for their survival, a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will need considerable assistance, promptly delivered. And Zimbabwe's neighbors will need a Zimbabwe that exports not violence and refugees, but grain and political stability. With strong pressure on one end, and a viable incentive on the other, those in the middle of Zimbabwe's crisis might just do the right thing.

Gayle E. Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-founder of the ENOUGH Project.

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