Michelle Gavin, formerly President Barack Obama’s senior Africa director at the National Security Council and U.S. ambassador to Botswana, is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Todd Moss, formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Alexander Noyes is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The authors were part of a preelection assessment mission to Zimbabwe.
For Zimbabwe’s long-ruling party, the July 30 election was intended to legitimize President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ushering in a new era of global investment into a perilously fragile economy. In the wake of a deeply flawed contest, whether that effort is successful might rest with the international community. While Mnangagwa and his challenger Nelson Chamisa are currently battling in court over the final results, a debate is underway in Washington over how to respond.
Regardless of the court ruling, the verdict is already in: Mnangagwa is no reformer and no longer deserves any benefit of the doubt. Instead, the preelection environment, the management of the vote, and the post-election violence all show why Washington must maintain pressure for a truly democratic transition.
The government of Zimbabwe is desperate for international approval. Mnangagwa needed to win at the polls to justify the November 2017 coup that forced then-President Robert Mugabe to resign. He hopes to end his country’s isolation, end sanctions, get debt relief and borrow again from international creditors. All of these steps require a clean election. But the vote did not go according to plan, at least not for those who hoped to see a democratic transition.
Immediate attention is now on Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court, where the ruling party and the electoral commission are defending the announced results, which give Mnangagwa a narrow 50.6 percent victory, avoiding a runoff by less than 30,000 votes. Chamisa is challenging the outcome.
The United States is right to closely watch the court case and the technical details of the vote. But they don’t tell the whole story. Election day is just one slice of judging whether an election is free, fair and credible. Zimbabwe’s court also cannot be counted on to be impartial. That’s why Washington must assess the bigger picture.
Major problems were apparent before the first ballot was cast. Days after polling stations closed, the European Union observers noted the “un-level playing field.” The National Democratic Institute/International Republican Institute mission, co-led by African and American dignitaries, also expressed concerns that the process had “not made the mark.”
Voter suppression was blatant. Opposition supporters faced difficulties registering in Chamisa’s urban strongholds. The government disenfranchised at least 2 million citizens living outside the country by making no provisions, as dictated by the constitution, to allow them vote by mail or at overseas embassies.
The election was also skewed by Mnangagwa’s extreme exploitation of incumbency. The media was heavily biased in his favor while the ruling party used public resources to distribute food to voters.
The greatest likely distortion of the vote was systematic intimidation by the security forces. Party agents deliberately spread rumors that fingerprints on the voter roll allow the government to trace individual votes. This had a chilling effect since citizens remember the 2008 election when the military and party militias attacked villages that voted for the opposition. Senior political leaders also openly declared that the army would accept only a Mnangagwa victory.
While it is difficult to quantify precisely how much each of these factors affected the vote, the manipulation, intimidation and voter exclusion are undoubtedly greater than the now twice-revised narrow margin.
If the preelection environment was bad, the aftermath was even worse. The military shot seven civilians dead, all in plain view of international journalists. Then, reminiscent of 2008, an army crackdown was unleashed on members of Chamisa’s party. According to human rights groups, army units raided homes, raping and beating dozens, while senior opposition officials were forced into hiding.
So what should the United States now do? Washington should not consider financial assistance or reduction of sanctions until the military is off the streets and democratic reforms are genuinely implemented. This remains our only leverage, and we should not yield it lightly. Mnangagwa’s request that the United States approve the elections and “let bygones be bygones” for past atrocities must be firmly rejected.
Holding the line does not mean disengagement. Despite the regime’s propaganda, the United States has never stopped engaging with Zimbabwe. Our diplomats, our public health officials, our business community and our civil society all have maintained robust connections to the country. That should not change.
The world was hoping that Zimbabwe’s election would be a turning point. Instead, it has proved the opposite: Mugabe is gone, but his dictatorship remains. Recent events have shown that Mnangagwa’s rule will deliver more of the same old corrupt and self-serving policies, violent suppression of dissent, and quasi-military governance.
American influence cannot be purchased by ignoring the injustice right before our eyes. If the United States willingly accepts an obvious political charade, then we are reduced to complicity, not agency. Worse, if we decide that the status quo is the best that can be hoped for, we would turn our backs on the countless Zimbabweans who have risked everything to save their country. Instead of succumbing to resignation, policymakers eager for action should reinvigorate the woeful U.S. budgetary support for democracy and governance in southern Africa.
Despite Mnangagwa’s best attempts to claim a new democratic era, Zimbabwe’s deeply flawed election cycle has only exposed that the new boss is same as the old boss. The United States should join brave Zimbabwean patriots in demanding better.