Are ZANU-PF’s high-risk strategies paying off?

Zimbabwe’s push for re-engagement with Western allies appears to rely on the belief that it has been treated harshly.

As Zimbabwe moves from its discredited August harmonised elections, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government wants to pick up on its re-engagement process with the European Union (EU), Britain and other creditors. It also wants the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Staff Monitored Program for its struggling economy.

But with the elections not being given a clean bill of health, the path for re-engagement looks difficult. The EU, Britain, United States and their allies must navigate between the pragmatic choices informed by the realpolitik on the one hand and their principles – which led to their two-decade standoff with Zimbabwe’s government. To be true to their ideals, or to be practical and pragmatic?

Pragmatic realpolitik would also suggest that no dividends will be gained from continued ostracisation of the country. Where the stick has failed, perhaps the carrot could better incentivise reforms and good behaviour without penalising lousy actions.

Sanctions and international isolation have not produced positive behaviour in ZANU-PF, and the party remains front and centre in crisis talks. The debt dialogue promises to resolve the dispossession of white farmers. Many ZANU-PF apologists argue this thorny issue is the primary reason for the sanctions and not the country’s atrocious human rights record.

With the elections not being given a clean bill of health, the path for re-engagement looks difficult

While observer mission reports have been scathing, they have been unanimous in their conclusion that this year’s elections were peaceful. Without blood on the streets (as was the case in 2018), the international community seems comfortable with pushing the negatives to the back burner and engaging in the positives.

However, Zimbabwe’s leading human rights organisations say otherwise. Forthcoming research by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reports multiple cases of violence before and after the elections.

The report provides quantitative evidence of victims and the type of violence meted out. It also gives weight to the earlier published Zimbabwe Human Rights Association report that warned of an overall lack of human security. The report said threats to both physical and subtle forms of violence had created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity among citizens, especially in the rural areas.

Although its approach has been more subtle (apart from in August 2018 and January 2019), the ZANU-PF architecture of violence persists, especially in rural areas without significant social media coverage. Violence, weaponisation of the law against activists and civil society organisations (CSOs) and a pervasive environment of fear have induced self-censorship among citizens and CSOs. The ruling party has succeeded in brow-beating dissenting voices of ordinary citizens into silence.

Fear and self-censorship among CSOs and activists mean that human rights abuses are out of the spotlight

While there are geopolitical and even economic imperatives for the allies to remain committed to debt resolution discussions, this shouldn’t be at the expense of the victims of ZANU-PF violence and human rights abuses.

But actors seeking to re-engage, especially in the West, tend to adopt a lenient stance toward ZANU-PF – and the party knows this. This builds on to the growing narrative that Zimbabwe faces stricter judgment compared to other African countries with worse violence and human rights records. This is informed by both comparative analysis and the geopolitical necessity to prevent Zimbabwe from falling under the influence of such countries as Russia and China.

Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has played its diplomatic offensive to the extent that its propaganda could be mistaken for progress. The party has been winning on the anti-sanctions narrative, saying it’s being punished for its land reform, and that everything that’s gone wrong has been because of sanctions and not the fault of ZANU-PF.

This has found resonance with the general neo-colonial imperialist agenda to control independent African states. African countries seem to have fallen for this argument. The Southern African Development Community and the African Union find themselves siding with ZANU-PF, so many African Heads of State are on record calling for the removal of sanctions without addressing human rights violations and economic mismanagement.

Citizens and CSOs must document abuses to ensure their consideration in efforts to mend relations with creditors

ZANU-PF operates from the premise that despite the observer mission reports, it holds power and cannot be wished away. The party takes high-risk decisions for temporal survival, disregarding consequences. Yet it knows it’s needed to resolve Zimbabwe’s intractable crisis.

It also knows how to create problems it will solve and claim credit for. For example, the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill and so-called patriotic clauses in the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act have become bargaining chips in discussions. Any change in these pieces of legislation as a result of the debt dialogue will constitute a ZANU-PF compromise without the party making significant concessions.

There are concerns from human rights activists and CSOs in Zimbabwe that the countries pushing for human rights reforms could minimise the impact of the elections and conveniently ignore human rights violations to proceed with the debt discussions.

The pervasive fear and self-censorship among CSOs and activists means that human rights abuses are out of the spotlight. This allows ZANU-PF to push a counter-narrative of denial, deflection, and counter-allegations to checkmate the opposition and the international community.

This partly explains how it escaped the radar of international and regional observer missions. More violence, intimidation, abductions, and murders have characterised the post-election period in Zimbabwe.

The Mnangagwa administration has muted the voices of human rights defenders and activists regarding continued human rights abuses in the country. Citizens and CSOs must push for basic human rights – which includes freedom from physical violence. CSOs, in particular, have a duty to investigate abuses and document them so they’re not conveniently forgotten and human security concerns are placed second to mending Zimbabwe–creditor relations.

ISS Pretoria

Image: © Jekesai Mjikizana / AFP

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