Goodbye, Mugabe

The victory for the No vote in Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum has stunned the ruling party and thrown it into chaos.

THE CRUSHING No vote in Zimbabwe’s constitutional referendum has electrified the country and thrown the ruling Zanu-PF party into disarray. Like a chess player who has only the king and queen left on the board, it is desperately seeking an escape as the opponent's knights and rooks bear down. The vote, which has put President Mugabe’s survival beyond the April elections in doubt, has by the same token, made Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the potential president-in-waiting. As Focus went to press it was still unclear whether the parliamentary elections would be postponed, and whether the president would survive until then. But one thing is certain - the many vested interests that have grown up under 20 years of virtual one-party rule make an easy and democratic transition far from certain.

The present crisis really began in 1997 when Mugabe made two crucial errors. First, panicked by demonstrations by Zanla ex-combatants, who had been the heart of the liberation struggle 20 years before, he agreed to pay them large gratuities and pensions — a wholly unproductive and unbudgeted financial commitment. Secondly, as if infuriated by the thought that he might see his government with its growing difficulties outlived by the white farmers he had so long inveighed against, Mugabe raised the spectre of land expropriation without compensation. Both steps brought the government into headlong conflict with the International Monetary Fund, for it was difficult to see how Zimbabwe could ever attract investment if it confiscated the assets of investors who had put their money into creating productive farms.

Mugabe was forced to back down from his expropriation threat but the government never regained its balance. Further unscheduled spending, together with runaway corruption, saw inflation accelerate, producing food and fuel riots in 1998 and a growing groundswell of opposition to the regime.

Last year annual inflation reached 70 per cent as the costs of Zimbabwe’s military backing of Laurent Kabila in the Congo were added to a budget that Mugabe refused to prune in line with commitments made to the IMF. The result was the rupture with the IMF in October and the withdrawal of its $194m credit. In December the cabinet was warned of impending fuel shortages and in January Mugabe flew to Tripoli to secure a $100m "loan" from President Gadaffi. However, the fact that fuel shortages became more acute — affecting paraffin too, on which many rely for cooking — was a clear sign that Libyan aid was not enough. Hence the final recourse to South Africa.

Mugabe then massively increased the stakes by two further gambles, both clearly aimed at shoring up support in the impending election. First, despite the fact that the budget presented in December had foreseen a 30 per cent increase in civil service salaries, Mugabe handed out increases of 69-90 per cent, with similar rises for the army. This followed rises of up to 200 per cent for Mugabe himself, cabinet ministers and MPs. (Mugabe was also the winner of the lottery organised by the state-owned Zimbank in February.) These increases could only be paid for by printing more money: it became very noticeable wherever you shopped in Harare that you always got brand new notes in your change.

Secondly, Mugabe insisted on inserting a new clause in the draft constitution under which, unless Britain coughed up large sums of money — an option ruled out by prime minister Tony Blair — the government would have the right to expropriate white-owned farms without compensation. "The whites stole the land," he argued, "why on earth should we have to buy it back?" Moreover, faced with a shortage of diesel fuel that has brought large sections of the economy grinding to a halt, Mugabe accused whites of deliberate sabotage. "Look at what these whites do now," he told a Harare rally. "We know we bought adequate supplies of diesel, but they bought all of it in large drums and hid them on their farms." Both black and white farmers’ leaders angrily rebutted this charge. "The reason we are short of fuel as a nation", said Richard Amyot of the Commercial Farmers’ Union, "is mismanagement at Noczim, which is responsible for oil imports, and a lack of international confidence in Zimbabwe, which has caused a shortage of foreign currency inflows."

Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party insisted that the foreign exchange shortage was also the result of sabotage by white businessmen and the foreign-owned commercial banks, Standard Chartered and Barclays. He also accused the "little fellows" of Blair’s government of being "completely inhuman" for refusing to compensate white farmers. In fact, Britain was one of the few countries still giving aid to Zimbabwe, most others having pulled back in disgust.

The fuel crisis was mainly due to a shortage of foreign exchange, but corruption at Noczim, the state oil company, was legendary. Last year Noczim managed to lose US$144m and admits to debts of US$236m, though critics suggest that this is only a fraction of the real figure. Just how unlikely Noczim was to find the US$36m a month required to keep the country in diesel and petrol may be judged from the sad fact that the government had failed to find the US$1.5m it still owed to the Cambridge Examinations Board. As a result the board refused to release Zimbabwe’s A-level results, paralysing university entrance procedures and job applications by school-leavers. Zimbabwe had also bilked on its debts of over US$20m to Eskom in South Africa and similar debts to bone-poor Mozambique for the electricity it imports from them. A roster of load shedding — ie power-cuts — was introduced. President Thabo Mbeki’s last ditch R800 million package is insufficient to change the situation radically.

The damage done by the fuel crisis, great though it was, was dwarfed by Mugabe’s declared intent to seize white farms without paying for them. Overnight this made title deeds worthless and reduced to zero the collateral value of farms, the basis of all agricultural funding. No bank would lend to farmers, who lost all incentive to invest in their farms or even to plant for next year’s harvest. Now, however, white farmers have been reprieved.

Despite the government’s clear unpopularity, even the leaders of the No campaign hardly dared to believe they could win. "There is a No majority in the country, all right," said the National Constitutional Assembly’s Mike Auret, "but there is no way that the government will allow that majority to be honestly counted." Zimbabwe’s independent newspapers took the same view. They were furious at the way critics of the proposed new Constitution were denied airtime by the state-owned broadcasting media and did not hide their contempt for the Registrar-General, Tobaiwa Mudede, a Zanu-PF militant, who had previously shown a strong partisan bias in matters affecting voter registration and the conduct of elections. But the press had to be careful. Two independent journalists, Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, were arrested and tortured by the army last year. Mugabe recently defended the army’s behaviour: "the army has its own feelings, you know. They can do worse things than that," he warned. "Irresponsible journalists who write blatant lies to cook up emotions in the country will be arrested." This, he insisted, was only fair: "Journalists get arrested like everybody else. There should be equal treatment for everybody."

Mugabe’s referendum defeat was a thunderous surprise despite his evident unpopularity. In time-honoured fashion the constitution-making process had been turned into a farce: first by packing the constitutional commission with Zanu-PF trusties; by ignoring the public opinion expressed in some 5,000 outreach meetings; by adopting the commission’s report "by acclaim" rather than on a vote as the law laid down; and then by allowing the president to make over 40 amendments to the commission’s draft. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation refused, on a variety of pretexts, to allow the opposition National Constituent Assembly equal time — ignoring a court writ to that effect. The voting was, moreover, poorly organised, largely unmonitored and had a low turnout. This was hardly surprising because not many people knew where to vote: the government did not announce the list of polling stations until the day before the referendum; and in Bulawayo and Harare, the centres of the No vote, it did not announce them at all. In addition, of course, many opponents of the regime had long since given up hope and lapsed into apathy. Over the whole proceedings hovered the threat that if Zanu-PF did not get its way there could well be a violent backlash against the government’s opponents. Not surprisingly, the feeling persisted that the government would get its way by hook or by crook. But such cynicism was confounded and the Registrar-General himself publicly announced the government’s defeat, something most thought they would never see him do.

The referendum result has thrown almost everything into doubt. It makes Mbeki’s eve-of-poll bailout look singularly misjudged and sure enough, no sooner was Mugabe’s defeat clear than South Africa began to back away from what had seemed firm commitments only days before. Suddenly there was no aid package, one was told, just ongoing negotiations. Equally in doubt is the future of Zimbabwe’s military intervention in the Congo. Bizarrely, throughout the fuel crisis Zimbabwe has continued to export diesel oil to the Congo not only to maintain its 11,000 troops there but also, some reports insisted, so that it could be sold at a profit to Congolese buyers. It seems likely that South Africa will want to see the resumption of IMF aid to Zimbabwe and to tie that into a withdrawal of Zimbabwean forces in the Congo and its replacement by a UN military mission. If there is to be an economic rescue operation for Zimbabwe, South Africa can hardly afford to shoulder the responsibility on its own. Equally Mbeki will not want to be seen too openly forcing fellow African nationalists to submit to the dictates of the IMF, though in practice that is the only way to go.

Most of all, of course, the future of the regime is in doubt. The presidential term does not expire until 2002, but Zanu-PF MPs are in disarray — some, having lost all confidence in the president, want him to step down immediately, others suggest he should go so that the parliamentary elections so presidential elections can be held at the same time. Some want the elections delayed beyond April. Yet others, especially those with seats in Harare, where the No vote was three to one, must be getting ready to switch sides - that is, if they want to continue their parliamentary careers. For not only has the authority of president and party been undermined, but the possibility now clearly exists that the Opposition, greatly emboldened by the referendum result, may mount a successful electoral challenge. There is a sense sweeping the country that it is time for a change.

However, there are still many obstacles for the Opposition. For a start, every aspect of electoral organisation is in a shambles. Quite apart from the widespread distrust of the Registrar-General, the electoral register itself is wholly unsatisfactory. Over a third of the people on it are, in fact, dead. There are well-sourced reports of Zanu-PF activists with multiple voting identities; huge numbers of people are unregistered and there are many mistakes on the current electoral roll. All independent observers agree that an election fought on the existing register will be very gravely flawed.

On February 3 the Anglican bishop of Harare, Peter Hatendi, resigned as chairman of the Electoral Supervisory Commission. The government had, he claimed, refused to pay any heed to his demands that registration be taken away from the Registrar-General who, he said "lacks any credibility", and that the election be delayed until after June in order to allow a new register to be drawn up. Moreover, he pointed out, the ESC had not been given anything like the budget required to monitor the election. In addition, there are real fears that the fuel crisis will have grave practical implications for the logistics of the election.

Such considerations led the powerful justice minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to announce in late December that the election would have to be delayed. The president immediately countermanded him, insisting that the election would go ahead in March, a date later shifted to the second week of April. At the time, Mugabe’s urgent insistence on an early election seemed motivated by a wish to get the election over before the economic crisis worsened and further boosted the burgeoning MDC. The arguments for a delayed election are being heard again following the referendum defeat. But not only might this look like running away from a popular verdict, but the persistence of the economic crisis will still work against the ruling party the longer the election is delayed. Moreover, delay and consequent revision of the electoral register can only make things harder for Zanu-PF. It must be remembered that to vote in the referendum voters only had to produce an ID card. That is, the Opposition were not handicapped then by the multiple disadvantages the electoral register will give them in a parliamentary election.

The nub of the matter is whether Zanu-PF would be able to make better use of a longer election campaign period than would the MDC. Although the referendum result has rocked the Mugabe government, it is still in power. In the election, however, not only will the seats of all Zanu-PF MPs and ministers be at stake but the entire political class spawned by Zanu-PF over two decades. Many believe that the army and omni-present Central Intelligence Organisation would feel threatened by the prospect of defeat and that many of the 55,000 Zanla ex-combatants see it as so unacceptable that they talk of taking up arms again in such an event. This Zanu-PF political class has done immensely well out of the regime — many of them by looting public funds — even amid the general economic misery. They have a great deal to lose and in the extreme case some of them may even fear being put on trial. This class is bound to fight tooth and nail to keep its position and to use every bit of leverage which the Zanu-PF machine still gives it in the rural areas where 70 per cent of Zimbabweans live. Here the distribution of famine relief, seeds and other forms of state patronage have been tightly tied to acceptance of the Zanu-PF machine.

Zanu-PF remains a potent organisational force, but its authority — and its threats — have lost credibility. In the run-up to the referendum the state-controlled TV and radio gave prominence to predictions that a No vote would bring the army onto the streets and Zimbabwe would become a Sierra Leone or Liberia. In Karoi, near the Zambian border, a Zanu-PF spokesman warned during the referendum: "If you vote No we’ll know and we’ll bring back the troops from the Congo and shoot you."

The referendum result made it clear that many voters were no longer willing to be cowed by threats such as these. But it must be remembered that only 1.3 million people voted in the referendum and that Zanu-PF will hope to mobilise many more of the five million electorate during the elections. Still the sheer momentum that the Opposition victory has produced ought to rouse the previously apathetic to cast their vote, now that the possibility of defeating the ruling party is no longer just a dream. Against that must be set the fact that the threat of violence still works among many Zimbabweans, particularly in rural Matabeleland, which has never fully recovered from the trauma of the1980s that saw 5,000 Ndebele killed and many more tortured by the brutal Fifth Brigade.

Ironically, the referendum defeat also hands another card to the president. If the Opposition were to win a narrow victory in the parliamentary election, he would still have the power to appoint 30 more MPs of his own (a provision his new constitution would have abolished) and thus restore a Zanu-PF majority. This, however, would be a recipe for political instability and quite probably for popular disorder, for there is no doubt that the entire theme of the Opposition is one of all-out rejection of Mugabe and a desire to have done with him and his clients.

Should disorder break out in Zimbabwe, South Africa would be on the spot. There is no doubt that Mbeki’s instincts have been to shore up the Mugabe regime. As Mathatha Tsedu, a journalist close to Mbeki put it in a clearly inspired piece before it had become politic for Mbeki’s office to start denying the R800m deal, the deal was actually the African Renaissance in action which "simply means being there for one another when the going gets really tough". What Mbeki has to start worrying about now is that if Mugabe does not agree to go gracefully, the arc of instability which runs from Rwanda and Burundi through the Congo and Angola to Namibia could envelop Zimbabwe too.

R.W. Johnson is director of the Foundation.