What are the realistic chances for political dialogue in Zimbabwe?

Published: 07 December 2018
All political transitions (without exception) whether occasioned by revolution, externally driven or resulting from an election, are perfected through dialogue between the contending forces in society (eg Mandela-De Klerk, Patriotic Front and Rhodesian Front, PF Zapu and Zanu PF Unity Accord).

Dialogue is the result of a conscious realisation that none of the contending forces can survive if they do not take immediate action to minimise institutional, political, social and economic pressure that they are independently faced with. Dialogue is, therefore, not capitulation, but a prudent expression of one's desire to "live long enough to fight another day".

Many within Zanu PF and MDC Alliance argue that while there is need for dialogue, the conditions are not ripe for such dialogue right now. The parties are so far apart and hostile towards each other, their rhetorical offers of mutual dialogue notwithstanding.

Legality, legitimacy and an impasse

The nation is on the verge of a precipice that is tragically man-made. For the ordinary man and woman, the cost of living has gone through the roof. The proposed new taxes, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube's hide-and-seek with the bond note and the generally bleak mood ahead of the festive season are slowly galvanising a trade union of discontent.

Nothing is as effective at mobilising the broad mass, as is grievance and stomach politics. Add this to the following political dimensions of the crisis:

The MDC Alliance refuses to recognise Emmerson Mnangagwa as the legitimately elected President of Zimbabwe, insisting that he stole the election from their candidate, Nelson Chamisa. MDC Alliance insists that the Constitutional Court glossed over or ignored evidence that points to either grand theft of the election or the fact that Mnangagwa did not muster the required constitutional 50% plus one threshold. That, therefore, a stolen election cannot yield a legitimate president. As such, the starting point in any dialogue as far as they are concerned is the return to legitimacy.

Zanu PF dismisses the MDC Alliance claims as mere political gamesmanship, arguing that MDC Alliance had its day in court and it lost for want of "primary evidence" to back up its electoral theft claim and that, in any event, Zanu PF had a resounding victory in the parliamentary elections (more than two-thirds majority) which has not been challenged. That following the constitutional court judgment, any continued claim of illegitimacy or illegality is mere malice. As such Zanu PF is unwilling to even consider any negotiation that does not start with an unequivocal acceptance of the legitimacy of the Mnangagwa presidency.

This stand-off has precipitated a mutually destructive political impasse. Behind the scenes, several African and Euro-American interlocutors are trying to put together initiatives to break the impasse. This follows the rejection of the public offer of an official salaried leader of the opposition position by Mnangagwa.

The agenda for dialogue

Several old and new proposals are being floated. In summary, they include in various iterations the following seven elements:

Surrender of power by Mnangagwa and return to legitimacy either through an election re-run, recount or nomination of a third party (neutral administrator). The opposite is the unconditional recognition of Mnangagwa as head of state duly elected for a five-year term in exchange for inclusion of the opposition in government or alternatively irreversible commitment to specific constitutional, institutional and state reforms;

Legal and institutional changes to guarantee a credible, free and fair 2023 election;

Guarantees to ensure that the 2023 elections are presided over by truly independent electoral commission and, by implication, the dissolution of the current Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec);

Establishment of a transitional administration or authority or some form of inclusive government (as opposed to government of national unity), with the specific task of undertaking comprehensive state reforms and aligning all laws with the 2013 Zimbabwean constitution. This includes repeal of repressive legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act;

Ensuring civilian control of the military, non-partisan prosecution of corruption in high places, independence of the judiciary and the media (including state media compliance with the constitution);

Repeal of the United States law, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act and any other restrictive measures and sanctions against Zimbabwe; and

A national all-stakeholders' dialogue aimed at evolving an inclusive social contract with participation from political parties, civil society, faith-based organisations, labour, government, private sector and diasporas/citizens, etc.

There is a debilitating economic and social crisis in Zimbabwe, the result of a confluence of both historical and contemporary factors. We have as Reverend friend of mine suggests "behaved our way into it" and we cannot legislate our way out of it without concurrent changes in behaviour. After years of fighting Robert Mugabe's dictatorship, Zimbabwe's hopes of change through the ballot have been dashed by recurrent incidents of opaqueness in the electoral system.

The history of failed negotiations and betrayal of good faith makes most Zimbabwean opposition supporters averse to the very notion of dialogue with Zanu PF. This is worsened by the fact that at present no one is clear about the objectives of such a dialogue.

For instance, is it to simply ameliorate the economic hardships and unyoke the country from sanctions? Is it restoration of legitimacy and legality? Is it about a larger ambition such as creating the Zimbabwe we need and deserve? Is it about moving away from the minority rule of soldiers and war veterans to genuine majority rule and comprehensive reform of the Zimbabwean State through the creation of structures – legal, military, economic, technological and administrative — that enable Zimbabweans to freely determine their future?

In the absence of good faith, mutual trust as well as dedicated, truly impartial and strong interlocutors, the probability of any productive inter-party dialogue is almost zero. Zanu PF and MDC Alliance fears and prejudices do not represent the exhaustive national aspiration. Zimbabwe is much bigger than the political parties and those affected by the current political, economic and social crises are not just the members of the two contending parties.

Dangers, opportunities of dialogue

There are elements to a Zimbabwe dialogue at this current historical conjuncture that require thorough strategic reflection. Such a dialogue would have to surmount several sticky challenges.

First there is the legitimacy or legality question. Second, there is the question of internal processes and mechanisms to guarantee comprehensive state and legal reforms. Third, there is the issue of executive authority during the period of transition or negotiation. What sort of administrative arrangements should be in place to ensure that any agreement reached is actually implemented and not wantonly cast aside?

Fourth, there is the question of acceptable external guarantors of the non-reversal of the agreements reached consensually. This is particularly difficult because either side views with a measure of suspicion or scepticism the United Nations, the US, European Union, African Union (AU) and Sadc.

Transitional arrangements can and will determine the character of any dialogue's outcomes. The authority in charge of the State during any transition presides over the entire reform process and determines its pace and content. The transitional mechanism, administration or authority will in essence make the most critical decisions about Zimbabwe's future.

In the absence of a transitional mechanism or inclusive government of sorts, the current Zanu PF dominated parliament will determine the course of reform and it is unlikely that they will voluntarily reform themselves out of power. This is why the idea of a national dialogue limited only to the two main political parties without the effective participation, influence and input from the broader citizenry seems either futile or is merely a dramatised elite pact.

Equally so, dialogue without an agenda or menu of comprehensive state reforms in the current context is likely to be an exercise in futility. An unreformed and a Zanu PF sympathetic military and a majority Zanu PF parliament in the absence of strong human rights guarantees, does not inspire confidence nor does a militant opposition unwilling to make any concessions.

In practical terms, if the country goes the route of a transitional authority or inclusive government, the military, civil service and parliament will remain the effective power in Zimbabwe during the transitional period.  In this regard, recent experiences assure all that dialogue cannot exclude the question of security sector reforms. Short of that, 2023 is likely to be worse for the opposition than 2008, 2013 and 2018 put together.

These details matter

The following factors will be important to any dialogue process, content and agenda.

Executive authority: As stated above, a two-thirds-plus Zanu PF parliament will be vested with the legislative authority.  Zanu PF is unlikely to cede this power to an unelected all-power transitional authority as suggested by some. It is unlikely that Zanu PF and MDC Alliance will agree to share power as equals — this is notwithstanding the fact that neither of them has complete control of the country as matters presently stand;

The police: The suggestion by Jim Kunaka during the Kgalema Motlanthe commission of inquiry hearings that some members of the police force are likely to be para-military charged with enforcing partisan party orders is worth investigating, partly because the police is responsible for maintaining law and order as well as investigating crimes. However, their seemingly professional approach to the August 1 2018 incidents might suggest that not all are tainted with partisan political views;

The armed forces: In a transitional phase or even during an inclusive government the question of command and control of the defence forces is key. The confidence of opposition supporters in the defence forces is at an all-time low and any suggestion that the question of their civilian control will be left vague is likely to irk the hawks within the MDC Alliance. The public commitment to ensure that the army abides by the constitution given by Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Phillip Valerio Sibanda months before his commission of enquiry appearance may need to be re-asserted;

Alignment of laws: This was a key bone of contention ahead of the 2018 election. It would have to be resolved within 6 months to a year;

Judiciary: The entire judicial system will remain intact and claims that some judges are and have been compact in the muzzling of the opposition would have to be seriously considered; and

External guarantors: the levels of suspicion and scepticism require credible external interlocutors that work hand-in-hand with credible internal facilitators.


The AU and Sadc have always taken the view that it is for the people of Zimbabwe to freely determine their own political, economic and social system. It is necessary for the AU and Sadc not to turn a blind eye or remain indifferent to the objective conditions that constrain the freedom of the Zimbabweans to decide on the future of Zimbabwe.

Current political configuration makes it nearly impossible for certain arms of state to operate within their constitutional mandates without being politicised. To generate transformational dialogue in Zimbabwe there is need to first build trust and a conducive environment.

In politics there are no perfect conditions for dialogue and there is nothing like a perfect transition. What all Zimbabweans should keep in mind, though, is that any failure to harvest existing momentum for a sane pathway to breaking the current mutually destructive political impasse will lead us into unsavoury streets. Our fragile egos and equally fragile economy cannot afford sustained or recurrent man-made shocks.

Kagoro is a lawyer and political analyst. — @TamukaKagoro77.
- the independent


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