Harare violence is yet another wake up call for SADC

First, there’s the voting. Then, there’s the counting. But what happens next? This is the sad question now on everyone’s mind after the military was deployed to suppress post-election protests in Zimbabwe today. No-one wanted the answer to be gunfire, tanks and injuries.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) had announced a resounding parliamentary victory for the ruling party, Zanu-PF. But ZEC, as yet, has delayed the announcement of the presidential vote. The EU Observer Mission chief, Elmar Brok, reasonably commented that: “The longer it lasts that the results of the presidential election is not known, the more lack of credibility it provides.” So why the delay?

In that vacuum, both of the main presidential contenders, incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa and the MDC Alliance challenger, Nelson Chamisa, talked up their chances. The MDC Alliance even went so far as to declare victory and continue its pre-election rhetoric about protecting the people’s vote from the depredations of an untrustworthy state apparatus.

It should have been clear to all observers, including Zimbabwe’s neighbours and the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), that some form of post-election mediation effort would be necessary in such a polarised eventuality. Such was the opposition’s manifest lack of confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. Chamisa didn’t need to be photographed meeting Raila Odinga in February to make people realise that his refusal to accept a freshly-minted mandate for Mnangagwa’s ‘new dispensation’ was always a real risk.

I wrote before the elections that Chamisa faced an unenviable choice: boycott the elections and risk consigning the MDC to the political scrapheap, or embrace the electoral process at the risk of conferring legitimacy on his opponent’s subsequent (and pre-ordained?) victory. The third option, of course, was to compete in the election but be ready immediately to condemn the outcome as illegitimate.

Prior to the election, Chamisa had said that, as ZEC was the election’s referee it “must not only be fair but it must be seen to be fair.” International observer missions have differed in their emphases and interpretations, but whatever the true outcome of Monday’s votes, it is hard to deny that ZEC failed to do enough to win public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. In this light, the MDC Alliance’s announcement that it had won the popular vote was undoubtedly unofficial and premature, but does anyone really know whether or not it was true? Given that, can it be right for regional and international actors to insist that opposition parties meekly accept the official account of a (possibly stolen) election?

This is what happens when public institutions lose the people’s confidence. Was there an alternative? In theory, an internationally supervised election might have made the difference, one in which ZEC was not simply trusted to uphold its responsibilities but was actively assisted and overseen at every turn by empowered, impartial international officials. But, in practice, could anyone see Mnangagwa freely choosing, or being persuaded or cajoled into passively accepting such a process? It would be a clear blow to Zimbabwe’s national pride and independence, to say nothing of neutralising one of the major advantages of his incumbency. Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which such an approach could have been made to work and gain the confidence of all parties.

But, in the absence of a practical alternative, the July 30 election has only intensified and sharpened political tensions that have simmered since the November 2017 coup d’etat that put Mnangagwa in the presidency and several top military men in his Cabinet. Should it surprise anyone that a military-dominated government, put in power by the military, then subsequently resorted to its default tendency, a military-led solution to post-election protests?

A deteriorating security situation was one post-election scenario that regional and international actors really should have forecast as sufficiently likely and consequential to merit careful, advanced planning. It would be inexcusable if the relevant regional bodies and influential foreign governments hadn’t thoroughly prepared for this eventuality. Extemporising diplomatic responses in such a demonstrably foreseeable outcome would be unacceptable: there should already be a series of pre-scripted diplomatic moves. In a sense, if SADC and others look into their recent history, there already is.

For example, SADC urgently needs to send either the Organ Chair or, as in previous Zimbabwe elections, a senior South African such as International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu or National Security Adviser Charles Nqakula (who is a veteran of one previous facilitation effort), to meet all relevant party- and senior military leaders in order to very publicly ease the tension, shepherding the country away from violence and towards a mediated solution. SADC should lead, but it must also be supported, by the African Union and the wider international community, crucially including the UK and US governments, as well as China.

Election observers had started today by describing aspects of this election campaign as a step forward in Zimbabwe’s transition to a more democratic, less violent politics. Mnangagwa appeared to have heeded calls for greater openness as a price worth paying for normalising Zimbabwe’s international relations, accessing international financial assistance and new business. Unfortunately, this ‘new dispensation’ narrative appears to have unravelled in just forty-eight hours after the election. It’s hard to see these glittering prizes being awarded to a government that shoots at protestors in the street.

Calling for South Africa and SADC to step up and resolve a post-election crisis in Zimbabwe might sound like the political equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different, better outcome. But neighbouring states can and should play a role facilitating a return to peaceful dialogue between the key political actors, applying pressure to end the violence. This is the minimum, but it is a necessary precondition for the longer, slower and harder process of beginning to re-build mutual trust between Zimbabwe’s political parties, as well as public trust in Zimbabwe’s institutions, including its electoral commission and its security forces.

Dr Joe Devanny is Lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London and an associate at the Institute for Government.

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