20 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Historic Week Raises Hope, Eyebrows

editorial

January has been a month full of surprises. It is the month before President Robert Mugabe's 89th birthday.

From February 22, he will begin to wave goodbye to his octogenarian years; a year later he will become what is called a nonagenarian. Only a handful ever achieve that feat.

The death last week, aged 79, of Vice-President John Nkomo must have been, to him, a stark reminder of that reality. Nkomo's three predecessors all fell short.

On January 16 a headline in the official Herald hit the nation in the face: "We've put aside our differences". Two days later headlines proclaimed that Mugabe and the other principals had approved the draft constitution.

The nation must have heaved a sigh of relief. President Mugabe told visiting outgoing African Union chairman and Benin President Boni Yayi Zimbabwe would this year hold peaceful and friendly elections as Zimbabweans have realised that they have a common destiny despite their differences.

"In my country, yes, we have also had divisions, political divisions, but I am glad that we all appreciate that whatever political affiliations we belong to, we are Zimbabweans."

This is by any measure a historic statement coming from Mugabe! For the first time he is looking ahead to "a common destiny", an outlook he has not accentuated in the past, choosing instead to talk more about "our history".

If it comes from deep down his heart, the statement changes the playing field altogether. What have our difference been? They have mainly been founded on the thinking that this country belongs to those who actively participated in the liberation war; the whole liberation movement had been reduced to a single facet -- participation in the liberation war, preferably as a fighter.

This thinking had rendered all political affiliations not directly related to the 1970s' war, at best irrelevant, at worst counter-revolutionary.

It had led to a chorus from the uniformed forces, most of them former liberation war fighters, that this country would not be ruled by anyone who didn't participate in the war.

Such pronouncements, particularly from the military, had become the single biggest threat to our country's endeavours towards a common democratic destiny.

On the common destiny, Mugabe had this to say: "That is the understanding. That is how we have groomed ourselves into that kind of understanding and I think our elections are going to be very friendly elections in the sense that they will be a political fight but it will be a fight in the knowledge that we belong to each other."

These words must have left the country incredulous and wondering what the old fox was up to!

But when 48 hours later he, with his political rivals, approved the draft constitution, every Zimbabwean must have been given some relief.

"We are glad to say that we have now come to the conclusion of the exercise [drafting the constitution] and all parties are agreed. Sure there will be some t's to cross and i's to dot but we are generally agreed and the finalisation of the draft has now been made."

But describing the road ahead as crossing the t's and dotting the i's is obviously an understatement. There are too many positions too deeply entrenched in Zimbabwean politics, particularly in Mugabe's own party, to underestimate the potential for strife.

We have a ruling elite which has been in power the whole duration of our independence. For them, a future where electoral democracy takes precedency over the politics of patronage, poses a lot of challenges and a younger generation lurks on the touchline to take over. The old guard don't want the status quo to be rocked.

Zanu PF's "Young Turks", most of who are in the disciplined forces, wish to take over not only the party leadership but also the leadership of the state. They know a transparent democratic process stands in their way and are prepared to fight to achieve their ends. These will very likely be the major purveyors of electoral violence. They have seen political violence work in the past and are inclined to try it again.

Mugabe's call for a common destiny will therefore be his last great fight: it begins in his own backyard; it begins with security sector reform! As indicated above, the security sector is the single biggest obstacle to democratic processes in Zimbabwe. In the past decade or so this sector had, for political expediency, been highly politicised.

The line between Zanu PF as a ruling party and the state as an apolitical living form was blurred to such an extent the military and the police saw the party as being bigger than the state. Their service was to the party first and to the state second.

Army generals and police commissioners began to see their natural path as leading first to senior party positions and later into politics or to the leadership of state enterprises, the parastatals.

The barracks had become the springboards to parliament and to the corridors of power.

But how does Mugabe change that without upsetting the very people who have kept him in power? His fix is telling his closest allies, "Guys, let's get into elections which you're likely to lose."

So, of all reforms demanded by the Global Political Agreement, security sector reforms will be the toughest, but without it, we can't have a common destiny. All other reforms, though very important, are ancillary to this.

The message that the Benin president carried from Mugabe is very interesting: "We need to strengthen democracy in our countries. We need to strengthen good governance. We need to strengthen the peace and stability and unity of our countries."

Contrary to popular belief, this message indicates that Mugabe has not been blind to events taking place in other parts of the African continent. He has seen the Arab Spring and how it led to the demise of some of his staunchest allies.

He has seen the effects of war in many African countries, be it in Sudan, the DRC, the Central African Republic and now in Mali. In Nigeria, Islamists are waging their own holy war while civil war rages in failed states such as Somalia.

All these events point to the message President Boni Yayi got from Harare: We need to strengthen the peace and stability and unity of our countries!

Such wisdom comes with age, even if it takes 90 years!

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