Transitional government a viable option for Zimbabwe

The real tragedy in Zimbabwe’s political crisis is that both Zanu-PF and the MDC lack viable options outside of a power-sharing agreement signed last September. For the suffering majority, the stark humanitarian crisis has reduced politics to a banal who-gets-what affair as Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe haggle over cabinet portfolios.

As the political crisis has escalated over the past eight years, Zimbabweans have witnessed with growing disillusionment the utter failure of international diplomacy. Regional efforts have failed to break the deadlock and western moral reprobation of Mugabe has not halted the people’s immiseration.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is contemplating ditching its mediation role even as it prepares for a final throw of the dice at an emergency summit billed for Pretoria on Monday. Suggestions that perhaps the African Union (AU) should now step in only reflect naïve hope. In fact, it was the AU that was first to accord Mugabe the legitimacy that he desperately needed when, soon after the widely condemned June 27 run-off election, he appeared at the continental body’s summit in Egypt.

So what must be done?

First, it is crucial to understand that it is beyond Zanu-PF’s nature to yield full control of any of the security ministries, as the MDC demands. Violence and electoral manipulation have been key pillars of the Mugabe regime’s survival strategy ever since it came to power in 1980. No opposition party has ever laid eyes on the country’s mysterious voters’ roll, which remains under the custodianship of a Mugabe appointee.

Zanu-PF’s mortal fear is having the MDC turn these instruments of coercion and manipulation against it. In its psyche, therefore, ceding full control of the home affairs ministry to Tsvangirai is suicidal.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis grows ever more acute. Half the population is threatened with starvation; and a cholera epidemic that has wreaked havoc in urban centres is now sweeping to the rural areas where it will be much harder to contain. The economy is now effectively dollarized in a country where unemployment stands at 80%.

The moment demands leadership.

Zanu PF continues to stare stoically at the suffering masses, all the while concerned only about wearing down the MDC and retaining power. No sane mind expects Mugabe and his party to put the nation first. In contrast, the MDC cannot afford to be drawn into protracted political hardball without losing its moral authority and popular appeal. As Tsvangirai himself is reported to favour, the MDC should go into the transitional unity government as a first step towards fresh elections under a new constitution in 18 months. This imperfect unity deal remains the only port in Zimbabwe’s storm.

Dislodging Mugabe’s wily and economically entrenched dictatorship can only be a gradual process, as experience has shown. Those that urge the MDC to sit out the regime’s ‘endgame’ are simply waiting for Godot: it is unlikely that Zanu-PF will collapse in a spectacular ‘Walls of Jericho’ fashion. Even if it did, the resultant outcome could feature an even more egregious regime in the shape of a military junta.

The MDC’s key priorities in a transitional government are two-fold. Through the party’s envisaged control of the social welfare and health ministries, the MDC could mobilize international responses to the humanitarian crisis and ensure that food and medicines get to those that need help most.

Secondly, through the constitutional affairs ministry, the MDC could forge ahead with crafting a democratic constitution that creates robust democratic institutions, guarantees individual freedoms and ensures the conduct of free and fair elections.

There are also other ancillary benefits to participation in the transitional government. The MDC could seriously destabilize the party-state nexus that has allowed Zanu-PF to abuse state resources and sustain its operations for so long. It could also greatly roll back state-sponsored violence against citizens and curtail the culture of impunity that Zanu-PF functionaries currently enjoy.

Overall, this period of detente could allow the opposition to rebuild its structures across the country, including in the so-called no-go areas of rural Mashonaland, where MDC grassroots organizers were directly targeted by Zanu-PF.

Zanu-PF’s succession conundrum also presents a strategic opportunity for the MDC to exploit from its vantage point as a member of the transitional power-sharing government. As Mugabe turns 85 next month, daggers are still drawn among the warring factions in his party over who takes over from him. The fallout from these internecine conflicts could present the MDC with an invaluable opportunity to forge beneficial alliances with reform-minded Zanu-PF dissidents and be able to outflank whoever succeeds Mugabe.

The power-sharing deal presents the country’s leaders with an opportunity to mitigate the humanitarian crisis and lay the basis for a return to legitimate government; it must not be missed. New elections under the present legal and political climate will yield another disputed outcome and much needless bloodletting.