Zimbabwe: in a state of flux

Tom Gillhespy, Head of International Programmes at Peace Direct, recently visited Zimbabwe and our partner working on the ground, Envision. He reflects on his trip, the increasing state of flux in the country, and why supporting local organisations working on the ground is ever more crucial.

zim 250Tom Gillhespy, Head of International Programmes at Peace Direct, recently visited Zimbabwe and our partner working on the ground, Envision Zimbabwe. He reflects on his trip, the increasing state of flux in the country, and why supporting local organisations working on the ground is ever more crucial.

Zimbabwe is in a major state of flux and there is much uncertainty in the country.

There are unprecedented occurrences such as Mugabe’s public spat with the war veterans who have, arguably, kept him in power all these years. High profile members from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party are being kicked out as people jostle to replace Mugabe. Those splits in the party are also reflected in the security forces. Global financial institution, The International Monetary Fund (IMF), is applying pressure on Zimbabwe’s budget – 80% of which pays salaries – creating speculation that the youth militia will become an unsustainable cost.

The changes are not just within the ZANU-PF. Those kicked out of the party talk of forming a coalition with opposition parties like the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), creating a possibly powerful grouping that can appeal to MDC and ZANU-PF supporters. Worryingly, those former ZANU-PF opponents bring with them allegiances from some in the security forces, meaning this time round the opposition may be armed like the government. This makes them a more formidable opponent if violence takes to the streets.

This is all against a backdrop of a violent nation whose economic recovery has collapsed to 2007 levels with a demographic of 65% youth and 90% unemployment. Health epidemics add to fatalistic ‘nothing to lose’ attitudes and politicians seeking alternative identities to that of the party are reportedly increasing ethnic rhetoric – so far unsuccessfully – to create further divides within society.

Opportunities for war, opportunities for peace

Whilst all of this is, of course, worrisome, any change brings opportunities for both war and peace. For example, the split in ZANU-PF is a useful education for its supporting public. As different sides try to damage the other, past secrets are revealed – rigged elections, assassinations and intimidation – exposing the political class to the public in a way not done before.

Splits in the party leadership and rejection of old alliances leave key elements of the government’s terror apparatus – security forces, war veterans, youth militia – feeling used by the politicians. This soul searching is conflated by no clear choice over which side of the split to now align with, potentially weakening political influence as these groups search for alternative ideas about what is and is not in their – and the country’s – best interests.

A further uncertainty, and the most likely spark for future violence, is the next election. Planned for 2018, it may seem far away but with all major international donors currently re-strategising, no external response to this looming date is expected until at least 2017, giving only a year to encourage the country to stay calm. And that is assuming Mugabe lives that long. Should he die – which could happen any day – an election has to be called within 90 days.

For all of these reasons, it is imperative that the work of civil society and local organisations, such as Peace Direct’s partner, Envision Zimbabwe, continues and expands. In the current donor climate, all civil society actors in Zimbabwe suffer. Yet speaking to them, they maintain a strong commitment to their country, democracy, accountability and harmony. As the political situation deteriorates, local organisations working on the ground are as important as ever to provide Zimbabwe with the leadership the elite stubbornly refuses to offer.

Following the relative peace of the 2013 elections, there is hope that the memories of the 2008 violence remain strong enough to avoid a relapse in future elections. But there are challenges ahead. With such a complex mesh of uncertainties, there is no room to be complacent. Perhaps international sanctions and a collapsing economy will force any future government to adopt a more stabilising approach for the country. However, with no obvious successor to Mugabe, it is impossible to predict and the closer any leadership fight, the more bloody that fight is likely to be.

A new wave of protest

The month of July 2016 has seen the rise of a new wave of protest against Mugabe regime, mainly driven by online campaigns and social media such Twitter and WhatsApp platforms. It appears Zimbabweans have been pushed into a corner and are now prepared to fight for their livelihoods and for change in the country.

The violent demonstrations in Beitbridge border town on 2 July against the import ban of basic commodities from South Africa, and the minibus demonstrations on 4 July against an increasing number of traffic police road blocks, all show a confrontation between ordinary members of the public and the Mugabe regime that has not been seen since the 1999 food riots.

The mass stay away, the “Shutdown Zimbabwe” campaign, on 6 July saw the complete shutdown of all business and running battles between riot police and demonstrating members of the public, highlighting the fast deteriorating political and economic situation in Zimbabwe.

Going forward it would appear that Zimbabwe is entering a new phase of turmoil with civic groups, church leaders and political activists all converging with sole aim of pushing reforms in the Mugabe government. How the Government will respond will determine the future of the country. The past few days have seen the arrest of a prominent Pastor who has been campaigning for the end to corruption and bad governance in Zimbabwe. The riot police brutality against unarmed citizen has also been on the rise.

Envision Zimbabwe will continue engaging key players such as the police and the traditional leaders for them to play a positive role in preventing violence. The organisation also continues to engage structures for peace, such as Peace Committees and Early Warning Platforms, that have been established at community level to maintain peace in these volatile times.

Peace is never linear and it remains to be seen whether the current situation is a nation that is collectively reaching the same conclusion – that Mugabe’s demise offers a new way forward. Either way, we must be ready to support those organisations already working on the ground – Envision is one of them.

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