Electoral crisis in Zimbabwe is a call for US leadership

On Monday, 30 July, the people of Zimbabwe went to the polls in record numbers, and for the first time in three decades, 94-year-old Robert Mugabe was not on the ballot. But the optimism in this southern African nation, which has been destroyed by failed leadership, and shut out by the international community, quickly turned to disillusionment, and then evaporated in a “puff of teargas and a hail of live ammunition,” as soldiers attacked civilians and tanks rolled through the streets of Harare city centre

A violent crack-down on opposition supporters and a full-blown crisis is now unfolding in Zimbabwe. Instead of constraining itself to diplo-speak, the U.S. government, as part of a coalition of Zimbabwe’s international stakeholders, needs to show leadership.

{mosads}Robert Mugabe’s ouster was made possible not by enlightened political leadership or the popular will of a people hungry for democracy, but by an act of self-preservation by ruling elites. Leaders of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front  (ZANU–PF), fearful that Mugabe was getting ready turn power over to his wife, forced the aging leader to resign in a bloodless “non-coup.” Constitutional power was transferred to Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, with presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for July.


From the beginning, few expected the election to be fair to the opposition, a field which included 23 presidential aspirants led by 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).  The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of 34 civil and religious organizations, found that the ZANU-PF “used state resources to campaign, employed food aid to win votes, and enjoyed more favorable media coverage than the opposition.” Most International experts concurred.

Opposition leaders, Chamisa included, made the calculated decision to contest the polls despite the uneven playing field, hoping that the clear desire for change would overpower the incumbent advantage, as was the case in recent presidential elections in Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The international community, too, seemed optimistic. The African Union, Africa’s regional organizations, the European Union, and the United States believed that the ouster of Mugabe, followed by a credible election, would provide the country a fresh start. They all accepted invitations to observe the polls; for the US, this was a first.

Mnangagwa, with the state machinery behind him, and facing a fractured opposition, had confidence going into the polls. Moreover, he and his party recognized that a credible election was the only way out of the deep fiscal hole left in the wake of Mugabe, in which all of them were complicit.

While election day was peaceful, distrust and then panic took over, and many miscalculations were made. 

The day following the vote, Chamisa, buoyed by an unprecedented crowd during his final rally in the capital of Harare, and an election-day turn-out of more than 70 percent, declared himself the winner ahead of any reporting by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).

“We now have results from the majority of over 10,000 polling stations. We’ve done exceedingly well. Awaiting ZEC to perform their constitutional duty to officially announce the people’s election results and we are ready to form the next gvt,” said Chamisa on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the ZEC, terrified they were losing control, announced on 1 August that the ZANU-PF had won a parliamentarian majority, all but assuring the victory of Mnangagwa in the presidential polls. And indeed, two days later the ZEC declared Mnangagwa the winner with 50.8 percent of the vote, just over the threshold to avoid a run-off.

Chamisa called the polls fraudulent and illegitimate, and his chief constituency, disenfranchised urban youth, took to the streets. Six opposition supporters were subsequently killed, and government-sponsored intimidation has not stopped since. The Guardian’s Jason Burke reports, Zimbabwe opposition members face a wave of detentions and violence.

We are at an inflection point. The US government, empowered with a well-respected Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, needs to act in what is a closing window before the disruptors on both sides claim control.

The US should demand that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission release comprehensive polling data in a transparent manner that includes results from each polling station signed off by party agents who were present for the casting of ballots and the tabulation of results. It must condemn the excessive use of force and the crackdown on democratic freedoms, and state its intention to hold accountable any Zimbabwean, individual or institution, perpetrating violations of individual and human rights during this period.

The 3 August Statement by the US State Department feels woefully inadequate as does tweets of deep concern from the US embassy in Harare.

Second, US needs to actively engage the 15 member Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has repeatedly opted for stability over electoral justice in Zimbabwe.  SADC’s quiet diplomacy has consistently failed the people of Zimbabwe.

Third, the US should hold firm on reengaging the Zimbabwe government until the election results are validated, through a transparent release of results, accessible for audit by political opposition and civil society.  And future relations must be tied to economic, political and security reforms.

Undoubtedly, the State Department will have bipartisan Congressional support for action, with a bill laying a framework for US relations with the government of Zimbabwe, already passed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The 30 July election created an opening – a glimmer as to the possibilities of what the country could be, at peace with itself and its neighbors, re-engaged with the international community, an economy unshackled by sanctions, and institutions capable of providing opportunity. It is cruel to let this hope die, and fail yet another generation of Zimbabweans.  

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Elections in Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa Movement for Democratic Change Robert Mugabe ZANU–PF Zimbabwe Electoral Commission

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