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A modest proposal for Zimbabwe's Mugabe

A flawed election in Zimbabwe has Robert Mugabe preparing for his seventh inaugural. Typical of Africa, the opposition could not unseat him. But here's a way forward: Appeal to his concern with legacy so that he swears off running again. This can lead to an open succession.

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Were Zimbabwe, say, Equitorial Guinea, ballot mischief would hold little consequence outside the country. But Zimbabwe, like Kenya, is a significant regional hub, and its political woes pose serious economic and security liabilities for neighboring countries. Kenya, in the volatile Horn of Africa, borders the failed state of Somalia, home to Islamist terrorists who have sometimes sought refuge and subterfuge in Kenya. Zimbabwe’s refugees, meanwhile, have streamed next door to South Africa, causing tensions in the continent’s strongest economy.

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So what now? As Mugabe prepares his seventh inaugural party, there is still an opportunity to strengthen multiparty politics in a way that might set an important example in Africa. Through a combination of economic sticks and carrots (such as lifting economic sanctions), the international community should coax Mugabe to announce that he will not seek reelection – a simple request with large implications.

Given that Mugabe would be 94 years old by the next presidential vote, that might seem like an unnecessary pledge. But it would have a catalyzing effect by enabling an open process of succession with the party he has ruled with an iron fist since his militants won the war for liberation. It could also put him in the role of shepherding a more constructive political debate between his party and the opposition about his nation’s future prosperity.

Mugabe’s past provides plenty of reason to scoff at that suggestion, but it just might work. For all of his political ambition, Mugabe is also preoccupied with legacy, and framed in those terms, such a pledge might well appeal to him. Announcing retirement could bring a more benevolent, fathering tone to his final years in power.

However flawed, the election has also brought the opposition to a pivotal and perhaps salutary point. Since its emergence in late 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change has been one of the most successful and important opposition parties in Africa. It thwarted Mugabe’s more outlandish attempts at constitutional reform and has held strong blocs in parliament. But it has splintered and stumbled over tactics. By re-dedicating itself to the role of a strong opposition party, and perhaps finding new leadership, it may provide a lesson in resilience for emerging challengers elsewhere in Africa.

It is true that the ideal of government by popular consent is now broadly embraced on a continent once known more for military coups and autocratic regimes. Today the norms and principles of democracy are codified in national law and the charter agreements of regional development blocs. The conversation among African nations is no longer about staying out of each other’s affairs, but rather how to hold better elections, protect human rights, grow economies, and include women in the political process. This conversation alone marks significant progress.

But the practice of democracy in Africa lags behind all the talking about it. Opposition victories at the ballot box do not necessarily indicate healthy politics. But a third consecutive flawed election in Zimbabwe, as in Kenya, where the ruling parties have faced credible challengers, must now give African reformers pause. Political longevity is not equal to vibrant participatory democracy in promoting Africa’s economic aspirations.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He covered Africa for The Boston Globe.


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