Forgiveness can be a powerful tool to end a conflict, whether in politics or diplomacy. Yet measures such as amnesty or pardon are too rarely used. They often lose to a desire for justice. One place where forgiveness might be an effective tool right now is Zimbabwe, an African nation on the brink of a critical election – and a potential repeat of mass violence.
Zimbabweans go to the polls July 31 to elect a president. The last election in 2008 saw the long-ruling president, Robert Mugabe, lose the ballot count. His security forces unleashed such postelection violence that the ballot winner, Morgan Tsvangirai, was forced to accept a submissive role as prime minister.
Now faced with possibly losing the vote again to Mr. Tsvangirai, Mr. Mugabe, as well as his top generals and the ruling party, are doing what autocratic regimes often do to stay in power: They are rigging the voting process.
The timing of this election was rushed by Mugabe on purpose, perhaps illegally. An estimated 2 million young people have not been registered. The voting rolls have the names of more than 100,000 voters aged 100 or older. These and other dubious tactics led Human Rights Watch to declare: “The chances of having free, fair and credible elections are slim.”
Ending the long rule of leaders like Mugabe is rarely easy. Even if they want to leave, they and top supporters fear retribution if they let go of the state’s levers of power. They have gained ill-gotten wealth or hurt people in ways that demand justice.
It is a delicate choice between offering a ruler a form of forgiveness as a way to get him to exit and seeking to punish him. Opting for justice can create a deterrent against future abusive leaders and satisfy a desire for retribution by a ruler’s victims. Yet demanding justice might push a ruler to stay in power at all costs – such as rigging an election.
An offer of forgiveness and a guarantee of protection, meanwhile, could persuade a ruler to leave, ending his abuses and creating a just democracy. Yet that may not serve as an adequate deterrent to future rulers. And victims are left with little justice.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 33 years, has reasons to cling to power. Many of Africa’s despots – most recently, those in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – have either been put on trial, killed, or forced into exile. A few have been either indicted or convicted by the International Criminal Court. In addition, if Mugabe does lean toward handing over power, he might face a coup by top security forces or a rebellion within his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.
Fortunately, the opponent in the presidential race, Tsvangirai, says he would honor Mugabe once he left office, allowing him an adequate pension and recognizing his legacy in leading the liberation of the country from white rule in the 1970s.
“One would say ‘let sleeping dogs lie’,” Tsvangirai told the Financial Times. “What is important is to ensure that there is stability, because stability is the basis for future progress.”
Sadly, Tsvangirai’s efforts to talk to Mugabe’s top generals about their future if he wins have been rebuffed. They, like Mugabe, see their legitimacy to rule as more derived from their role in the liberation struggle four decades ago and less from a constitutional process of elections.
Still, Mugabe and Tsvangirai have enough of a personal relationship that it is possible to create the trust necessary to allow a peaceful transition of power, one that allows Mugabe and his allies to live peacefully in their own country.
The country already has one important precedent: black Zimbabweans were largely forgiving of their former white rulers during the transition from the old nation of Rhodesia.
And it has a model in South Africa’s transition to democracy two decades ago. Nelson Mandela made a key decision to forgive white rulers if they admitted their mistakes. That process helped create the conditions for peace and growth. The idea sprung in part from the South African philosophy of ubuntu, as explained in its 1993 Constitution: “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.”
Both Mugabe and Tsvangirai have invoked the name of God in their political fight. Mugabe says “only God” can remove him from power. Tsvangirai says it is God’s wish that his opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, win. Yet it may be the godly attribute of forgiveness that will help Zimbabwe find the healing it deserves out of this election crisis.