Crisis in Zimbabwe: Defending Democracy in the Age of Sharp Power.



Once a breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has over the years become the laughingstock of the world due to poor governance, policy inconsistencies, human rights violations, and political polarization. In my view, the state of Zimbabwe has tremendous potential, with rich natural resources and one of the most educated populations in Africa. Since the turn of the century, the country has been going through several rounds of an interlocking multi-dimensional crisis characterized by economic collapse, worsening livelihoods, and political polarization. Politically, the country remains in gridlock after the 2023 elections and economically the state is in comatose. The main opposition party, Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC), continues to raise the illegitimacy of the current President based on allegations that there was massive rigging and voter suppression in the just-ended August 2023 elections. This political impasse in Zimbabwe has led to a highly cartelized and patronage-based economy, which has led the country into the current socio-economic crisis. 


After 37 years under President Robert Mugabe's rule, he was toppled via a military coup termed the military-assisted transition in November 2017. His successor and former Vice President, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, promised a break from Mugabeism to a developmental democratic Zimbabwe, a dream yet to be achieved in the current regime in Harare. In his first inaugural speech, he declared a “new Zimbabwe” or “new dispensation” that is “open for business” across the global axis. The critical factor and an impediment to achieving this is linked to the history of “human rights violations” and the failure of the state to implement democratic reform. The Harare regime has been isolated internationally for years worsening the state´s capacity to trade and relate with a variety of states in the world and its ability to provide public goods. The crisis in Zimbabwe is also aggravated by a high level of political polarization among its citizenry together with poor governance, corruption, mismanagement of public institutions, and ZANU PF monopolization of state power. ZANU PF continually monopolizes state power while denying political rights and opportunities to other political actors to compete for political influence and participate in policy dialogue through intimidation, harassment, and use of force through the securocrats. 

Contextual realities of democracy in Zimbabwe


Zimbabwe’s political and constitutional history is embedded in nationalism, and the liberation struggle, shaped by constitutional settlement negotiated at Lancaster House in 1979. The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) under Joshua Nkomo and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe mutated into a liberation movement that grew in strength and spread its tentacles in the 1970s and subsequently forced the minority regime to the negotiating table which gave birth to the Lancaster House constitution. Violence thus became ingrained in the Zimbabwean political culture, and it then shaped post-independence politics. State violence as a method of repression had been a prominent feature of the minority regime before 1980. It was adopted and modified with the Mugabe regime from 1980 to 2017 and with the Mnangagwa regime (2018 to 2023). The state’s democratic conundrum is complicated, regular elections have been held since 1980 to date and after every election, the question of legitimacy and rigging is raised. 


Zimbabwe has been politically unstable for decades; its history is a history of fierce clashes that spread over many years that incorporate the liberation struggle from 1965-1979, the Gukurahundi massacres from 1980-1987, the post-2000-2008 election brutality, and the 2018 shootings after the elections, these among others have dug in divisions in various groups around the country. The state and its machinery and different political actors are at the center of the violent nature of the Zimbabwean populace. The Hobbiean world order rules the contact of all political actors, all engulfed in the quest for power and fulfillment of their self-interests. The power conflicts, instability, polarization, and understanding of the national question remain at the heart of the current crop of leaders across the political divide. Politics of populism and survival, elites’ pacts, poor leadership, injustices, and various cases of abuse of state and government power define the current crop of politicians in Zimbabwe all at the expense of the masses of our people. Across the political divide, the motherland has created a crop of Authoritarian Democrats who hide under the shadows of political populism and pay lip service to the key tenets of democracy. And thus undermine the very nature of democracy in Zimbabwe. 


Political populism, l mean a political philosophy in which the country’s political elites articulate people’s grievances in ways that appeal to the ordinary, unemployed, and disadvantaged man and woman in the street, but in a manner that only serves their political agenda and goals. The primary goal would be to attain political power and all that comes with it. Thus, populism is about the people but not by the people and for the people. ZANU PF has proved beyond reasonable doubt that it has perfected the art of populism and appealing to people’s grievances to save its political purposes. History has shown that, in the liberation struggle, ZANU mobilized people against racial segregation and societal inequalities. At the same time, its political and military leaders lived lavish and flamboyant lifestyles in Lusaka and across the World, while the youth and general populace risked their lives in the jungle and at the frontline. A typical norm and exercise being copied and purified today by the main opposition CCC, preaching peace, democratic reforms, and unity while fueling internal divisions and ethnic tensions and denigrating the democratic development of the state. 


Zimbabwe is suffering from the repercussions of authoritarian populism and populism without principles by political actors. Populist politicians in Zimbabwe tend to disdain formal democratic institutions, such as courts, legislatures, and regulatory agencies. These, among others, are the critical features of the rule of law that can hold populists accountable or remove them from power. In contrast, populists view this state architecture as unnecessary and obstructive creations of corrupt and self-serving elites. As a result, they openly disparage and try to undermine these institutions. Personified politics and politics of populism had for years taken advantage of the people and threatened democracy by eroding formal institutions and undermining the values and norms of democracy.  The digital and social media platforms have become battlegrounds and platforms for fueling threats of physical violence and tribalistic and homophobic exchanges between people who disagree on political ideologies and affiliations. Although the role of digital media as an alternative form of democratic participation through such activities as online petitioning, ‘‘clicktivism’’ and ‘‘hacktivism,’’ blogging, uses of social media for politics, citizen journalism, and the like are appreciated, political actors in their quest to safeguard their political interests have abused it. Judging from past experiences from different countries in the global south, media popularities have never transformed into votes, nor have they been a measure of political support. This suggests that citizens must converge, arm up, and represent themselves against selfish and brutal political elites. 

Role of Political Parties in Undermining Democracy. 

ZANU PF in Zimbabwe has done its part in consolidating its hold on power since independenceAs the country grapples with the shambolic results of the 2023 elections, evidence suggests an emotional or psychological positioning strategy at play in instilling fear in voters' minds and competitive-driven positioning like suggesting voting for other political parties would be allowing or sanctioning the re-colonization of Zimbabwe. In politics, the periodic nature of elections produces surges of strategic and tactical activity. Terms such as campaign, battle, attack, and defense are standard in business; such rhetoric is continually employed in Zimbabwean politicsZANU PF’s war credentials position the party as a revolutionary party. Still, when losing its political ground, torture and intimidation, manipulation, and capture of state institutions areused to eliminate or silence the opposition leaving a trail of property or human rights violationsThe ruling party has shown that politics is the business of maneuvering for strategic national positions that win votes at the national or local level of governance. Ultimately, the argument is that political parties sell ideas or solutions to national or regional issues and are required to position such ideas or solutions in a manner that appeals to the voters. 

ZANU PFs continually monopolize state power while denying political rights and opportunities to other political actors to compete for political influence and freely participate in policy dialogue. Just like Mugabe’s, the Mnangagwa regime continues with its intolerance of the opposition political parties, specifically the current CCC. He consistently paid lip service to democracy and democratic elections, which he has manipulated to his advantage and that of his party, and the just-ended 2023 elections were not an exemption. Similarly, the CCC leader Nelson Chamisa’s supporters are strong adherents of the “Chamisa Chete Chete,” an ideology that assents to the view that nobody besides him can lead the opposition and develop the country. In other words, however, it is the mentality borrowed from the ruling ZANU PF party, which asserts that it has a monopoly on ruling Zimbabwe and its leader, and no other one can lead the country. The CCC and its supporters also throw around vacuous phrases such as the Ngaapinde Hake Mukomana slogans. For good reasons, it should be commendable for Mukomana to explain why he should be entrusted with the people of Zimbabwe and become the next President. His supporters' response, together with the other leader, that if he gives and shares his plans, his enemies will steal his ideas is unacceptable and naïve. 

The question that always remains in the public space is who is for the people, and with what efforts can the people understand the vision of the future? One of the critical contributors to the Zimbabwean crisis is the lack of peace, healing, reconciliation, and political polarization. In my opinion, what needs to be done is to change the political culture within political parties. With political culture, I mean the norms and values that relate to the political system, or a particular distribution of patterns of orientation toward political objects among members of the nation. It can also be seen as a set of attitudes, sentiments, and beliefs that give order and meaning to a political process and provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern the behavior in the political system. The change in political culture together with an expansive regional inventory of the atrocities so that we have an idea of what needs to be redressed where and how.


To change, the people cannot trust the political parties to do that because they are the ones that are the primary benefactors of these behaviors whether it is the ruling party or the opposition. A political party is a political party whether under the opposition, unity government, transitional authority, or any other form of government.  The problem of atrocities and human rights violations is not the problem of the agents or people doing the crime; it is a problem of the system; the main culprit is the political parties that create the state; the state is the violent one, it is decisive, and the state is the one which thrives on dividing people on political, regional, ethnic and social grounds. So the main culprit must be the state; therefore, we cannot look to the main culprit and its beneficiaries in government and the opposition to formulate at any level mechanisms that implicate the state that lead to the reforming of the state. The state needs to be reformed for the democratic development of Zimbabwe. From all the above points, it is clear that neither the government nor the opposition are looking at long-term results during an election year. They are only concerned about the immediate impact that their political parties can create and the fulfillment of their self-interests.