Failed States in Africa: The Zimbabwean Experience (ARI)

Failed States in Africa: The Zimbabwean Experience (ARI)

Theme: Zimbabwe is one of the failed States of Africa due to the violence and power monopoly wielded by the Mugabe regime.

Summary: Zimbabwe is a failed State on the verge of collapse. Robert Mugabe and his party –the Zimbabwe African National Unity Front-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)– have remained in control since the country gained independence in the early 1980s and have done so by abusing the State’s resources, using violence and perpetuating themselves in power through electoral fraud. If we add to this the fact that the country’s economy and humanitarian situation is deteriorating daily, we are clearly looking at a time bomb, which could explode at any time in the form of a civil war that is merely waiting to be triggered. Zimbabwe is a prime example of the consequences of the unlimited abuse of power and the incapacity of international pressure to prevent the entirely foreseeable failure of a State which jeopardises regional stability. This ARI examines the structural causes of the problem: violence and the monopoly of power by the Mugabe regime. It also describes the catastrophic social, humanitarian and economic situation facing the population. Against the backdrop of the forthcoming elections on 29 March, the paper looks at the possibilities of a turnaround in the situation which would lead to the final downfall of Zimbabwe or the start of its recovery.

Analysis:After independence, most Subsaharan African countries became single-party States under the assumption that this was necessary to rebuild nations and develop their economies. Based on this assumption, at best, the opposition was tolerated as long as it was not a threat, but usually it was eliminated, co-opted or simply forced into exile, as in Tunisia, Chad, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya and the Ivory Coast, among others. Other countries did not converge into a single-party system but into a military regime, like Ethiopia, Liberia and Uganda, but most of these and the other countries are today failed States.[1]

In the 1990s, when the Cold War drew to an end, the situation in the region changed drastically and alternation of power came in countries as different as Mali, Zambia, Kenya and São Tomé & Principe. The wars in Mozambique and Angola ended and South Africa transitioned to democracy, with Nelson Mandela inaugurated as President of the Republic in 1994 after spending half his life in prison. The southern African cone became a standard-bearer for political stability and economic potential for the entire continent. However, in other countries the opposition was not as successful. This was the case in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe and his party –the Zimbabwe African National Unity Front-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)– have been in power since the country’s independence in the early 1980s. Intimidation, the abuse of State power by the governing party, violence and the lack of transparency have prevailed in all electoral processes so far, the purpose of which has been to ‘democratically’ endorse the Mugabe regime. The opposition has had no chance, both because of the legislation in place and the interpretation thereof, and because of the widespread political violence, one of the main causes of the current political and economic dismemberment, which has led the country from independence in the early 1980s to chaos at the end of the present decade.

In 2007, Zimbabwe ranked fourth on the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index Scores, behind only Sudan, Iraq and Somalia, and at the head of the indicators of ‘mounting demographic pressure’ and ‘sharp and/or severe economic decline’. If Zimbabwe’s instability is added to the instability of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the recent unrest in Kenya after the electoral fraud in early 2008, a triangle of regional instability emerges which not only threatens these three countries, but jeopardises the political stabilisation and economic recovery of the entire southern African cone and of central Africa.

Zimbabwe obtained full independence in 1980 after a long struggle between ZANU-PF and the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU), on the one hand, and the government which declared unilateral independence from the UK in 1965, on the other. Since independence, Robert Mugabe, leader of ZANU-PF, launched a process to obtain absolute power in the country to the extent where there are areas, particularly at local level, which do not distinguish between the institutional structures and those of the governing party. Zimbabwe held parliamentary elections in 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2005, all of which were won by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and all of which triggered accusations of fraud, violence and intimidation. The next elections are scheduled for the end of March 2008.

Until the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party was the ZAPU, but it was absorbed by ZANU-PF in 1987. Since then, new opposition organisations have appeared, such as the National Constitutional Assembly in 1997 and, in 1999, the aforementioned MDC. ZANU-PF’s only defeat at the polls was in a constitutional referendum in February 2000, which led some to believe that the 2002 presidential elections might result in the alternation of power. However, ZANU-PF won again against a backdrop of extraordinary levels of intimidation and bloodshed. Government militants and security forces have acted with total impunity, and Amnesty International has repeatedly denounced rights violations by members of the State security forces themselves –police, army and intelligence– as well as the militia which have the consent and backing of the government and receive public resources and funds. They have structural impunity in Zimbabwe due to the presidential pardons and clemency, the lack of transparency and the total absence of cooperation to identify those agents of the State who are accused of perpetrating human rights breaches, and the harassment of human rights activists and the independent press, not to mention the partiality of the judicial system.

Generalised use of torture in Zimbabwe is not new. As far back as the 1970s, during the war of liberation against the Ian Smith government, torture was commonplace, and it has continued ever since. Under Mugabe’s governments, torture –and political violence in general– have also been and still are present. For example, during the unrest following food shortages in the capital, Harare, in 1988, Mugabe sent police and army units to control the uprising, leading to mass torture both on the streets and in detention centres. Since 1999, the torture has increased and has been used mainly to repress the opposition and against those under suspicion of militating in the opposition MDC party, preventing a real democratisation process from prospering. However, torture has also been used against farmers and journalists who have been victims of the terror policies imposed by the government to control the population.

Torture and violence have increased during election periods, and only members of ZANU-PF have escaped. According to Amani Trust, a humanitarian NGO operating in Zimbabwe, the cases of torture take place both before and after elections, with around 90% of victims being members of the MDC and the rest are politically unaffiliated teachers, union members and farmers. The same organisation estimates that around 20% of the country’s total population has suffered torture, including the so-called ‘political rapes’ of women belonging to the MDC, under suspicion of belonging to it or married to MDC militants, although there is no detailed documentation in this regard.

Another group which has also suffered systematic violations is that of farmers. Since independence, the redistribution of land held by white colonists had been one of President Mugabe’s electoral promises. In 2000, to meet the demands of the black population, especially his own followers, who were unhappy with the delay of more than 20 years in redistributing land, Mugabe’s government incited the occupation of farms by war veterans, leading to attacks, rapes and deaths. According to Amani Trust’s data regarding farm-owners who were expelled from their lands, 71% of them were tortured and in 55% of the documented cases the torture was performed in the presence of children. The land reform programme, which basically consists of giving a free rein of impunity to attacks on farms, had a parallel impact: the decline in farms’ productivity, lower exports, loss of currency inflows and a slump in food production. This, in addition to the poor harvests and drought throughout southern Africa, resulted in an acute food shortage which currently affects most of the population and is creating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, to which the government has responded by blocking foreign aid. Indeed, the government actually chose to prohibit private food aid plans and use public ones to punish the opposition and help the regime’s supporters.

Members of the media have not escaped the violence and torture either. Independent journalists operate in Zimbabwe under severe restrictions on what they can say. Whoever criticises Mugabe or his government are officially under arrest and sent to prison and, unofficially, subjected to torture. A new law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, criminalises freedom of expression de facto, by demanding that journalists obtain a licence to work without which they are not permitted to exercise their profession, on pain of two years in prison. This was to prevent foreign journalists from working in the country and to eliminate the journalists who did not support the government’s doctrines. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA) makes public rallies criminal offences and is used to cancel the rallies of the opposition and arrest demonstrators, and the Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) makes it illegal to publish anything which might ‘cause alarm’ according to the arbitrary discretion of the government. Not only that, but between 2000 and 2001, the headquarters of independent newspapers were bombed and journalists were physically assaulted under the accusation of being lobbyists for foreign powers and that their work was an act of treason.

The culture of violence is connected with the impunity in Zimbabwe which allows citizens to use force to resolve their political disputes. Systematically, after each flashpoint, clash or social uprising, a new law is approved pardoning all those who have violated human rights and committed other excesses. In addition to this series of ‘statute of limitations’ laws there have been a number of presidential pardons. This practice dates back to 1975, when the Prime Minister, Ian Smith, approved a law pardoning the excesses of his security forces. It happened again in 1980 after independence was won, and again in 1987 after the ‘Matabeleland events.’[2] Mugabe approved clemency laws pardoning acts of torture and other crimes in 2000 and 2002, and issued a series of presidential pardons with the same intention. For example, the amnesty law in 2000 allowed those guilty of murder and rape to be prosecuted, but not those guilty of kidnapping, burning houses or torture. In addition to this impunity comes further de facto impunity, since the police refuse to investigate accusations of torture and murder, alleging that they are political crimes and that they do not therefore fall under their jurisdiction.


It is true that the intimidation and violence dissipated in the 2005 elections with respect to previous polls: for example, the MDC could hold rallies in rural areas, which had been extremely difficult in earlier elections, although it is no less true that during the elections Ian Kay, the MDC candidate, was arrested and taken to the same interrogation centre where he had been tortured one year previously. This time he managed to leave one hour later, without having two ribs broken and his house blown up, as on the previous occasion. Nevertheless, according to Kay, the police continued to prevent people from attending his rallies and forced people to attend alternative ZANU-PF rallies. Independent newspapers were closed down (for example, The Weekly Times, The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday), the judiciary was silenced and sat complacent, and the wave of attacks on land owned by white people was almost complete.

Accordingly, the atmosphere of apparent relative calm at the previous parliamentary elections in 2005 must be analysed in this context of efficient structural repression to understand the relative value of the 78 MPs for ZANU-PF (63% of votes), to which the president added another 30 MPs via direct appointment, vs. the 41 MPs obtained by the opposition MDC (34% of the votes). Moreover, as during previous elections, there were discrepancies between the number of votes possible and the votes counted on election day. For example, in Mutare South, electoral commission data indicated a total of 14,054 votes cast. The MDC candidate obtained 12,613 and ZANU-PF 16,521, making a total of 29,034, a difference of 14,980 votes. There were similar cases in Kariba, Seke Rural, Buhera South, Marondera East, Buhera North, Murehwa South, Mutasa South, Nyanga, Chimanimani, Manyame and Goromonzi, among other constituencies. Furthermore, the MDC was unable to make a thorough analysis of the constituencies of Mahonaland Central, Masvingo, Matabeleland North, Midlands North and Midlands South, since the Central Electoral Commission simply did not provide detailed data. Additionally, the government refused to allow electoral observers in from the US, the Commonwealth, the EU, Japan and Australia, among others. For the elections at the end of March 2008, the president has already announced that he will not accept international observers.

However, despite his iron grip over the country, Mugabe is sitting on a time bomb or, as Eddie Cross, economic spokesman for the opposition MDC put it, Mugabe ‘knows that the ice under his feet is very thin, and the water underneath is very cold.’ The economic situation has deteriorated so much that already in 2005 famine affected one-third of the population, more than four million people, while the government spent more than US$500 million on arms contracts that year. Since then, people stand in queues of more than two miles long in the capital, Harare, to buy petrol and, there is a widespread shortage of maize, which is the basic item of food security in Zimbabwe, yet the mass imports announced (more than a million tonnes of corn) are blocked by the lack of currency reserves. Cuts in basic supplies are commonplace and hundreds of thousands of households no longer have running water or electricity. For a long time, especially before the last elections, the government kept the currency artificially high (almost three times its actual value) and the country is now paying the consequences of this rashness. The economic situation has deteriorated so much that 2007 closed with more than 66% inflation.

The situation in the last year has only got worse. It is not possible to buy fuel in the country, since companies no longer supply it because of the non-payment. It is almost impossible to buy bread, and there are scarcely any food products left in shops. The army is on maximum alert, the police mount 24-hour road checkpoints and there are exceptional security measures around the presidential palace, evidencing the concern for forthcoming events.

Future Prospects

The future of Zimbabwe appears to be inextricably linked to the future of its President. Robert Mugabe, aged 84, has announced that he will stand for re-election on 29 March. This time, he will have opponents even from among his own ranks: Simba Makoni, former Finance Minister, who initially had the support of the Vice-President Joyce Mujuru. However, she later changed her mind and endorsed Mugabe, so the octogenarian president will stand in the elections once again without a rival truly capable of disputing the presidency.

The socio-economic context surrounding these elections is worse than ever. In January 2008, year-on-year inflation was 100.58%, a world record. Unemployment exceeds 80%, and as far back as 2000 (according to data from Cape Town University’s Afrobarometer, around 70% of the population admitted having a close friend or family member who had died of AIDS. Furthermore, there is a huge shortage of essential medicines, staple foods, electricity and foreign currency, and more than 80% of the population lives on less than 2 dollars per day. The UN has already launched special protection plans, particularly for children.

However, Mugabe will probably win the elections again, due mainly to the existence of an opposition that has not overcome its divisions in terms of strategy and does not have a clear and solid leadership, and, as always, due to the violence and manipulation of the electoral system, a massive fraud in which people designated by Mugabe control the electoral registers, constituencies and the electoral commission. Non-resident citizens are not entitled to vote and neither are international observers allowed in, for fear they might denounce the fraud.

The MDC considers the ‘dialogue’ for political reform to have collapsed, and regards this as a catastrophe for both the citizens of Zimbabwe and the stability of the region as a whole. It even harbours doubts about the situation following the elections, and about whether the people of Zimbabwe will start ‘using the machete’.

In order for the country to enter total meltdown, all it needs is a trigger, which could easily be the mass electoral fraud expected or, for example, the consequences of an uncontrolled epidemic which might have resulted from the outbreak of cholera in Mashonaland Central and East, causing at least 11 deaths, or the cases of malaria detected. According to the government and the media which support it, the epidemic has already been brought under control, but the Health Minister himself, David Parirenyatwa, admitted that some areas were inaccessible due to the recent flooding. This is not the first outbreak of cholera, since in 2006 and 2007 similar outbreaks occurred due to the overflowing of waste water channels and the lack of drinking water. For these same reasons, there have already been more than 800 cases of diarrhoea in Mabvuku, Tafara, Hatcliffe and Chitungwiza, and towns like Bulawayo –the country’s second-largest after Harare– which lack cash and therefore lack the capacity to provide basic services to citizens, such as garbage collection, sewerage system maintenance and drinking water.

Conclusions: In just two decades, Zimbabwe has transformed from a prosperous country into a failed State, in a clear example of the consequences of perpetuation in power and the abuse of State resources by a political party: lack of respect for human rights, absence of the Rule of Law, disorder, economic and social chaos, epidemics, blockage of land communications in the southern African cone, regional instability, and, maybe, civil war.

The international community has tried to toughen sanctions such as the arms embargo and the travel ban by the EU on Mugabe and some 100 senior members of his government, the block on Zimbabwe’s vote in the International Monetary Fund, the imposition of monetary restrictions, the blockage of bank accounts belonging to senior Mugabe government officials and the greater regional isolation of Zimbabwe, to which the president has responded indifferently. This goes to show that closer cooperation is needed between the two main external players, the UK as an international player and South Africa as a regional player. However, although there have been calls for regional bodies such as the African Union to pressure the Mugabe government, there has been no success, since the president of Zimbabwe is still seen as a hero of independence in Africa and the pressure has been limited to promoting the ‘national dialogue’, which has already collapsed. The stronger the criticism, the more defiant the president has become.

In short, Zimbabwe is on the edge of the abyss and any event could trigger a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable scale which would certainly spill over beyond the country’s borders, affecting regional stability, right on the doorstep of a country, South Africa, which hopes to hold one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the Soccer World Cup, and which will be the world’s window on Africa in 2010.

Carlos García Rivero
Tenured professor at Burgos University’s Political Science and Administration Department, and specialist in elections, democracy and political stability in Subsaharan Africa

[1] In the list of failed States for 2007 compiled by The Fund for Peace (, there are 32 countries in the ‘alert’ zone, of which 18 are in Africa; 34 African countries are ‘in warning’, while only two African countries are ‘moderate’ –Mauritius and South Africa– and not a single African country is classified as ‘sustainable’.

[2] In the 1980s, the army massacred thousands of citizens and arrested and tortured hundreds more in the province of Matabeleland, to quell the popular uprising in reaction to the absolute and unchecked power of Mugabe’s party. Estimates suggest that there were more than 7,000 victims between 1980 and 1987.