Coordinating a Non-violent Resistance Campaign in the Wake of the 2008 Zimbabwean Presidential election

By J. Walter Keady Post date: Feb 03, 2016


The purpose of this paper is to provide a strategy for the fictional organization Zimbabweans for Free and Fair Elections (ZFFE) to achieve its goal of having the Mugabe regime release the actual results of the 2008 presidential election, or transferring election collation to a reputable monitor.The paper asserts that ZFFE should influence the populace and more specifically the opposition to focus on electorate expansion and mobilization in order to pressure individuals making up the supporting pillars of the Mugabe regime to alter the status quo.

History, causes and nature of conflict

This conflict occurs in the context of Robert Mugabe’s competitive authoritarian regime. The regimehas coalesced around Mugabe since 1980 when Zimbabwean independence was achieved and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was elected to head the country’s first government. Mugabe has consolidated support by concentrating wealth in his and his cronies’ hands through land reform and formation of entrenched patronage networks.The regime also sponsors violence through paramilitary organizations to suppress opposition party supporters and candidates. Using this political conniving as a launch pad, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF party have restructured Zimbabwean democracy into an authoritarian regime.

Though his rule continues, Mugabe weathered immense criticism for his economic policies. Not only was his land reform unsatisfactory to the general public—the prime benefactors being ZANU-PF loyalists instead of the broad benefit to populace which promised, Mugabe has also presided over extreme,inflation in the country.

Because of these grounds for dissatisfaction Morgan Tsivarangai, the candidate of the main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change was believed to have a chance of winning the 2008 presidential election. After the election, the MDC announced Tsivarangai’s victory without the release of any official results by the Mugabe government, citing initial counts from polling stations and international support[1]. The election was monitored by outside organizations, primarily South African Development Community, which officially called the election “credible.”[2]Despite this projection, the regime released no official election results for a month and bypassed the constitutional requirement to hold runoff three weeks after the election pending no candidate’s victory[3].

Region and geopolitical space in which the conflict takes place

Geopolitically,Zimbabwe is an important member of the post-British colonial zone in Africa. Formerly one of Africa’s strongest economies, following land reform and redistribution Zimbabwean production has failed and the country is now dependent on international aid and“South African imports”[4]Robert Mugabe has engineered personal legitimacy based around the rejection of colonialism and western capitalism, due to ZANU-PF’s Maoist affiliations during the armed struggle for independence. Thus Zimbabwe self-isolated to a certain degree, aside from its historical importance to the United Kingdom and regional activity (membership in the SADC) and continental activity (membership in the African Union.)

The international community has demonstrated its interest in the election controversy, notably through the African Union’s deployment of Gabonese diplomat Jean Ping to Harare and Ban Ki-moon’s “discussions” with regional leaders about how the United Nations can ensure credible elections.[5]

Type of conflict

            The election controversy in Zimbabwe is political in nature. To say that no other types of social and ethnic conflict underlie the electoral crisis would be incorrect, considering the political implications of the racialized violence against white landowners accompanying land reform and the ethnic violence of theGukurahundiperiod (in which supporters of Mugabe’s political rival Joseph Nkomo in Ndebele majority regions were subjected to regime violence in the 1980’s). However, entering the election, the critical issue at stake was that of more specifically economic management. While the argument could be made that economic concerns are largely social, the economic threat to Mugabe’s tenure concerned largely the competency (or lack thereof) surrounding his economic policymaking. Moreover, the uproar following the election concerns electoral procedures, with regime-sponsored violence targeting victims politically as opposed to ethnically or racially.

Analysis of the Regime’s Pillars of Support in the Conflict

The Mugabe regime’s competitive authoritarian under single party rule gives it considerable power. In particularly, freedom in administration, fusion of party and state institutions, cronyism, and party organization cement the regime in place.     

ZANU-PF’s history gives it a wealth of functional experience and organizational strength. The party has demonstrated its ability to function as both a military unit and a governing organization. There is presumably a unity of command and high capacity to delineate policymaking in a top-down manner as the party relates to Zimbabwean society.

The regime also benefits from Ad hoc administration, in that it can rule virtually as a single agent, in absence of any sort of political checks. Under this light, the regime can implement policies and bolster its position through legal decrees in an iterative orad hoc manner, without the need for an overarching plan or opposition approval. Mugabe’s institutional maneuvering in which he changed his position from prime minister to president, and the introduction of electoral laws mandating a majority as opposed to the previous plurality exemplify this capability.

Thirdly, because ZANU-PF is essentially the only party which implements policy, the line between the formal institutions and the internal organization of ZANU-PF is blurred.Underscoring this fusion of institutions and party is the nominal legitimacy awarded to ZANU-PF for its supposed electoral victories. Though the party is effectively the state itself, it is dependent on the image of being popularly elected to the position of governance. The party’s quasi-legitimacy also gives the regime license to “centralize and institutionalize” non-constitutional powers.[6]

The regime also uses cronyism to establish transactional relationships where preferential treatment is exchanged for political support. The clearest example of this is the disproportionate allocation of land to ZANU-PF members and supporters during Mugabe’s land reform.

While these other pillars bolster Mugabe’s power, the Mugabe regime is supported largely through violent repression. Violence gives the regime great stability for two key reasons: the first is that dissent and opposition support become virtually unthinkable. Fear and uncertainty in one’s own safety becomes fused with dissent and opposition support, making the current regime, however damaging, more palatable than the opposition. Moreover, violent repression is a clear and enforceable symbol of the regime’s legitimacy according to the Weberian conception that a state must hold a monopoly on the use of force. Not only does the Mugabe regime possess this monopoly, it operationalizes it regularly.

Violence is further a pillar of support because it increases the cost of future challenges. The cost of challenging the regime, or outwardly supporting the opposition at all, is not only political failure, but death. In this way political violence can insulate the state from political challenges, while simultaneously decreasing the frequency political challenges as a whole.

Mugabe’s use of violence to neutralize political opponents even before the creation of the Zimbabwean state, moreover, makes violence inseparable from the image of the Mugabe regime. Indeed, Mugabe emerged as a political leader only after involving himself with militant nationalism in the Zimbabwe African National Union (later ZANU-PF.) The demonstrable threat of violence is thus linked to the regime at all levels. The regime’s political violence is particularly effective in maintaining power because it is difficult to target: violence is conducted largely through thugs or paramilitary groups which have plausible deniability of regime support.

Explanation of Tactics in the Conflict

 The tactical goal of the Mugabe regime is to bolster its legitimacy as a competitive authoritarian organization by holding and winning fraudulent elections. Enacting violence is of particular importance to the regime’s ability to “win” the election by making bodily harm the de facto consequence of political opposition. The regime assumes a large proportion of opposition voters will either abstain or vote against their wishes, and those that do vote for the opposition will do so at great cost.

The regime also mobilizes its nominal legal legitimacy and effective fusion with the state to monopolize vote tallying and election collation. Vote counting is deliberately not transparent and fraud is easily injected into the process. Even with the presence of the monitoring SDAC, the regime carries the final, legal word on the election. Regime supervision also buys ZANU-PF time to sponsor violence through paramilitary groups to further demobilize the opposition in the event of a runoff. Because of the inherent imbalance in capacity between the regime and the opposition and general public, these methods are quite efficient in ensuring regime victory in elections.

The methods of the opposition and general public are by nature less coordinated than the regime’s, which as previously mentioned benefits from ZANU-PF’s long history of party discipline and organization. The opposition, to a certain degree, is able to dispute regime policies, because the competitive authoritarian state does allow minimal space for opposition politics. Thus the opposition can reach the electorate with rhetoric and encourage its members to vote out the regime, although violence is effective in blocking this objective.

The oppositioncan also challenge the legitimacy of the Mugabe regime and more specifically the 2008 election on the world stage. This tactic is effective in bringing in outside monitoring organizations like the African Union and United Nations, although the presence of these organizations cannot guarantee success in fair elections.

The opposition can also withdraw from the election and denounce its legitimacy locally. While this would shine a spotlight on regime-sponsored electoral fraud, it is an automatic defeat for the opposition. The regime is able simply to contest the opposition claim and continue the election or runoff as planned, this time winning without opposition.

In light of these opposing tactics, the ZFFE should undertake three critical goals in achieving the release of election results and/or the transfer of election tallying to reputable international bodies: mobilize the electorate to engage in politics of the street in spite of the threat of violence, coordinate with the MDC or opposition to increase participation, and pressure diplomatic actors in Zimbabwe to ingratiate themselves or their organizations in election tallying.

Strategy to move forward

The ZFFE strategy should thus be to force the incumbent governmt to release the election results rather than continue to scrutinize them or to hand over the collation of results to a reputable monitor This strategy would occur under immense repression and asymmetrical coordinating capability. This asymmetry largely affects the opposing sides’ mobilization capabilities—ZANU-PF can draw on its party organization methods and state apparatus, whereas ZFFE is starting with a blank canvas.This imbalance makes a coordinated non-violent resistance campaign is the best option for ZFFE for twokey reasons. First, the inclusive nature of non-violent resistance campaigns gives them “wider appeal” than violent movements, maximizing the amount of human and physical resources that the movement can use.[7] Secondly, non-violent movements’ moral high ground eases ZFFE’s mobilization problem because they limit the effectiveness of regime repression—the unjust nature of repressive violence against a non-violent movement may cause repression to “backfire,”[8] generating popular support for the campaign instead of fear of joining it.

Under this light, ZFFE should enact a two-phase non-violent campaign that openly calls for its goals in order to realize the release of election results or the transfer of election collation to an independent monitor. The first phase of this campaign should concern mobilization, without which ZFFE would have no popular support and thus no political leverage. Because the “very functioning” competitive authoritarian regimes demobilizes electorates overtime[9], ZFFE must first convince the electorate that its vote matters and then remobilize it to make demands towards the regime. ZFFE cannot simply depend on the election’s fraudulence to spark protest. While these protests do often occur[10], their success in influencing competitive authoritarians depends largely on an external body to coordinate them in accordance with a particular strategy.

In mobilizing, ZFFE can make use of several goals used by successful opposition parties in competitive authoritarian elections, namely convincing the public that the regime could actually lose the election, and convincing the public to support the opposition’s demands.[11] Endorsement of the MDC’s calls for the release of election results can aid these goals. The MDC has already called for the release of election results, giving the electorate and populace a pre-established rallying point.

The tactic of direct conversation with the electorate and public could also help to realize these mobilization goals. This tactic could be achieved under the guise of an election survey which ZFFE members would administer in highly populated areas. In the process of asking procedural questions about elections, ZFFE members could attempt to convince members of the electorate to expect more of their votes and join ZFFE. In this way ZFFE could prevent itself from appearing subversive while directly targeting its intended audience.

The second part of the initial phase should be to employ the help of the MDC party. As previously mentioned the MDC represents a pre-established rallying point, moreover, one that nominally has a voice in the Zimbabwean government. This involvement legitimizes campaign actions in the eyes of the public because the party is official, while ZFFE is simply organizational.ZFFE could incorporate MDC members into its campaign by speaking directly to politicians, but such public support for the subversive ZFFE plan would be unlikely. More efficient would be to speak with lower-level party members (e.g. functionaries, interns) who could more easily become involved with ZFFE grassroots actions.

The ZFFE campaign must also weaken the effectiveness of regime violence with the creation of a support network. The ZFFE campaign’s rejection violence as a means of defense will leave campaign members vulnerable. While this vulnerability is one of the campaigns greatest strengths because of the probability triggering backlash, the safety of campaign members on whom the entire movement depends is paramount. The creation of a support network creates shared experiences of exposure to violence, advice on how to overcome it, and psychological support. A particular tactic for realizing this goal is political mourning, where members of the movement will publicly honor or grieve for victims. These gatherings would also demonstrate to potential members the brutality of (and potential response to) regime violence, ultimately diminishing its impact on the public conscious.

After achieving broad support and mobilization for its campaign, ZFFE should outwardly demand its goals. This broadcasting process should target pillars of the regime’s stability. Because the aim of ZFFE is not to topple the government but to coerce it, the campaign should not seek to threaten the individuals making up the regime’s supporting pillars (crony business owners, demobilized citizens, effectiveness of security and/or paramilitary forces.) Instead, it should seek either to disrupt their activities to make perpetuation of the status quo (i.e. the Mugabe regime’s un-transparent election monitoring) unbearable.

To accomplish this publicity goal, ZFFE should employ allied MDC campaign members to make continuous public statements demanding results should be released, or the transfer of election collation. Accompanying these statements, MDC and ZFFE could establish on their internet/social media presences or in party newspapers a count of how many days the regime has held onto election results past the constitutional limit. The statements and the counts would serve as a daily reminder to the demobilized citizens of the regime’s unconstitutional and undemocratic behavior and inspire them to resist. Moreover, they would demonstrate the persistence of the ZFFE campaign, illustrating the need to change the status quo.

In order to disrupt the behavior of regime cronies, ZFFE should organize workers’ strikes in the agricultural sector until its goals are realized. This organization would be problematic because the collective action dilemma associated with striking. However, the transactional relationship between cronies and the regime is largely dependent on economic productivity, the direct target of striking. Moreover, because land reform put particularly lucrative farmland in the hands of regime cronies, strikes could be targeted to particular farms, ZFFE could achieve maximum disruption of crony business without a significantly more surmountable collective action problem than that of organizing a nation-wide agricultural protest.

The effectiveness of this strike, however, depends on ZFFE’s ability to coordinate striking workers and coach them on the “[escalation of] their tactics.” If workers could shift simply from demonstrators to “full-time organizer[s],”[12] the ZFFE could use their sectoral expertise to grow strike participation and have a more significant disruption in the status quo.

 ZFFE should seek also to disrupt passive diplomatic action by the African Union to the extent that anything less than full diplomatic pressure to coerce the Mugabe regime to enact ZFFE demands is unsustainable. Because of the A.U.’s direct involvement, ZFFE should broadcast its message to the representative in Harare, Jean Ping, directly. ZFFE can gain Ping’s attention by disrupting the peace in his whereabouts. Flash protests in Harare hotel in which campaign members flood lobbies and chant for the release of election results or collation transfer, quickly dispersing before security services could silence them could also be effective. Similarly, if ZFFE could procure information about Ping’s particular hotel room, the campaign could harass him with phone calls demanding the ZFFE goals. These tactics has the power to “haunt” Pingand disrupt his daily behavior, while minimizing the time campaign members spend in public as targets of regime violence.

Sadly, despite the potential effectiveness of this strategy, the ZFFE campaign could fail in ensuring electoral fairness even if the Mugabe regime released election results. As actually happened in the country, the regime released election results which mandated a runoff and effectively used violence to deter opposition support. The MDC candidate eventually withdrew his participation altogether, giving Mugabe an automatic victory. In this context, ZFFE would be forced to revamp its campaign from influencing politicians through nontraditional channels of non-violent resistance to conventional ones such as elections. Such a transition would require huge amounts of time, the amount of which between the release of the regime’s results and the date of the runoff may be insufficient. The difficult in mobilizing a non-violent campaign and succeeding with it perhaps speaks to the reality of the 2008 election. But does not void the effectiveness of such campaign altogether. A ZFFE  campaignshould thus not be rejected as a whole, but thoroughly planned and undertaken in full knowledge of the potential to fail.


Works Cited

  1. Boyd, Andrew and Mitchel, Oswald Beautiful Trouble, OR Books, New York and London
  2. Bunce, Valerie and Wolchik, Sharon “Defeating Dictators: Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes” World Politics, Volume 62, Number 1, 2010.
  3. Chenoweth, Erica and Stephan, Maria Why Civil Resistance Works, Columbia University Press, New York
  4. Gava, Mutongi“SADC says Zimbabwe Elections ‘Credible’” newzimbabweNovember 12 2009
  5. Smith, David “Robert Mugabe’s Land Reform Comes Under Fresh Scrutiny” The Guardian May 10th 2013
  6. “Mixed Signals,” The Economist, May 8th 2008


[1] “Mixed Signals,” The Economist, May 8th 2008
[2]Gava, Mutongi“SADC says Zimbabwe Elections ‘Credible’” newzimbabweNovember 12 2009
[3] “Mixed Signals,” The Economist, May 8th 2008
[4]Smith, David “Robert Mugabe’s Land Reform Comes Under Fresh Scrutiny” The Guardian May 10th 2013
[5]“Mixed Signals,” The Economist, May 8th 2008
[6]Bunce, Valerie and Wolchik, Sharon “Defeating Dictators: Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes” World Politics, Volume 62, Number 1, 2010. Page 50
[7] Chenoweth, Erica and Stephan, Maria Why Civil Resistance Works, Columbia University Press, New York, 32
[8] Chenoweth and Stephan 68
[9]Bunce and Wolchik 74
[10]Bunce and Wolchik 63
[11]Bunce and Wolchik 73
[12] Boyd, Andrew and Mitchel, Oswald Beautiful Trouble, OR Books, New York and London, 51