Group Exercise Expanded: Zimbabwe and Election Fraud

By Charles T. Baker Post date: Feb 03, 2016


In 2008, controversy erupted in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe.  Following a general election, it appeared that the country’slongtime autocratic leader, Robert Mugabe, had lost the election to Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the opposition movement.  However, the pro-Mugabe government disputed the loss, claiming that Tsvangirai had not received the percentage of votes necessary to take office and a runoff election was required.  Supporters of Tsvangirai and outside observers claimed the results were erroneous due to election tampering.  Regardless, Tsvangirai opted to withdraw from the runoff election for fear of the repercussions his supporters may face.  The purpose of this paper is to generate a non-violent struggle focused on brining fair and free elections to the country.  The paper begins with an overview of Zimbabwe, which includes of a brief history of the country, the cause and nature of the conflict, an analysis of the region, an exploration of the type of conflict, an analysis of the source of power for each party, and an explanation of tactics used on each side before thoroughly discussing the strategy moving forward for the non-violent campaign. 

Zimbabwe is a relatively young country with a remarkably rich history.  While Zimbabwe has only existed as an independent nation-state for roughly thirty-five years, the culture and history of the country extend back thousands of years.  In the latter half of the 20th century, conflict and corruption have defined Zimbabwe politically.  The country of Zimbabwe originated from guerilla uprisings stemming from racial conflict tracing back to the British annexation of the country in 1923.  After declaring independence from the British, the white minority controlled government of Rhodesia[1]under Ian Smith ran a government that promised a “whiter, brighter Rhodesia.”This racial suppression under the white government led to a civil warthat brought two black African nationalist group to the center of the nation’s political stage: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo.  Facing external pressure from the international community and internal pressure from the guerilla group, the cost of suppression became too great for the Rhodesian government and they allowed free elections in 1979.  Considered a hero by many in Africa after his guerilla exploits, Mugabe was victorious in the elections and became the nation’s first prime minister.

However, free elections and Mugabe’s victory did not end Zimbabwe’s internal conflict;violence erupted in the 1980’s as a result of existing distrust between ZANU and ZAPU forces and ethnic tension.  The de facto genocide, referred to as Gukurahundi, involved the North Korean trained Firth Brigade massacring pro-Nkomo citizens that were largely composed of the Ndebele ethnic peoples– Nkomo, who was a Ndebele, had been removed from his ministerial position because he was believed to be involved in a plot to remove Mugabe from power.  Nkomo.It is estimated that Mugabe’s pacifying campaign left 25,000 dead. The violence subsided in 1987 following an accord between Mugabe and Nkomo thatunited their two parties under the moniker Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.  Mugabe retained a firm hold on the Zimbabwean government through the 1990’s.In the late 1990’s Mugabe began a land redistribution campaign under a populace flag that that targeted mostly white farmers and benefitted largely his supporters.  It also crippled the country’s economy, which at the time had been one of the fastest growing in Africa. 

In 2000, Mugabe faced his first real challenge to his power. Mugabe and the ZANU-PF lost a nationwide referendum that would have amended the constitution in their favor, including giving more power to the office of the president.  Mugabe assaulted the dissident voices, targeting largely white farmers, with the use of his paramilitary.  The 2008 general elections were also mired in controversy.  Initially, it appeared that Morgan Tsvangirai and his opposition party, Movement for a Democratic Change, won the election with 51% of the vote.  However, the government argued that Tsvangirai had only received 47% of the vote, necessitating a runoff election. But Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff because of concerns stemming from the safety of his supporters.  It is readily apparent that the history of the country, while brief, has been drenched in conflict.

While history provides some insight to the current political crisis in Zimbabwe, an appreciation for the political context of the region facilitates a more complete understanding of the situation.  Located in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is in a region that shares a colonial past with its neighbors.  All of the five countries immediately surrounding Zimbabwe – South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique – were at one time colonies of European powers.  Further, the political rights in the region are far from matching those of Western Europe.  According the Freedom House, a watchdog organization that grades the freedom levels of nations, South Africa and Botswana are the lone “free” countries of the six.  Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique merited a grade of “partly free.”  However, the “partly free” designation still suggests severe infringements on basic political rights.Zimbabwe has been judged the least free of the six, receiving a grade of “not free.”  It is clear that a brief analysis of the region reveals the Southern Africa in general needs to take strives towards improving their political rights.

In addition to understanding the region, its essential to understand what type of conflict the 2008 election crisis represents.  The type of conflict present in the 2008 election was political.  Mugabe’s ZUNA-PF party has a socialist ideology and is a left-wing party that facades as a populist party.  The reality of the situation is that Mugabe and the ZUNA-PF represent an autocratic regime that benefits a small circle of supporters and neglects the needs of the masses as the economy spirals out of control.  The opposition, Tsvangirai’s MDC-T party,claims to be a democratic socialist party of the center-left.  Supporters of the MDC are those disaffected by the rule of Mugabe and want actual democracy and an improved economy.  Formed in the early 2000’s, MDC is largely composed of civic groups, labor unions, constitutional reformers, and marginal opposition parties.But while it is clear that the conflict is political, by examining who comprises the party, there is some class discord as well.  The fact that trade unions support the opposition suggests that Zimbabwe’s working class is not pleased with the current regime.  Opposition to Mugabe is not based on ideology as much as it is opposition to his violent, autocratic regime, corruption, and poor running of the economy.

There are a number of institutions that augment the power of Mugabe and the ZUNA-PF.  First, there are political paramilitaries made up of veteran revolutionaries.  Mugabe used these paramilitary forces in the wake of his 2000 referendum loss to silence the voices of his dissidents.  Further, the ruling party is in control of the civil service, military and security forces, and the state-owned media, making it incredibly difficult for any opposition to have a voice without facing repercussions. For example, Freedom House gave Zimbabwe’s press a score of 89 on a 0 to 100 scale where a score of 100 is suggests the press is absolutely not free. In addition to these internal supports, the South African Development Community (SADC), the organization in charge of monitoring the 2008 election results, is purported to be biased towards the Mugabe regime. In contrast, Tsvangirai and his supporters, who largely come from civil society, lack any real military or armed power, making resistance to Mugabe’s violence difficult and infeasible. 

Historically, Mugabe employs primarily two tactics to retain power.  First, he uses violence to repress and intimidate the oppostion.  This was the case when he employed the Fifth Brigade in the 1980’s to attack Nkomo supporters.  He exercised this method again in the wake of 2000 elections to intimidate opponents that voted against the referendum.  Fear of violent repression to prevent his supporters from going to poll is the reason that Tsvangirai opted to not participate in the runoff elections.  Another method that Mugabe’s regime uses is election tampering.  This is believed to be the case in the 2008 election as the opposition claims that Tsvangirai received enough of the total vote to win the election outright.  It is clear that both these tactics in unison seem to be effective for the ruling party, as he Mugabe has been able to maintain power since the since his 1979 victory.  The opposition has no recourse because of the threat of violence.

Having established the context of the situation, it is possible to enter the scenario begun in class with a more thorough understanding of the topic.  As a member of “Zimbabweans for Free and Fair Elections” (ZFFE), it is my goal and the goal of my organization to apply pressure on the government to eitherrelease the real elections results or hand over the election to an independent monitor.  Because there is a precedent of violence towards dissident voices, it is essential for the safety of the organization’s supporters to tread lightly.  It is clear that the best way to use a non-violent campaign to meet our goal is through the tactic of protest and persuasion and employ laughtivism.  Instead of targeting Mugabe for the non-violent campaign, a move that would certainly lead to violent backlash, the campaign will target the SADC.  Targeting the SADC still allows the organization to reach its goal because it suggests that an unbiased monitor needs to be brought in without placing Mugabe on the defensive.  The campaign generated uses the tactic of protest and persuasion to target the SADC with the intention of drawing the attention of the international community and disillusioned voters to our side.

The exact strategy that would be employed is loosely based on Srdja Popovic’s oil drum technique used against the Serbian dictator, Milosovic.The campaign involves the use of props and flyers to establish our presence as an organization and vilify the SADC as the perpetrator of the unfair elections.  The first of two different props will be a fake voting booth.  The voting booth with have the name SADC across the top and inside Zimbabweans will have the opportunity to vote for only “unfair election monitoring”.  The second prop is boxed labeled SADC and “missing votes.” The inside of the boxes will contain the missing votes for Tsvangirai.  Both props will also have the ZFFE’s symbol - which signals to the populace that we are a presence in the country - the Zimbabwe bird to reflect the fact that we are seeking a goal for the benefit of Zimbabweans, not Western influences.  Then the props and flyers that contain our organization’s principles and symbol, to connect the principles to the props, will be distributed throughout Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

This is a very low risk operation because supporters and members of our group are not exposed in public for longer than it takes to put up the props. The props can be left alone and watched from a comfortable distance.  Because we are not an established organization, it is important to first achieve small victories; in this case the goal is just to point out to the community that an unbiased election monitor is preferable to the SADC and that an organization exists that is attempting to achieve that aim.  Additionally, this campaign does not require long periods of energy exertion from supporters.  We are in the early stages and expending too much energy at one time may burn out supporters.  After the success of this event and our group is more established, a non-cooperation movement or intervention is more feasible. Although, the period of time until the runoff may be too brief to establish a foothold and the group may need to wait for later elections to pursue more dramatic tactics.

Further, because Mugabe’s regime’s authority is based on fear, it is important that the non-violent campaign feature aspects of Popovic’s laughtivism. Humor, Popovic contends breaks fear and makes non-violent movements cool, while simultaneously making the resisting regime look silly for combating the campaigns.  In order to add humor to the campaign, the props will be adorned with flamboyant and colorful decorations.  There are two purposes for this.  First, it will draw greater attention to the booth and boxes and make it clear that it is satirizing the elections.  Second, it will be humorous to watch Mugabe’s security forces carry them away – as was the case with Milosovic’s police officer and the barrel.

With a non-cooperation movement, it is important to consider whether you are imposing a price on the regime.  The price the regime must face is the embarrassment of having to take down the flamboyant props and an assault on the credibility of an institution that backs them, the SADC.  If the regime takes down the props, they lose authority because observers will find it harder to fear an institution that fears colorful props.  Further, if the regime fails to also seek an unbiased intermediary, it appears that they too are in favor of unfair elections.  But giving the regime the opportunity to also ask for another election monitor by targeting the SADC allows them to save face. 

Popovic argues that the non-violent struggle needs to fit one of three potential goals: mobilize supporters, distract opponents, or bring people from the middle of the spectrum closer to me.  The goal of our campaign is to bring people in the middle to our side of the spectrum.  In the 2008 election, only 41% of eligible voters came to the polls. Our goal is to attract the other 59% that have maybe become disillusionedwith the political process.  Further, through the use of social media, we hope to spread images of the props and reactions to the props to the international community so that they can observe Mugabe’s insidious behavior.  It may be difficult to initially mobilize the opposition, because it is clear that they are frightened of the regime.  Our best chance to mobilize them is by encouraging them to appeal to the international community for an election monitor instead of the SADC.  If the larger goal is to bring fair and free elections to Zimbabwe, this is a modest first step.  Potentially, the attention our protest draws from the international stage will “encourage” the government to allow for a new election monitor.  In theory, that unbiased monitor will not only facilitate fair and free elections, but eventually see Mugabe and the ZUNA-PF removed from power. 

[1]Formally recognized as Southern Rhodesia, but when it declared its independence in1965, the country went by Rhodesia.