Zimbabwe after

Can the nation manage a peaceful transition from the Mugabe era?

May 01, 2008|By Suliman Baldo and Comfort Ero

Whatever happens in their country during the foreboding days ahead, Zimbabweans know that an "after" is inevitable. An "after Mugabe" will come even if Robert G. Mugabe, the country's 84-year-old president, manages - through a campaign of violence or other means - to claim another term in office.

Zimbabwe's political crisis did not begin with this disputed election. Its roots include long-standing limits on free speech, widespread human rights abuses, the failure to resolve issues of land distribution dating from colonial times, cataclysmic mismanagement of the economy, corruption on a gargantuan scale and, not least, the impunity of the wrongdoers.

Fortunately for Zimbabweans, even impunity has an "after." Wrongs of the present and the past have victimized millions and generated deep bitterness.

Addressing those wrongs will require truth and accountability. Without them, justice will be impossible - and without justice, peace, even in Zimbabwe's "after," will be fragile.

The urgent need to promote a peaceful transition is a factor in discussions throughout the region and has prompted significant steps by several African states. President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, Zimbabwe's northern neighbor, endorsed the refusal by South African dockworkers to unload a Chinese vessel carrying weapons and ammunition destined for Mr. Mugabe's government.

Mr. Mwanawasa's status as head of the 14-nation Southern Africa Development Community gave his words extra weight. Angola - historically one of Zimbabwe's allies - has for now blocked the weapons shipment, too.

These actions and criticisms are, significantly, coming from African leaders, African institutions, African trade unions. Mr. Mugabe reflexively blames colonialism or interference by outside powers for every ill. But the challenges now come from African advocates of democracy and economic development.

Zimbabweans have given serious thought to accountability. At a conference in Johannesburg in 2003, representatives of Zimbabwean civil society and international experts agreed on the importance of creating a truth commission to examine the actions of national institutions and authorities extending back to the era of white minority rule.

The specifics of that inquiry and of other steps toward accountability cannot be set until after a credible, legitimate political transition is under way. A clear break with the present is almost impossible. Zimbabwe's electoral commission has confirmed that the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, won control of parliament. But the MDC may not be able to ignore Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF. A peaceful transition will necessarily involve talks with the army and security agencies. ZANU-PF will not disappear from the scene.

During that political transition, reconciling Zimbabwean society with itself will require a series of coordinated steps. A society may document the wrongdoings of the past, as a truth commission might seek to do, and also punish the worst abusers of human rights, as its judicial system might do. But if it did not prevent abuses from reoccurring, it would not have secured justice.

Experience elsewhere - during political transitions in other parts of Africa as well as in Latin America and Eastern Europe - shows that securing justice will require several measures. Zimbabwe should consider the following:

* A truth-seeking process to help Zimbabweans understand the past.

* A judicial process to hold accountable those responsible for the most serious human rights violations.

* A reparations program and equitable land reform for the victims of government campaigns that confiscated land and forcibly displaced urban dwellers, as well as for the victims of colonial-era land policies.

* Constitutional and legal reforms, to ensure these abuses will not be repeated.

Most Zimbabweans understandably want the chance to live a decent life. Their immediate concerns are with food shortages, the destruction of the economy and, since ZANU-PF's defeat at the polls, the growing violence in both the countryside and major cities.

There will be dangers, though, in granting too much deference to immediate solutions and not paying attention to democratic values. Such a strategy, by not securing justice, creates conditions for later injustices. Zimbabweans need the support of the region and the continent as they prepare for a transition that can bring justice, stability and peace.

Suliman Baldo is Africa director of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a human rights organization. Comfort Ero is deputy director of ICTJ's Africa program and head of its Cape Town office.

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