The Bittersweet Zimbabwe Deal

To a mixed bag of ululations and disappointments, Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, agreed to enter into a government of national unity (GNU) with fellow opposition leader Arthur Mutambara and the controversial incumbent, Robert Mugabe. Whatever the skepticism and whatever the argument, this deal is a necessary evil.

This is not to say that those opposed to the deal are misinformed. In fact, there is a very legitimate case to be made against this deal. The power sharing deal was initially signed on September 15, 2008, between Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and Mutambara after the disputed presidential election in March of that year. However, Tsvangirai’s party has refused to implement the agreement since September, demanding the cessation of human-rights abuses and citing the unilateral and inequitable distribution of key cabinet positions by Mugabe as a sign of insincerity. According to Tsvangirai, his party would not have been treated as an equal partner under the original stipulations of the agreement. The terms of the deal are somewhat improved with the opposition obtaining control over the Finance portfolio and co-managing the critical Home Affairs Ministry, among others.

In spite of these apparent improvements to the deal, opponents argue that it provides Mugabe with a political lifeline and could potentially sink Tsvangirai and the opposition into political oblivion. Here, history is not on Tsvangirai's side. For example, following catastrophic political disturbances in 1987, Mugabe’s party, ZANU, signed a Unity Accord with the then opposition leader Joshua Nkomo’s party, ZAPU. Although this accord led to the end of political violence, many perpetrators went largely unpunished while Nkomo and his party took largely ceremonial roles in the new government setup. For these reasons, the opposition to the current deal is concerned Tsvangirai may have been suckered into a deal with Mugabe not really intending to give him real power. If this were the case, how then would Tsvangirai back away and still remain credible? There are legitimate concerns that perhaps it would have been more advantageous for Tsvangirai to continue insisting on the parity that this agreement does not achieve.

In our criticisms, however, it is important to take note that Tsvangirai’s decision is consistent with the very principle of democracy for which we clamor. After Tsvangirai had earlier yielded to the current deal that was brokered by the Southern African Development Community, it was up to the 60-member MDC national executive council to vote either in favor of or against participation. After an intense and charged internal debate that threatened to tear the party apart, the national executive council voted for participation. This decision represents an immense ideological shift by the MDC, a party that has always insisted on free and fair elections as the highway to political office. Like it or not, the party’s decision has to be respected. Simply, that is democracy.

At times, idealism has to take the backseat and allow pragmatism to lead the way. This seems to have informed Tsvangirai’s decision. The MDC and various pro-democracy forces have attempted democratic change for over a decade. Yet these efforts have been brutally thwarted by the Zimbabwean government through the introduction of draconian laws, alleged human-rights abuses, and the skewing of democratic space against the opposition, among other measures. Surely, the world should one day demand accountability for these actions. Pragmatically, that time is not now. Mugabe has no intention of exiting the political picture and forcing him out is simply impractical.

Naturally, this left the opposition with very few alternatives. The only plausible option was for the MDC to simply take the fight for democratic change to a new scene, to a new platform: an imperfect unity government. By agreeing to this compromise deal, Tsvangirai understood this. Mugabe is as much a part of the solution as he is the problem.

Indeed, no ruler should be allowed to mismanage a country and expect the world to fold its arms. While the initiatives to address the Zimbabwe situation are very welcome, one cannot overlook the fact that this deal rewards political violence and repression at the expense of electoral popularity and acceptance. By endorsing power-sharing agreements (first in Kenya and now in Zimbabwe), African leaders have, in principle, set a dangerous precedent: dispute election results, hang onto power, then negotiate into a compromise arrangement.

This arrangement may be a painful pill to swallow, but history has shown again and again that, in convoluted situations, compromise is sometimes bittersweet. Even Nelson Mandela had to make painful concessions. If the opposition effectively capitalizes its parliamentary majority and its dominance in various urban and rural councils while remaining vigilant and principled in its delivery of duty, it will certainly survive this arrangement and usher a new democratic disposition for Zimbabwe. After all, this is a transitional government whose mandate is to ensure socioeconomic stability and facilitate the country’s return to democracy through free and fair elections—a means to an end.

This government will be expected to expedite the crafting and adoption of a people-driven constitution that restores both Zimbabweans’ freedoms and civil liberties while ensuring the restoration of the rule of law, among other things. Will this inclusive government succeed, or will it falter and betray the long-suffering Zimbabweans? Any guess is a good one— the jury is still out. In the meantime, this deal should be given a chance. Zimbabweans have begun to dream again.

Brighton Mudzingwa ’09 is an economics and African studies concentrator in Adams House. He is co-founder of the Harvard College Africa Business and Investment Club.