Let’s Not Prematurely Surrender Zimbabwe’s Democracy (Senate Testimony)

June 18, 2013

Update: Zimbabwe’s presidential elections will take place on July 31 and Robert Mugabe is expected to secure yet another term in office. Todd Moss’s June 18 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee on Zimbabwe argues that the US government should take a more active approach on its Zimbabwe policy and must not sleepwalk into unwittingly legitimizing the election.

Since this blog was posted, Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been nominated to be the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

I had the great honor to testify today on US responses to Zimbabwe’s election crisis in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. Kudos to Chairman Chris Coons (D-DE) and Ranking Member Jeff Flake (R-AZ) for bringing attention to a country that is facing a watershed moment, yet few others in Washington seem to be paying much mind. 

View the testimony here.

Robert Mugabe has been in power for 33 years, but is, amazingly, determined to run for another term.  You’d think that would get the State Department and others in the Administration fired up to try to use the election as an opportunity to promote democratic change. 

Instead, the Administration has sent worrying signals that it is sleepwalking into endorsing Mugabe’s theft of another election. For instance, in April, State sent Ambassador Andrew Young to Harare with a letter outlining possible steps for reengagement. If Young’s message to Mugabe was nuanced, it was missed by the Harare papers. (If Young seemed an odd choice given his history of statements defending Mugabe and against US policy on Zimbabwe, it was even more awkward when this ran in the New York Times a few weeks after his trip outlining how Young’s African investment fund may have lost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.)

I’m concerned that, in aiming to show flexibility, the United States is unwittingly damaging our reputation and our interests in the region. (This danger is especially high while the Assistant Secretary position remains vacant.) My full testimony to the Senate is here, but for those (like me) with short attention spans, here are my main points: 

  1. It’s already far too late for a free-and-fair election in 2013. The ZANU-PF intimidation machine has been running full steam for the past five years and the systematic campaign of fear is already in place. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised if election day passes peaceably.
  2. Even if Mr. Mugabe somehow loses, ZANU-PF won’t allow Morgan Tsvangirai to become President. We know this because it has already happened in 2008. And if the outcome is already decided, then how can we possibly ever declare it a competitive election? The election itself is probably better thought of as political theater grudgingly-tolerated by ZANU-PF rather than an exercise in democratic expression. The more everyone focuses on the weeds (like the election date or the voter registration process), the more we risk missing the bigger picture that none of those details will matter if the army is really in charge.
  3. Reports of a broad economic recovery are premature. The end of hyperinflation and the modest bounce back are welcome but these are also the predictable results of dropping a worthless local currency for the US dollar. The Finance Minister Tendai Biti has done an impressive job under grim conditions, but the foundation for a full economic turnaround is still missing. (Also missing:  hundreds of millions of dollars in diamond revenues controlled by ZANU-PF and the military.)

What does this all mean for US policy?  I believe the US Government should:

  • Stop being passive and get creative. Zimbabwe doesn’t want to remain a pariah state, so let’s leverage that.
  • Refuse to endorse a sham election. The absence of wide-scale violence is not the same as a credible election reflecting the will of the people.
  • Not rush into prematurely normalizing relations. Engagement and flexibility does not mean appeasement.  Sanctions removal or debt arrears clearance at the international financial institutions should wait for clear signs of real reform.
  • Stick to the conditions already in US law. The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (co-sponsored by political odd couples Senators Bill Frist (R-TN), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Joe Biden (D-DE), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Russ Feingold (D-WI)) lays out clear conditions for US re-engagement.
  • Prepare for eventual real change. Despite my short-term pessimism, I’m optimistic about Zimbabwe’s long-term future. Our government should be actively seeking dialogue with future leaders, planning for quick-reacting recovery assistance, and finding ways of aiding democratic forces. (Sadly, this 2005 paper on post-Mugabe reconstruction is still mostly relevant.)

It’s a shame that Zimbabwe has fallen off the US foreign policy agenda just as the rest of Africa is booming and becoming, more than ever before, an important partner for the US. The United States may have limited policy tools to influence events in Zimbabwe, but it is in our national interest to help encourage the country to turn away from the hatred and fear of the past and toward a new Zimbabwe based on openness, prosperity, and freedom. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.