Following its first purportedly democratic election in many years, Zimbabwe is again on the verge of civil war.
On Thursday evening, Zimbabwe’s election authority released results that showed the contest between President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling ZANU-PF party and opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa is too close to call.
While Mnangagwa has issued conciliatory messages, there’s little indication that he’ll either be willing or able to placate Chamisa’s supporters if, as is expected, he is announced the final victor. Indeed, on Wednesday, six Chamisa supporters were killed after soldiers fired on them.
But what’s really at contention here is Chamisa supporters’ underlying belief that a Mnangagwa victory would be a fiction. They see the continuation of ZANU-PF rule as proof that a new and better Zimbabwe isn’t arriving. They had hoped that former president Robert Mugabe’s November 2017 deposing would turn the page on the ZANU-PF’s cronyism.
While it’s not clear that Mnangagwa would be a disaster for Zimbabwe (there are signs that he might pursue necessary economic reform), the nature of Zimbabwean factionalism is such that his continued empowerment won’t likely ever be acceptable for the opposition. It will thus be incumbent on international parties to pressure all sides to avoid further violence that might lead to a new civil war. As Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor, China is critical here in that it holds political leverage over the various factions. But seeing as China doesn’t care much for democratic norms, and that Zimbabwe’s southern neighbor and largest export partner, South Africa, is led by idiots, the U.S. and European Union will also have to exert pressure.
The first American action should be a warning to Mnangagwa that any overreaction against protesters (of the kind seen on Wednesday) will lead to a resumption of sanctions on his government. At the same time, the State Department should work with the E.U. and Chinese to foster a reconciliation process that gives Chamisa’s supporters at least some sense of participation in the new government even if it becomes clear that Chamisa has lost. A senior cabinet position and some measure of international oversight might be a start.
Yet achieving political stability won’t be easy. Zimbabwe’s recent history of authoritarianism and corruption may or may not have passed, but the sectarian impulses of that era remain. Absent international leveraging, bloodshed may follow and Zimbabwe’s better future may remain imprisoned.