History Monday: Political Instability Post 2015 Part 2

Warning Indicators

The following developments could provide warning of likely instability in Zimbabwe:

Indications of Mugabe’s declining health. Mugabe remains remarkably vigorous, holding to a work and travel schedule that would challenge a person decades younger. Observers need to be alert to any changes in these patterns and the frequency of his appearances at official and ceremonial functions. Any evidence of diminished vigor on his part would be significant.

Signs of increasing dissent, infighting, and factionalism within the ZANU-PF. The state and ruling party are inextricably intertwined. Mugabe’s “guided democracy” has long been the decisive factor in resolving debates over party rules and offices. With his latest moves, however, Mugabe has taken his personal control to a new level. Significant opposition to Mugabe’s authoritarian role would likely be met by repressive measures, but conceivably could trigger a crisis within the ZANU-PF.

Public unrest. The security establishment, led by the “securocrats”—the senior leaders of the police and armed forces—controls not only the muscles of the state, but also a significant portion of the nation’s economy. Civil violence or mass civil disobedience is unlikely as long as the grip of the securocrats remains firm. The failure of security forces to curb protests, strikes, and demonstrations through the use of force and intimidation might be an indicator of divisions among the securocrats. Observers should watch for changes in the major military and police commands and possible movements of army and police units. Likewise, it will be important to watch for increased willingness on the part of the political opposition and civil society groups to carry out protest activities.

Implications for U.S. Interests

A serious political crisis in Zimbabwe could affect U.S. interests in several ways. It could generate a significant humanitarian problem that would likely require an expensive U.S. aid commitment. It could also delay hope of a productive bilateral trade and economic relationship, since U.S. trade with Zimbabwe would remain minimal. (In 2012, just over $50 million worth of goods and services flowed in each direction.) Bilateral political relations, trade, and investment would continue to be limited by legally mandated sanctions. A crisis could require U.S. military forces to evacuate the small U.S. citizen population in the country, estimated in 2010 at less than one thousand. Perhaps more important, a crisis in Zimbabwe could lead to potential friction with South Africa and other SADC member states on how to respond to human rights violations by the Zimbabwean government.

On the other hand, a stable and prosperous Zimbabwe would likely advance U.S. interests in Africa. Zimbabwe’s rich endowment in human and natural resources would allow it to play a leading role in shaping Africa’s future. Bilateral trade and investment would probably not increase rapidly, but would likely build over time. Revival of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector—perhaps with the benefit of American expertise—would obviate continued humanitarian food aid. Eventually, Zimbabwe’s police and armed forces could be expected to play constructive roles in SADC and African Union peace operations. Zimbabwe would become a more attractive destination for U.S. tourists, resulting in improved interpersonal relations.

Preventive Options

In crafting a preventive strategy for Zimbabwe, it is important to acknowledge that the United States possesses few policy instruments for directly influencing developments. High-level bilateral meetings take place in Washington, in Harare, and at the United Nations, but the relationship is, at best, formal and official. President Mugabe continues to characterize the United States as a hostile force.

U.S. assistance to Zimbabwe is significant, totaling $130 million in 2013, but withdrawal of development assistance would have little effect on the policies of the government because aid is already channeled through civil society groups. The government in Harare quite likely assumes that U.S. humanitarian assistance would continue even if political repression increases. Targeted economic sanctions remain in place, but are widely seen as having little impact. Mugabe uses the sanctions as justification for promoting popular resentment toward the United States.

The United States could, broadly speaking, pursue two types of preventive strategies toward Zimbabwe. First, it could attempt to shape the outcome of the political transition though a combination of positive and negative incentives. The factors mentioned above, however, constrain the likelihood of this preventive strategy succeeding. Furthermore, the United States would have few, if any, partners in attempting to influence a succession in Zimbabwe. SADC, led by South Africa, has welcomed Mugabe back into its fold and is unlikely to reverse course. Beijing, which has great influence on the government in Harare, is not in the business of promoting democratic change. Even the European allies have begun limited economic partnerships with Zimbabwe and are unlikely to be willing to join in an activist strategy.

Second, the United States could accept the improbability of influencing the transition process and focus on minimizing the risk of political violence and economic turmoil, while also positioning itself to take advantage of post-succession opportunities to promote political and economic reform. This option would allow the succession drama within the ZANU-PF to run its course. A relatively swift and uncontested succession would enable the government of Zimbabwe to move past its political infighting and begin to attend to the economic and social challenges that the nation faces. This option would have much more modest goals than the first preventive option, aiming only to reduce the likelihood and potential severity of political violence and economic turmoil during the transition period.

Even though no single outside actor has the capacity to directly influence President Mugabe’s choices regarding succession, a well-orchestrated multilateral strategy could help Mugabe and others in leadership positions understand the potential negative consequences of decisions that would increase repression, deepen the country’s economic problems, and lead to social instability. In such a strategy, the United States would maintain its support for civil society in Zimbabwe and continue a frank and direct dialogue with the Mugabe government. Additionally, it would seek to persuade South Africa and the other SADC countries, China, and the European Union (EU) countries to act along the following lines.

South Africa and Zimbabwe’s other SADC partners could, in the interest of regional stability, shed their usual reticence and remind President Mugabe of his responsibilities under the organization’s statute to maintain peace and stability in his own country. Especially in the event that Mugabe might attempt to use his role as chair of SADC to justify repressive actions, it would be important for his SADC counterparts, especially South African President Jacob Zuma, to personally intervene. To the extent that Mugabe sees his SADC chairmanship as part of his legacy, he might be motivated to see his term through without controversy.

China is Zimbabwe’s most important economic partner with bilateral trade of over $1 billion annually. Recently, China has refrained from large new investment commitments, perhaps over concerns for stability in Zimbabwe. In the interest of protecting its sizable investments in Zimbabwe, China might be motivated to quietly indicate to Mugabe its concerns over the possibility of instability.

The EU countries could increase their involvement with civil society organizations in Zimbabwe and indicate clearly to the Mugabe government that they would consider reimposing sanctions should greater repression of the opposition become the norm or should political violence break out.


  1. Ward, G (2015) ‘Political Instabilty in Zimbabwe’

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