History Monday: Post 2015 Political Instability Part 3

Mitigating Options

As efforts to prevent violence and instability in Zimbabwe move forward, the United States could act on a parallel track to reduce the consequences of any potential violence. It could coordinate preparatory measures with several international partners.

With South Africa and other SADC partners, there could be quiet, advance consultations regarding possible SADC actions in the event of violence in Zimbabwe. Possible SADC actions in the event of a crisis in Zimbabwe would include a prompt condemnation of violence and a call for opposing factions to lay down arms and cease provocative behavior. Although such a hortatory statement would have little direct effect, it would provide a foundation for eventual, more substantive measures such as the dispatch of a high-level mission to mediate among opposing factions in Zimbabwe. In addition, South Africa and other states bordering Zimbabwe could ensure that they are prepared to deal with additional refugees, should violence or an economic crisis prompt new emigration from Zimbabwe.

China would be unlikely to agree to consult in advance on actions that it might take in the event of violence in Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe could be given a prominent place on the agenda for U.S.-Chinese consultations on Africa. Sharing information and reviewing the range of options available might increase the likelihood that China would use its influence with the government of Zimbabwe to prevent violence.

With the EU countries, the United States could coordinate contingency planning for humanitarian assistance, including food aid, both inside Zimbabwe and among populations of refugees outside the country. In addition, the United States and European countries could agree to form a contact group to track developments in Zimbabwe and prepare for advocating action by the UN Security Council to attempt to bring an end to political violence in Zimbabwe.

If, despite these efforts, significant political violence occurs in Zimbabwe, prompt action would be needed to prevent widespread loss of life and destruction of vital infrastructure. U.S. policy options include the following:

  • Intervention by SADC. During the political and economic crisis that preceded the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, SADC gave Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, a mandate to negotiate an accord between ZANU-PF and the two wings of the MDC. He successfully brokered an agreement, helping lower the level of preelection violence during the 2008 election campaign. Mbeki’s effort could serve as a precedent for SADC in the event of renewed violence. The choice of mediator would be crucial. A South African would be most likely to gain Mugabe’s attention and cooperation, but President Zuma seems preoccupied with internal challenges. Although not Mugabe’s equal in rank, South African Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa has had recent mediation experience in Lesotho and would be an option.
  • Action by the UN Security Council. Although the Security Council holds a mandate to act only with regard to threats to international peace and security, the latter concept has often been interpreted expansively. China might block decisive action by the Security Council, but might agree to the creation of a UN special envoy for Zimbabwe, including a mandate to contact all the internal parties in Zimbabwe with the objective of negotiating a ceasefire.
  • Coordinated increases in economic sanctions. Broadening – sanctions would have a mainly symbolic effect. Reimposition of EU sanctions, however, would have a more powerful effect on the calculus of the Mugabe government.
  • Intensified official U.S. and Western dialogue with moderates in the ZANU-PF. Many senior figures in the ZANU-PF have extensive business interests that would be damaged by prolonged civil unrest. Their interest in limiting violence might be a basis for dialogue.
  • Increased U.S. humanitarian assistance. Additional humanitarian assistance, especially food aid, would be important both to saving lives and to countering the Mugabe government’s demonization of the United States and the West. In past times of economic hardship, the Mugabe regime has threatened to block Western assistance, but has never made good on its bluster.


There is both time and opportunity for effective action to reduce the likelihood of political instability and civil violence in Zimbabwe, while also preparing for a transition to better governance and economic prosperity. In crafting its approach to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, the United States should think and plan ahead, with its broad regional interests in mind.

Even as its bilateral relationships with the governments of East and West Africa have grown stronger, the United States’ ties with the SADC countries have tended to stagnate. This has been particularly true in the case of South Africa. While differences over Zimbabwe have not been the primary driver of U.S. relationships with the southern African region, they have been a significant negative element.

Yet, despite the uncertain political leadership of the Zuma government, labor unrest, and economic weaknesses, South Africa remains the most capable nation on the continent and an indispensable partner for the United States. In recent years, South Africa has begun to take a more active interest in African security issues, employing its armed forces as peacekeepers and its officials as peacemakers. Establishing a more active and constructive partnership in addressing African security challenges would benefit both countries.

Zimbabwe presents an opportunity to begin strengthening the partnership. The United States and South Africa share interests in promoting stability and peaceful change in Zimbabwe. South Africa would be the country most burdened by any new influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. Persistent economic depression in Zimbabwe damages the export economy of South Africa, which is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner. Although Zimbabwe weighs far less on U.S. interests, the risks and costs of a potential breakdown there are considerable. Bilateral U.S.–South African differences on Zimbabwe have been more over tone and tactics than over ultimate objectives, and better understanding and coordination should be within reach.

With these interests in mind, the United States should put in place a strategy for dealing with the threat of instability and civic violence in Zimbabwe. Early contacts with South Africa, other SADC countries, European allies, and China should be pursued. The U.S. policy agenda should include the following:

  • Intensify interagency efforts to define U.S. interests and options in Zimbabwe. In the context of a formal interagency contingency planning effort on Zimbabwe, the U.S. government should assess the current situation, achieve consensus on the goal of limiting violence and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, and define the incentives and disincentives available to influence the actions of the Mugabe government or its successor. Given the proven capacity of the government in Harare to bob, weave, and dissemble in the face of proffered incentives and disincentives, it would be wise to avoid aiming at a U.S. “road map” for Zimbabwe. Rather, the objective should be an integrated approach that would focus on practical, measurable steps that the government of Zimbabwe could take to permit a greater range of political expression and to liberalize the economy. Just as is the case with relations with other countries, the emphasis should be on changing actual practices rather than altering the radical rhetoric of the ZANU-PF.
  • Open a consultative channel on Zimbabwe with Congress. Although Zimbabwe is far down the current list of executive branch foreign policy priorities with Congress, it is important to establish a consultative process with Congress in parallel to the interagency effort described above. Initially at least, these consultations should be at the staff level with the relevant subcommittees and with representatives of relevant members. The purpose of this channel would be to help members of Congress understand that positive change in Zimbabwe is likely to take place incrementally if at all to avoid confronting Congress with unpleasant surprises and to build a basis of trust for actions, whether carrots or sticks, further down the road.
  • Pursue understandings on Zimbabwe with South Africa and other SADC countries. South Africa possesses the greatest potential influence on Zimbabwe’s government and would also be directly affected by a crisis there. Conversations with the Zuma government should focus on achieving South African agreement to consistently urge President Mugabe and other ZANU-PF leaders to avoid violence. South Africa should also be prepared to mediate between factions in the ZANU-PF, as well as between ZANU-PF and the opposition, should widespread violence appear imminent.
  • Consult regularly on Zimbabwe with senior African affairs officials in EU countries. These contacts should be made based on the results of U.S. interagency conclusions. The United States should aim to reach a common assessment of the situation and to work toward consensus on positive and negative incentives for Zimbabwe, including sanctions. There should also be agreement to coordinate public statements by Western governments in the event of a crisis in Zimbabwe.
  • Seek to influence China on Zimbabwe. The United States currently consults with China on a variety of African issues, and China has begun to contribute to international efforts on the continent, including peace operations in South Sudan and antipiracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. Due to the potential consequences of a crisis in Zimbabwe for both U.S. and Chinese interests, the United States should propose regular, in-depth conversations on Zimbabwe, focused on persuading the Chinese government to support a peaceful political transition in Zimbabwe.
  • Seek senior-level dialogue with the Zimbabwean government in multiple venues. Contacts between the U.S. embassy in Harare and senior ZANU-PF figures are constrained by the tense relationship between the two capitals and party officials’ fear of incurring Mugabe’s wrath by appearing too close to American representatives. To supplement contacts by the embassy, the United States should seek to strengthen parallel communications channels in Washington and at the United Nations. Coordinated messaging in all three channels will be essential. The United States might seek to validate these channels by proposing small incentives, such as promoting greater U.S. investment in Zimbabwe in return for agreement by the Mugabe government to suspend aspects of its most objectionable economic policies, including “indigenization.”
  • Expand youth and student exchanges. Zimbabwe already participates in the U.S. government’s Young African Leader Initiative (YALI). Consideration should be given to further expanding access by young Zimbabweans to YALI and similar programs. Although the objective effect of such a decision would not be immediate, it would be a timely counter to the argument of the Mugabe government that the United States has abandoned the people of Zimbabwe.
  • Ensure the security of the U.S. mission in Zimbabwe. In the event of significant civil unrest, U.S. interests in Zimbabwe could become the target of violence. Plans for ensuring the security of the embassy and its personnel and for conducting an evacuation of those personnel if necessary should be updated regularly.

To encourage stability and prosperity in Zimbabwe beyond the transition, the United States should prioritize the following long-term recommendation:

  • Test the waters for expanding the bilateral dialogue. Given the economic plight of Zimbabwe and its humanitarian needs, there is potential for cooperation with a new government on trade and commercial issues. Since the actual reach of sanctions has been less than that claimed by the Mugabe government, it would be possible to begin to unfreeze the bilateral relationship relatively easily with agreement on such steps as trade and investment missions. The United States should then pursue political dialogue in close coordination with its Western allies and South Africa. Keeping SADC in the lead publicly while actively pursuing private diplomacy would probably increase the likelihood of measured, step-by-step progress.


Zimbabwe’s problems, which have been created by decades of authoritarian misrule and poor economic management, will not be quickly solved. Any successor to Mugabe will have to deal with a bitter political legacy and difficult economic conditions. The alternatives open to the United States are limited by strained political relationships and minimal economic ties. This scarcity of options is not a rationale for doing little or nothing. Rather, it is a call for the United States to focus on what is essential—reducing the possibility of political instability and civil violence during the post-Mugabe succession—while laying the groundwork for a better relationship with an eventual successor government.


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

One comment

  1. Mugabe’s successor will have an uphill task but I take heart in the fact that if other countries have been able to overcome so can Zimbabwe


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