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cc. With its power-sharing agreement manifestly failing, Zimbabwe is on the brink of collapse, writes Mary Ndlovu. The author argues that in the face of an entrenched kleptocratic elite, life grows ever more difficult for the country’s population, a situation markedly exacerbated by a broader political culture of selfishness undermining the development of any form of effective collective action. Without an internationally sponsored, technocratically based transitional authority to replace ZANU-PF as soon as possible, Zimbabwe may yet be spoken of in the same breath as Somalia and the eastern DR Congo, she concludes.

Soldiers go on the rampage against civilians, nurses steal medicines to sell to patients, teachers abandon their schools, the government spends money to buy judges plasma screen televisions, while the nation starves and dies of cholera. Civil servants obtain their ‘salary’ by charging for ‘services’ provided, police arrest suspects only to get the bribe required before releasing them. Groups of unidentified men, undoubtedly state agents, kidnap and abduct people from their homes and offices. And party politicians – rejected by the electorate – masquerade as ‘ministers’ issuing threats, denials and insults even as the waves of disaster lap around their feet.

Surely this is a moral crisis above all else, a crisis of leadership, a crisis of citizenship, a failure of human beings to demonstrate the human spirit in any form. Zimbabwe has joined the league of societies whose collapse demonstrates how a venal, self-interested leadership can destroy an entire nation; political structures, economic structures, families and many individuals all crooked, twisted, debilitated and dying as expressions of any positive human endeavour. And we the people have allowed our most precious institutions to be destroyed and our nation to disintegrate.

On the one side we have a kleptocratic elite sucking the oozing lifeblood out of the economy they have wounded, clinging to the corpse like leeches, and refusing to be dislodged until no sign of life remains. On the other we have a stunned citizenry, incapable of making any strategic response, and looking for individual salvation when only a collective answer will bring the change they so desire. The contest can’t even be elevated to a struggle between good and evil – evil is everywhere, but where is the good? To be sure, any form of good is difficult to recognise in the timid opposition, which has only managed, correctly or incorrectly, to present an image of self-interested ditherers. Meanwhile, the population flounders, leaderless and adrift in a life-and-death crisis.

A few years ago, when our current crisis was just developing, commentators identified a worst-case scenario: the country’s total breakdown into anarchy or warlordism, probably to be avoided, but ultimately possible. Today, this scenario is about to become a reality and a senior United Nations official has already declared Zimbabwe a failed state. We have no functioning government, little revenue, a shadow of a civil service, play money which surfaces on the black market before it reaches the commercial banks, sewage in the streets, in houses, even in clinics, and increasing numbers of ‘disappeared’.

Responsibility lies with ZANU-PF for governing solely in their own interests, using every crude tactic to remain in power when they have been rejected by the people at the polls. But the victims of tyranny have choices in how they respond. The opposition, while gaining overwhelming support, has failed to translate this backing into effective power of any kind. Civil society is divided, careerist, and as ineffective as the opposition in producing positive results from unified action. Numerous creative and competent individuals prefer to work from outside the country, distancing themselves from the people for the sake of their families and their careers. Individual choices must be respected, but there is no doubt that collectively we have failed. A failed state, a failed opposition, a failed nation, and now possibly a failed region.

Today, Zimbabweans look at each other and shake their heads. How could we have allowed this to happen? But even more critically, what can we do about it?

At first, the opposition MDC’s efforts seemed to be well placed: take the electoral route to challenge the dictator, remain non-violent, stay on the side of morality, and stay the course. When all this proved inadequate to dislodge a tyranny, instead of taking the more difficult route of mass mobilisation, they appealed to other regional governments to resolve the problem. This turned out to be a fatal blunder, at least for the Zimbabwean masses. The response from African governments was not sympathy but prevarication, stony hearts and cowardly policies. And while the MDC leadership has spent their time in negotiations in South Africa or jetting around Africa and the Western world to press their cause, they have neglected their followers at home, leaving them to face the deepening crises of hunger and disease without any hope or any direction.

In spite of their diplomatic offensive, the MDC has failed to convince African governments of what seems patently obvious, that there is not much point of an election if the loser gets to stay in power and share it – unevenly at that – with the winner. This is clearly neither democratic nor fair. But it was the best that African governments could offer. Hence we arrived at the power-sharing talks of the past five months, which have squeezed out a GPA (global political agreement) which purports to create an ‘inclusive’ government under a new interim constitution. But this African government policy has also failed because it is clear that ZANU-PF has no intention of genuine power sharing, and the opposition refuses to be led into what they perceive as a trap.

Hence we carry on at frenetic speed towards the precipice, as the negotiators dilly dally on the sidelines, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the problems of daily life. While politicians may believe they are standing on principle, people have lost faith in almost all of them. What people want is a government that functions to bring piped clean water, food, medical care, schools with teachers, banks with money that can actually buy things, and the overall decent standard of living that these represent. They want a government that serves the people instead of exploiting, oppressing and terrorising them.

There are now only two possibilities: either we fall over the precipice and crash, or someone snatches our sinking craft just before it smashes onto the rocks below. That crash would be the last final spasm bringing death to Zimbabwe as we have known it. It would herald the disintegration of all semblance of order, the descent into a free-for-all grab for food, water, medicines, and homes – any and all resources – by those who take the law into their own hands. That would be the classic finale which has come to be synonymous with Somalia – warlords and armed might in place of government and law. And no one should carry any illusion that it could be reversed without years of Herculean effort.

The other possibility is a rescue. Who would rescue us and how could it be done? Could the power-sharing agreement still be the answer? The MDC now has little choice but to participate on whatever terms they can squeeze out and attempt to make something of it. Certainly this carries a risk of becoming irrelevant, trapped in a situation they do not control. But they appear to have no other strategy to save Zimbabwe from total destruction, so they must cooperate with the regional presidents.

However, it looks highly unlikely at this point that power-sharing can work between ZANU-PF, a pernicious monster excoriated by all Zimbabweans who are not part of it, and MDC, once hugely popular but now considerably discredited after failing to match ZANU-PF’s clever manipulations. If they do reach an agreement, however unsatisfactory for the MDC and for Zimbabweans, and form something which can be called a government, will they be able to achieve anything? Will they be able to work together in any way to stem the rising tide of cholera, restart the economy, and reform the civil service?

Hardly. ZANU-PF has made it crystal clear that they will frustrate MDC at every turn. The recent spate of abductions of opposition and civil society activists leaves no doubt about their intentions. Weeks and months will go by as the players test each other out, jockey, manoeuvre, undermine and frustrate each other, while little will be done to deal with all the problems driving Zimbabweans to the borders in search of food, medicine, jobs and survival. Little will be done to rein in those who take the law into their own hands, and anarchy is likely to prevail even in the presence of a power-sharing government.

If our politicians cannot rescue us, who can? The international community? So far, they have been unwilling. But cholera is a powerful little virus. Not only can it kill, it can wake up sleeping politicians. Cholera is threatening the region. South Africa in particular has billions of rand of investment at stake – investment in the 2010 soccer World Cup, for a start. Can they allow political niceties such as ‘sovereignty’ to hold them back when cholera, which has the audacity not to respect sovereignty of nations, storms their borders? Possibly, cholera, while taking its victims, may yet be our rescuer. The South Africans have already sent personnel and materials to assist in the fight to curb the disease, a fight spearheaded by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). But as long as they try to work with ZANU-PF we know that there will be interference, corruption and ultimately failure.

The signs are, however, that African governments, while gaining a greater sense of urgency, still appear to believe power-sharing can work and are calling for renewed negotiations while sending band aid assistance to deal with the cholera. If they believe in power-sharing, then they must make sure that they place enough pressure on ZANU-PF to ensure that ‘sharing’ does not become a dead word like ‘comrade’. They must impose deadlines for effective forward movement and insist that they will not tolerate continued prevarication by ZANU-PF. They must stop placing pressure on the perceived soft target, MDC, and learn to face the real obstacle, Robert Mugabe, and stare him down with strong words and credible threats. Even then, however, ZANU-PF is highly unlikely to change, and MDC would simply waste more time and eventually be forced to return to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) with a story of failure.

Is there an alternative to power sharing? There is, but it would require even more backbone from the regional governments. Many members of Zimbabwe’s civil society were calling a year ago for the formation of a transitional authority. They believed then that ZANU-PF should be out of the equation if the country was to stop its slide into chaos and begin to build again. Many of these members now feel that we have wasted more than a year holding elections which ZANU-PF never intended to allow themselves to lose, and trying to share power with an entity which can imagine nothing beyond their own greed. If the international community could now realise that we need an internationally sponsored, technocratically based transitional authority, and move quickly to install such an authority, we might yet be rescued. It will require cooperation on the part of the Zimbabwean opposition to stop playing power games and allow those who can do the job to move into place – doctors, nurses, engineers, administrators who can restore clean water supplies, tackle sewage and transport, while distributing massive amounts of food aid, treating the sick, and assisting farmers to prepare for next winter’s agricultural season. This technical approach must be spread to the entire governmental sphere and it must be coordinated by a temporary administration.

Such a transition would need at least two years to get underway, re-establish basic services, get food production going, and then deal with governance issues through providing a framework for constitutional reform, and elections at the end of the period.

We hear that today the UN is moving out of Kosovo after ten full years of developing an administration – can Zimbabwe not expect to benefit from at least a mere two years? Should we not demand that we should be treated with equal consideration?

But this solution requires a new understanding and a new approach by regional governments. It cannot be promoted by timid African government leaders who are afraid to stare down Robert Mugabe in a meeting, but simply bow to his bullying. It would need a no-nonsense, heavy hand to convince ZANU-PF that they have no option but to step aside, and if they refuse, the region would have to be prepared to force them. The chorus of voices calling for just that is growing and is now heard in throughout Africa.

So neither of these options looks promising, whether it be power-sharing by Zimbabwean political parties or the installation of an internationally supervised, technocratic administration, any solution requires much stronger commitment from regional governments to deal emphatically with Mr Mugabe, something we have yet to see.

Zimbabweans simply cannot understand the apparent perversity of the South African government. Why can they not see the obvious, even when they are themselves in danger? Are they blinded by the 1990s success of their own political history? Are they mistaking Robert Mugabe for another De Klerk? Or are they too absorbed in their own political survival to deflect their attentions to the north?

If effective power-sharing or coordinated international administration does not replace ZANU-PF within the coming weeks, the alternative could be calamitous for the region. We could see the increasing flight of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries, bringing with them disease of various kinds, desperation, and crime, along with the country’s coming to resemble the eastern DRC or Somalia, with lawless bands of armed men preying on the population, disappearances rising from dozens to thousands, and a haven for all kinds of international criminal activity, including drug running, illegal diamond trading, human trafficking, illegal small arms trading, and even terrorist training. The choice seems now almost beyond the reach of Zimbabweans. Having preferred individual over collective responses to our tragedy, we have passed on the collective response to the region. If the region fails to take up the challenge to insist on effective administration, preferably by an internationally supervised transitional authority, they will also suffer the consequences. Within a few months Zimbabwe will have tipped over the edge, and the failure to intervene to prevent further tragedy will bring disaster on all of us.

* Mary Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean human rights activist.
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