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Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity

Commentary, 27 February 2009
Power-sharing government in Zimbabwe will be a difficult balancing act. Competition between the MDC and ZANU-PF as well as intra-party struggles could lead to instability or to dangerous compromises, but for the moment the GNU is Zimbabwe’s one sign of hope.

The power-sharing government in Zimbabwe will be a difficult balancing act. Competition between the MDC and ZANU-PF as well as intra-party struggles could lead to instability or to dangerous compromises, but for the moment the GNU is Zimbabwe’s one sign of hope.

By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, RUSI 

Morgan Tsvangirai’s inauguration as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and the formation of the Government of National Unity [GNU] heralds a new chapter in Zimbabwe’s history. The GNU, and the MDC in particular, will be expected to deliver change, and lead Zimbabwe’s reconstruction. Pessimists insist that the MDC will fail to effect any substantial transformation of Zimbabwe, and that the new government will dissolve in acrimony; or that the MDC will be co–opted into a ‘supersized’ ZANU-PF. There is no doubt that the dice are loaded against the MDC and the workability of the GNU. This has been demonstrated by the recent arrest of Roy Bennett, the MDC’s nominee for Deputy Minister of Agriculture; the refusal to release political detainees; and the continued farm invasions. Nevertheless, desperate attempts to shoehorn the MDC into accepting more ZANU-PF cabinet posts, and the hard-liners’ demands that they should not be prosecuted by the GNU, indicates that ZANU-PF is no longer the sole arbiter of its own, and Zimbabwe’s, future. The GNU, warts and all, has profoundly recalibrated Zimbabwe’s political landscape.

Power-sharing in the Government of National Unity

ZANU-PF retains the ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, Media, and Justice – all of which underlay the coercive apparatus of the state. There are ongoing disputes between the MDC and ZANU-PF regarding the overall size, numerical parity and quality of the cabinet. These rows will continue, but it is the power relationship between Mugabe and Tsvangirai which will determine the success or failure of the GNU. There are doubts as to whether, and for how long, the two men can work together. The question of executive authority is also crucial; Mugabe as President clearly outranks Tsvangirai, but if the MDC is to retain its credibility then Tsvangirai will have to stamp his imprimatur on the government, and this will inevitably involve him standing up to his coalition partner. The GNU also brings a new generation of political voices to Zimbabwe, and may herald the start of a transition in party leadership for all three party leaders (the two MDC groups may also face serious internal power struggles). Some of the expected political benchmarks include a constitutional review, de-politicisation of the judiciary, credible anti-corruption processes, and a strong Parliament which holds the Executive to account. The GNU has made an inauspicious start: opposition activists remain jailed, there has been a flurry of land invasions, and many of the most polarising figures remain in place. Uncertainty over the duration of the GNU, and the likelihood of renewed violence in future elections, is another worrying prospect.

Nevertheless, there has been progress to date; the GNU has begun the process of devolving power from the ZANU-PF centre. The MDC now heads the Finance, Civil Service and Critical Infrastructure ministries. They are thus uniquely positioned to deliver critical humanitarian aid, and social and infrastructural rehabilitation, all of which are crucial for popular support. In addition ZANU-PF, like the MDC, is divided between moderates and hard-liners – and the contentious succession struggle within ZANU-PF is likely to be accelerated as a result of the GNU. There are some reconciliatory gestures: despite inherent tensions, multiparty Cabinet meetings have been held; in addition, civil society groups have been invited by the military and war veterans groups to discuss reconstruction and the GNU. Zimbabweans in the diaspora are increasingly volunteering their skills for reconstruction; and the MDC groups finally have a legitimate seat at the regional table. These are encouraging signs and show that there may be space for the politics of accommodation. For now, the stakeholders need each other, and the centrifugal force of mutual political need may give ballast to the GNU. Indeed, in the long–term the Tsvangirai MDC’s greatest political challenge may come from coalitions of civil society, disaffected MDC hardliners, and new political parties such as the newly resuscitated ZAPU, who see the GNU as a “betrayal” of the post-2000 struggle for democracy. Their opposition to the GNU, may, paradoxically, bind ZANU-PF and the MDC closer together in the mutual ‘sanctuary’ of the GNU.

Daunting economic challenges

The new Minister of Finance, Tendai Biti, faces daunting challenges: quantum hyperinflation, currency instability, massive unemployment; and a demoralised civil service. Restoring financial stability is paramount to the survival of the GNU, and to reconstruction in Zimbabwe. The new government is negotiating a $600million dollar emergency aid package from the regional and international aid community. This funding will be used to pay the civil service wage bill for the next few months, as well as alleviating the humanitarian crisis the government faces. Rebuilding Zimbabwe requires creating a new fiscal culture. Since 2000, Zimbabwe’s economy has been increasingly politicised and militarised. The combination of politicised expenditure from a shrinking revenue base, and international disinvestment from Zimbabwe, worsened the crisis. The Reserve Bank increasingly responded by printing money, which further exacerbated the inflationary cycle.

Biti will have to announce a ‘real world’ budget. Budget priorities and the funds available to meet them, have to be spelled out clearly. Over the past decade the state has tried to regulate Zimbabwe’s informal economy, with little success. The new government will have to deregulate this sector, whilst simultaneously establishing accountability as the hallmark of the formal economic sector. A number of confidence–building measures have to be taken, and quickly. These include: clarity on which is the ‘official’ currency in Zimbabwe, and whether the South African rand will formally become Zimbabwe’s national currency. Secondly, the government will also have to decide whether, and when, to intervene regarding price controls. The state had used coercive price controls as a means to deal with rampant profiteering. This led to dealers hoarding their goods rather than sell them at a loss. The new government will have to be pragmatic about price controls. Third, the GNU will have to be clear about budget priorities; security sector funding is particularly contentious.

The Reserve Bank is a major issue of contention. For the past five years, Zimbabwe’s monetary policy, and the economy, have been the private fiefdom of the Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono. For now, Biti will have to work with Gono, but it is unlikely that this fractious partnership will last long. Biti will also have to present a financial and economic roadmap for the short, medium and long-term. In this regard, ZANU-PF may offer unexpected succour; the January 2009 Budget announced by the then Acting Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, was notable for the frank admission of the scale of the economic challenges facing Zimbabwe. The Budget also promised to prioritise government spending on social development such as health, education and the transport infrastructure. There is thus broad cross-party agreement on what needs to be done; establishing consensus on how to achieve these goals is the real challenge. Revenue generation is an immediate problem – the 2009 Budget indicated that revenue would be raised primarily through taxation, but Zimbabwe’s largely informal economy does not have a large enough tax base. Regional and continental financial institutions such as the Africa Development Bank, and regional banks, have already promised and delivered some aid and investment. What is really needed, however, is a major investors’ conference on Zimbabwe, and a specific discussion about the land question.

The military and the political establishment

Zimbabwe’s security sector is both the lock, and the key, to the success or failure of the GNU. The MDC will be under pressure to rein in the power of the military, and restructure the coercive apparatus of the state. The Joint Operational Command [JOC] which includes the security sector chiefs, had virtually become a parallel government; it will be replaced by the multiparty National Security Council. The NSC is intended to establish civilian oversight over the military and re-define the role of the military. Continued farm invasions, the detentions of activists, political violence, security sector budgets, and multiparty oversight over the security sector, are all key issues.

De-politicising and re-professionalising the military is a critical objective, but it cannot be done overnight. Nor, in the first instance, will there be a systemic, root and branch overhaul of the structures and personnel of the military. The MDC does not have the authority or power to compel the military to transform; the GNU, is after all, based on mutual decision-making. Riots by lower ranking, poorly paid soldiers in late 2008 and early 2009, proved that the military had become a threat to ZANU-PF as well as to the opposition. The GNU has thus prioritised payments to the military. This is understandable if the GNU is to survive; but it also reinforces the power of the military, and maintains the exceptionalist, state-military paradigm which the MDC promised to end.

Civil society groups will pressure Tsvangirai to remove the current military elite, downsize the military [and military budgets] and indict the worst offenders for human rights abuses. None of this will occur anytime soon. Tsvangirai is on a tightrope – many within the MDC are vehemently anti-militarist, and want Tsvangirai to adopt a punitive approach to the military. The pragmatists, however, realise that the MDC will have to establish its own military credentials within the NSC to survive. The MDC is an overwhelmingly civilian organisation, but it will have to learn the language of the military if it is to engage with them. This task is not as difficult as it seems: there are many former state military personnel now within the MDC, and there have been informal dialogues over the years.

Zimbabwe and the international community

Zimbabwe has polarised the regional and international community for a decade. Behind a facade of public unity, member states within the Southern African Development Community [SADC] have often been at loggerheads over Zimbabwe. SADC is committed to investing politically and financially in Zimbabwe. South Africa in particular, is keen to bring closure to the Zimbabwe crisis, and has been the most determined proponent of the GNU. Presidential elections are due in South Africa this year, and the 2010 World Cup will be hosted there; continued crisis in Zimbabwe, and the inevitable regional spill-over, would have brought collateral damage to South Africa, where socio-economic tensions are already stressing the body politic.

The EU and the US had previously called for Mugabe to step down. With the establishment of the GNU, both the EU and the US have made tonal shifts, abbreviating the regime change rhetoric; but, publicly at least, there has been no indication that there will be massive Western development aid or investment anytime soon. The UN, EU, and US continue to deliver humanitarian aid, but the latter has insisted that the new government meet governance benchmarks, before any pump-priming funding can be given. Nor will targeted sanctions be removed anytime soon. The sanctions question is particularly sensitive within the GNU; part of the reason ZANU-PF agreed to the coalition government was the belief that only the MDC could prevail on the West to lift targeted sanctions. The MDC has not done so as yet; sanctions give the MDC some leverage, but it also gives ZANU-PF a platform to attack the MDC for being ‘anti-Zimbabwean’. The West’s ‘wait and see’ approach to development aid is understandable, but it weakens the MDC and the GNU’s chances of reconstructing Zimbabwe; it also weakens the GNU’s chances of survival.

The UK’s recent Zimbabwe Resettlement Programme, which offers a UK resettlement package to British nationals in Zimbabwe, will generate tension between the GNU and the UK government. The programme is designed to allow elderly and vulnerable UK nationals the opportunity to resettle in the UK. It is a humanitarian measure, but the timing is inauspicious; it will heighten suspicions that the UK is anti-GNU, or is plotting to destabilise or overthrow the GNU. It will also pressure the MDC to prove their ‘African-ness’ by making common cause with ZANU-PF in challenging the UK.


Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity is a forced marriage, and has attracted criticism for being the worst possible solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis. It certainly is a ‘coalition of the unwilling’, with each of the three partners driven by need not want. It is a flawed response to a deadly question, and it could yet crash and burn. Nevertheless, there is no other pragmatic alternative at this point in time, and two things are worth remembering. First, it is not intended to be a long-term solution – it is the start of the reconstruction process, not the end. Secondly, a tangible power-sharing process and transformation has begun. Where it will end is unknown, but it does offer hope to Zimbabweans, and that particular commodity has been in very short supply recently.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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