Thursday, October 30, 2008

Zimbabwe on slippery slope toward civil conflict


Last updated: 10/31/2008 15:31:34
THERE was a time, in the 1980s, when villages across Zimbabwe became hosts
to young men like Mukoma Zhuwawo. These were young men from Mozambique,
having crossed the border to eke out a living far from the raging war in
their homeland. They worked hard, these young men, tilling the land and
herding cattle.

There was a time, too, in the 1990s, when we received young men and women
who had travelled thousands of miles, hitch-hiking along the way, from the
genocide in Rwanda.

Some of them became good friends when they joined university. They were
decent young men and women who sought shelter and comfort in our home.

I remember speaking to our guests and asking about the conditions they had
left behind. Their stories weighed heavily on our hearts. They carried many
wounds of war - they had lost families and friends.

I remember wondering at the time whether we, too, could find ourselves in a
similar situation. At the time, that Zimbabwe could descend into absolute
poverty and utter chaos was far from the mind. It is not far anymore.

There has been a reversal of fortunes. The likes of Mukoma Tendai are now
foraging in the Mozambican hinterland, perhaps Mukoma Zhuwawo is now his
host. Young Zimbabweans are paying the last penny; they are using the last
of their energies to cross borders into Botswana, South Africa and thousands
of miles away into Britain, Australia, USA, etc.

But what are the chances that Zimbabwe could also descend into civil
conflict, the type that made young men and women run from their homes in
Rwanda, Somalia, Mozambique and the DRC into Zimbabwe?

The possibility is certainly no longer far-fetched. There are already
situations we thought we could never have. I remember the wild laughs when
visitors from Zambia in the late eighties brought the worthless Zambian
Kwacha. Yet it never quite fell to the depths that the Zimbabwe Dollar has

At this rate, that Zimbabwe could descend into civil conflict is therefore
not beyond imagination. It is no longer something to be easily dismissed.
There are number of reasons why the situation may deteriorate to the state
of conflict:

Political Failure: Zimbabwe has failed and continues to fail to find a
political solution to its problems. Normally, questions of leadership are
decided through elections. This has, so far, not worked in Zimbabwe.

The other option, as we saw in Kenya earlier this year, is to submit to a
negotiated settlement. This has not worked either and holds little prospects
of success.

When politics fails and when politicians fail, this creates opportunities
for military strongmen to take power. This will not allay fears of conflict;
it will only heighten them.

Desperation: With political failure comes desperation and desperation causes
people to think of crazy things. Desperate men develop very dangerous minds,
especially when coupled with poverty and a paucity of options for survival.

Zimbabwe is reaching, if not so already, the Hobbesian state of nature where
life is 'nasty, brutish and short'. In this kind of world it is only the
fittest who survive by virtue of force.

Big Men and Lords of War: Beyond and, indeed, within the large political
party structure, the Zimbabwean political landscape is characterised by deep
cracks along regional and tribal lines. This is an often understated reality
but only because it is an inconvenient reality. Zanu PF's unity, or what
appears on the surface, is driven by the common desire to retain power and
the mutual benefits accruing to rival factions. If the equilibrium that
sustains the mutual interests shifts, there is likely to be chaos between
the rivals.

For its part, the MDC (already divided since 2005) is united only by a
common desire to drive out Zanu PF from power, perhaps less so by any common
vision or ideology that would withstand the challenges of a post-Mugabe era.
The different factional conflicts, which simmer under the surface like a
volcano, could erupt at any time.

When it all breaks down, the Big Men, especially within or connected to the
military who have their spheres of influence could easily mobilise
impressionable and desperate young men to engage in a free-for-all brawl.
There is a huge reserve of unemployed young people, the type that Frantz
Fanon referred to as the Lumpen Proletariat which is vulnerable to
manipulation and easily led.

Militarisation of Society: Violence has always been employed by the powerful
to suppress the largely pliant majority of ordinary people. There is a
growing pool of desperate young men who in their crucial teenage years who
have been led to believe that violence is a perfectly legitimate way of
resolving disputes. The then burgeoning middle class of the nineties has
been severely eroded and in its place is the growing Lumpen Proletariat.
They have very little to lose; nothing but their lives to protect and when
it comes to the worst, who knows what risks they could take?

Add to this the large numbers of Youth Militias, better known as the Border
Gezi Youths or Green Bombers, after their olive green garb, who have been
indoctrinated in the virtues of the fist. They have killed, raped and
assaulted at will without fear of the law's enforcement. Then there is also
the growing number of deserters from the military, as recently reported in
parts of the media. These are poor young men who know how to use arms; they
are desperate and who knows what they might do if they got hold of arms?

An unhealed nation: Zimbabwe has experienced a tumultuous history since it
was founded as the colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1890. The culture of
violence and impunity did not commence in the Zanu PF - MDC era as is often
presented. Right through the violence of the colonial era, the bloodshed of
the liberation war in the 1970s, to the unmitigated atrocities in
Matabeleland during the 1980s, Zimbabweans have endured pain, loss and
suffering. There are divisions and suspicions along the fault lines of race,
tribe and class. The nation has not healed.

The post-2000 violence has undoubtedly received greater coverage and
intensified the hostilities. People naturally want to account for what
happened; they want justice and accountability in order to have closure. If
there is no proper system in place, people could easily resort to chaos,
where they take the law into their own hands, with devastating results. All
these episodes in the history of the nation are festering wounds and chances
are that they will burst, and when they do, it will not be a pretty sight.

We Zimbabweans have long thought of ourselves as a sophisticated nation. We
got independence late in the day, long after our African counterparts had
experienced the political and economic demise of the post-colonial period.
We had our sunshine years when dark clouds hung over most of Africa. We
never thought we would get to their sorry state. But they have moved on;
they are moving on and we are where they were in their dark days, only

If we still think civil conflict is unimaginable in Zimbabwe, perhaps it is
time to wake up and smell the coffee. There are too many factors building up
to create a very dangerous situation, largely because politics and
politicians seem to be failing.

Now after the failure of the SADC Troika, we have to wait for the SADC
Summit. The question is: what if that, too, fails? But even if it does
succeed, there is little evidence of good faith and political will on the
part of politicians to make things work. No amount of beautiful clauses, not
even control of 'key ministries' will transform Zimbabwe's fortunes unless
the politicians invest sufficient trust, confidence in each other and act in
good faith. Things could get much worse. Politicians have the responsibility
to halt the slide on the slippery slope toward civil conflict.

Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, The University of Kent. He can be
contacted at

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