BSR – Coercion & Co-optation in Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe


The BSR When small men cast large shadows examined the prospects of the MDC-T which is now led by Douglas Mwonzora after he defeated Dr. Thokozani Khupe at the Extraordinary Congress in December 2020. In that BSR, I argued that Mwonzora’s MDC-T was at best the third party in a political terrain that is dominated by ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance.

I also argued that the prospects of the Mwonzora-led outfit were limited by the circumstances of its emergence which involved a subversion of the voters’ will under the guise of legal entitlement. The organization’s apparent cordiality with a repressive ZANU PF is also a burden that weighs heavily on its prospects. In this BSR, I examine the strategies of coercion and co-optation that Mnangagwa is deploying in his efforts to consolidate power while neutralizing the opposition.

These strategies are familiar with authoritarian regimes. Coercion is used to subdue the opponent, while the goal of co-optation is to absorb the opponent. Either way, the opponent is neutralized: when the opponent is smothered, it cannot pose a challenge and when it is co-opted, it ceases to have any incentive to criticize the regime. The cliché rings true: once they are on board, they quickly realize that it is impolite to talk while you are eating.

Pathways to new Political Orders

To help in this examination, I borrow and slightly adapt the notion of constitutional pathways propagated by renowned constitutional law scholar, Bruce Ackerman. Ackerman says there are three pathways to establishing constitutionalism, which is essential for establishing the legitimacy of political power. Although Ackerman discusses these as pathways to constitutionalism, I adapt it more broadly to apply to pathways to a new political order. The difference is very small – in this exercise constitutionalism is not the key issue, but changes in the political order more broadly.

Revolutionary Outsiders

The first pathway according to Ackerman is where there is a revolutionary movement led by people who are outside the existing government. They mobilize a mass movement of resistance against the current political order. They aim to get rid of the old political order and to establish a new revolutionary one. Ackerman calls these people “revolutionary outsiders”.

Revolutionary outsiders may achieve their objectives in at least two ways: military struggle or civil disobedience. Ackerman refers to the ANC’s struggle in South Africa leading to the end of the brutal Apartheid regime. But he might as well have referred to Zimbabwe which had an even more pronounced and prolonged armed struggle leading up to independence in 1980. It is an example of a situation where “revolutionary outsiders” boldly confronted and challenged the settler-colonial establishment through armed struggle.

Nevertheless, it is important to qualify both as struggles which ended up on the negotiating table, and therefore the new constitutional and political orders were in significant ways products of elitist negotiation. They both did change the political orders in some significant ways, hence the attribution to revolutionary outsiders. The negotiations would not have happened without the efforts of revolutionary outsiders.

While both examples refer to armed struggles, one might cite more contemporary examples, such as the Arab Spring or even more recently, in Sudan where revolutionary outsiders launched massive civil campaigns to challenge the existing political orders. Although each uprising had different outcomes, I cite this to highlight that the role of revolutionary outsiders is not limited to armed struggle. Revolutionary outsiders can challenge the existing political orders using peaceful and constitutional means.

Responsible Insiders

The second pathway according to Ackerman, is where there is internally generated change by insiders within a regime. In this case, insiders realize that there is mounting pressure from outsiders that cannot be ignored. To contain this pressure and retain power, these insiders initiate a series of reforms that eventually lead to a new political order or what appears to be a new political order. Ackerman refers to these people as “responsible insiders”. They sense looming danger and pre-empt it by carrying out reforms to the political order.

The changes that are initiated by these “responsible insiders” are therefore a defence mechanism against the pressure of outsiders. The “responsible insiders” make “strategic concessions” to the outsiders who are fighting for reforms. This pathway has an important consequence: it divides the outsiders into two factions: one that accepts and supports the reforms and another that remains skeptical and rejects the overtures. The latter do not believe the regime is sincere. These divisions may impact the opposition by weakening it.

I will come back to this pathway because it is probably the most relevant to Zimbabwe’s current politics. However, it would be remiss of me if I did not give one of the examples of this strategy in our recent history. In 1999, Robert Mugabe agreed to set up a commission to review the Lancaster House Constitution which was adopted at independence in 1980. There had been relentless pressure from the National Constitutional Assembly for a new constitution.

The outsiders engaged responsible insiders within ZANU PF, who conceded that the agenda of constitutional reform could not be ignored. Nevertheless, the strategic concession regarding constitutional reform failed because in the end the draft constitution was rejected at a referendum in February 2000. Today, some see it as a missed opportunity to establish a new political order as driven by “responsible insiders” within ZANU PF.

Elitist Construction

The third pathway is an “elitist construction” which emerges at a time when the old order is having challenges and a new elite group steps in to occupy spaces and establish a new order. It results from a combination of the old and new elites working together without there being serious mass mobilization. The new constitutional order that emerges is an elitist construction, which leaves some of the old elite in place while the new elite takes on roles in the establishment. In the words of Ackerman, “The new regime is an elite construction, not a revolutionary mass mobilized creation”.

While Ackerman uses Spain as an example, locally, I would refer to the situation during the Inclusive Government between 2008 and 2013, with the 2013 Constitution as an illustration of this elite construction of a political order. The ZANU PF regime was unraveling following the defeat at the March 2008 general elections. The Inclusive Government created a space in which the old elites retained power while the new elites from the MDC parties occupied new roles in the establishment.

The new constitution adopted in 2013 was a product of elite negotiation processes. However, the emerging elites took a big gamble because the old elites retained exclusive political power after the next election in 2013. If the emerging elites had prevailed, it might have led to a new and improved political and constitutional order. The old elites retained power and this regressed even further when the coup happened in 2017.

That coup too was a product of insiders under the false guise that they would establish a new political order. There was nothing new. It was just a power grab. There have been continuities of repressive politics that characterized the old order. The insiders had rebelled alright, but only to maintain power, not to deliver any change.

What is the relevance of or possibilities of these pathways to present-day Zimbabwe?

Revolutionary challenge?

The prospects of the first pathway are remote. There is currently no evidence of revolutionary outsiders that have the appetite or capacity to mobilize against the establishment. Legal barriers stand in the ways of any form of military struggle. Liberation discourse accepted armed struggle as a legitimate instrument against colonial rule. This allowed for armed wings of ZANU and ZAPU to carry on armed struggle against the Smith Regime or Umthonto weSizwe to fight the Apartheid Regime. These days, such struggles are frowned upon.

However, as I have already observed earlier in this BSR, the revolutionary pathway is not merely about armed struggle. It can also be pursued by more peaceful and constitutional methods including civil disobedience. The regime is aware of this, which is why it has regularly reminded citizens of statutes that criminalize attempts to remove a constitutionally elected government by arresting and detaining political activists on spurious charges.

The regime has also strengthened its apparatus of coercion to thwart any forms of protest. It has so far made effective use of the strategy of lawfare – using the law as an instrument to thwart political opponents through selective application and arrests and detentions. The apparent manipulation of the lower courts, which has led to long periods of incarceration of political opponents is a deterrent to challenges by citizens.

The detention of Job Sikhala, Fadzayi Mahere, Hopewell Chin’ono, Jacob Mafume, and Jacob Ngarivhume among others over the past 6 months is nothing short of a demonstration of raw power. In any event, there is no evidence of a political or civic organization that has the appetite or capability to mobilize a mass movement against the regime. People cannot even rise to defend people who are unfairly jailed on spurious charges. However, even in the absence of serious threats, the regime is still paranoid which is why it reacts viciously to any minor challenge, even when no serious offence has been committed as in the current cases of Mahere, Sikhala, and Chin’ono.

Responsible insiders: Coercion and Co-optation

The second pathway is more plausible because it preserves the power of the old elites while presenting a false picture of change. The Responsible Insiders do not carry out reforms out of any genuine interest to promote the public interest. Rather, they do so as a strategy of self-preservation; to keep their place in power by giving the impression that they are pro-reform. We have already seen that this strategy achieves another purpose: it splits the opposition between supporters of the purported reform agenda and those who reject these efforts as fake.

This path involves the use of two seemingly contrasting but complementary strategies: coercion and co-optation. As we have seen in previous BSRs, coercion is expensive even for the most well-established authoritarian regimes. This is because agents who carry out coercion must be given sweeteners to remain loyal. This is costly. A bigger problem, however, is that the use of coercive methods emboldens the agents of coercion as they become more comfortable in their use of violence. One day, they might just turn against the establishment. This is a risk that the ruling establishment wants to avoid.

Therefore, it is preferable to use co-optation, whereby opposition elements are brought into or closer to the establishment. It is far easier to control the opposition when it is co-opted than to continue using coercive methods. It is also cheaper to co-opt desperate opposition elements than to rely on coercion. When parts of the opposition are co-opted, the ruling establishment will present a set of reforms, which will give the impression that it is progressive. However, the reality is that the ruling establishment will never, under those circumstances, concede anything that would threaten its stranglehold on power.

How is this playing out in Zimbabwean politics?

ZANU PF under Mnangagwa is pursuing these twin strategies of coercion and co-optation. It has played a significant steering role in the internecine conflicts in the opposition over the past year. It has done so by, directly and indirectly through compromised institutions of the state, propping one faction of the opposition over the other. It chose the smaller faction formerly led by Thokozani Khupe, and now led by Douglas Mwonzora at the expense of the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa.

There have been several methods of suppression. It started with ZANU PF-appointed parliamentary officers controversially accepting the Mwonzora-led party’s instructions to expel elected representatives that were elected under the MDC Alliance. ZANU PF Ministers also unlawfully diverted public funds that were due to the MDC Alliance under the Political Parties Financing Act. This money was given to the Mwonzora-led outfit. In more recent weeks, the ZANU PF regime has arrested and detained senior officials of the MDC Alliance on spurious charges and selectively applying the law. The abuse of law has been abysmal. In this strategy of coercion, the ZANU PF regime has been on a relentless mission to suffocate Chamisa and the MDC Alliance.

In a wholly different strategy of co-optation, the ZANU PF regime has warmly embraced the Mwonzora-led party. This opposition faction has, for its part, responded in kind, warmly receiving the ZANU PF’s regime’s courtship. It is ready to be co-opted. However, ZANU PF’s embrace of the Mwonzora-led party is not because it is genuinely interested in progressive politics. It is alive to the reality that the Mwonzora-led party is the weaker of the opposition groups and that the major opposition is still the MDC Alliance led by Chamisa. The only purpose of co-opting the weaker faction is to spite the stronger faction. But ultimately, Mnangagwa wants to force-march Chamisa into giving the elusive “Loser’s Consent” which he did not get following the controversial 2018 elections, a circumstance that has blighted his presidency with diminished legitimacy.

This is why Mnangagwa continues to tighten the screws against the MDC Alliance, signified by the arbitrary arrests and detentions of senior MDC Alliance officials. Coercion is merely another strategy aimed at achieving co-optation. Mnangagwa is emboldened by the fact that ZANU PF has done this before when it successfully co-opted ZAPU, its main opponent in the 1980s after a sustained campaign of suppression which included Gukurahundi and the imprisonment of hundreds of the party’s officials. Mnangagwa was one of the architects and enforcers of that campaign of coercion. He was Robert Mugabe’s minister responsible for state security. In the end, Joshua Nkomo was left with very little choice but to concede.

Mnangagwa imagines he can achieve the same end by a sustained process of suppression of the MDC Alliance. The latest arbitrary detentions of Sikhala and Mahere are merely part of this vicious campaign which will only escalate as the year progresses.

Even if Chamisa and the MDC Alliance remain adamant, Mnangagwa thinks he can make headway by agreeing to “concessions” and crafting a working arrangement with the Mwonzora-led party. At the extreme level, this could be in the form of a Government of National Unity (GNU), which the Mwonzora-led party seems keen on. Without any political capital or hopes of making any serious impact on the electoral map, the Mwonzora-led party does not mind foregoing elections. A GNU is their best and only opportunity to get into government. However, this would only work if Mnangagwa was gaining anything from it. Apart from spiting Chamisa, there is no real value to Mnangagwa because their participation will not be taken seriously by the international community as a coalition government.

A more realistic possibility is that Mnangagwa will accept a limited form of “co-operation” between ZANU PF and the Mwonzora-led entity. This could take the form of a package of constitutional amendments and other legislative changes which will be presented as “political reforms”. The idea will be to suggest that Mnangagwa has a cordial working relationship with the “responsible” opposition. It is not surprising that the language used by both Mwonzora and Mnangagwa finds commonality in the notion of “responsible opposition”. Arguably, Mnangagwa and ZANU PF also see themselves as a “responsible ruling party”.

This discourse of “responsible opposition” is designed to exclude and malign Chamisa and the MDC Alliance, whose politics is by implication deemed “irresponsible” This is in addition to the discourse of maturity, which has long been propagated by ZANU OPF and its surrogates against Chamisa. It is not surprising that the Daily News which has become rabidly pro-establishment is running with headlines referring to dialogue and politicians getting more mature. This language is being pushed soon after the conclusion of the Mwonzora-led party’s Extraordinary Congress.

Haven’t we seen this before?

The path to a new political order using so-called responsible insiders to offer “concessions” to divide and neutralize the opposition has a precedent in the country’s history. Faced with a determined group of revolutionary outsiders who sought to disrupt a settler-colonial political order of white minority rule, responsible insiders in the Smith regime made “concessions” to a faction of its opponents. This faction was led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa. They reached an agreement in March 1978, known as the Internal Settlement, which sought to establish a new political order complete with a new constitution. It resulted in an Interim Government and eventually an election a year later which was won by Muzorewa’s UANC.

The goal of this political arrangement was to gain international recognition, which would eventually lead to the lifting of United Nations sanctions that were imposed on the country after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. However, the political arrangement was rejected and therefore, excluded the stronger faction of Revolutionary Outsiders represented by Robert Mugabe and ZANU and Joshua Nkomo and ZAPU. As these were the parties that were generally recognized as the legitimate opposition to the Smith regime, the political arrangement between Smith and Muzorewa and others failed to gain international recognition and legitimacy.

The Smith regime had used a combination of co-optation of the moderate faction of the Revolutionary Outsiders and coercion of the radical faction as it continued with repressive methods. For the Smith regime, the constitutional changes under the Internal Settlement were significant concessions that would give the impression of a new constitutional order while the old elites retained not only their role but real power. The hope was that the moderates among the Revolutionary Outsiders would be co-opted while the radicals would eventually wither into irrelevance.

However, this gamble failed rather spectacularly. Most citizens never truly accepted the political gimmicks of Muzorewa’s faction, which was presented as having “sold out” to the colonial regime. The Internal Settlement was condemned as an attempt to create a façade of black majority rule when it simply perpetuated the old order of white minority rule. The refusal by ZANU and ZAPU to participate in the political arrangement made it weak because they were widely regarded as the authentic opposition.

In any event, most of the citizens saw through the charade and continued to support the parties they believed in – ZANU and ZAPU. Indeed, when the first multi-party democratic elections were held in 1980, Muzorewa and his colleagues were trounced by these Revolutionary Outsiders who had stayed the course. Muzorewa’s reign as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Rhodesia lasted less than a year. He had to give up power to the Governor under the Lancaster House Constitutional Agreement reached in December 1979.

Parallels between 1978 and 2021

This historical precedent has several parallels with the current political situation:

· The MDC-T led by Mwonzora is presenting itself as the moderates of the current opposition just as the Muzorewa faction packaged itself as the moderates of the black nationalists in the late seventies. The MDC-T is the weaker of the opposition just as the Muzorewa group was the weaker end of the black nationalists’ parties. Without political capital, there is a readiness for co-optation into the regime. It has nothing to do with the people but everything to do with the personal political economy of the individual elites.

· In cozying up to the Mwonzora-led group ahead of the Chamisa’s MDC Alliance, Mnangagwa is using a similar strategy to that used by Smith when he embraced the Muzorewa-led group ahead of the genuine opposition led by Mugabe and Nkomo. He is using both co-optation and coercion against different factions of the opposition.

· Mnangagwa and Mwonzora are likely to stitch up a political arrangement akin to the Internal Settlement between Smith and Muzorewa. The object will be to present a picture of progress and gain international recognition which would end isolation.

· However, just like the Internal Settlement was doomed from the start because it did not include the authentic opposition, any political arrangement that Mnangagwa and Mwonzora will try to cobble up is unlikely to gain any traction, both at home and abroad. Just like Smith realized more than 40 years ago, Mnangagwa dealing with a surrogate opposition is a waste of time and it will not fool anyone. Co-optation will not work.

What, therefore, is to be done?

While 2021 appears like the middle of the five-year term since the controversial 2018 elections, the country is already well into the next election cycle. However, there are still no serious political reforms that would prevent the same controversies that blighted the previous elections leaving a cloud hanging over legitimacy. Zimbabwe is unlikely to escape the vicious circle of flawed elections unless it embarks on a package of serious political reforms. This will not be resolved by a GNU, which will merely be a mechanism of co-optation.

If there are to be any talks, they must not only include the major political players, but they must have a specific purpose that is centered on political reforms.

A GNU cannot be that purpose because it will simply result in the co-optation of the opposition without any meaningful reforms. Reforms are not merely an exercise of changing laws. The purpose of any talks must be to find a solution to the problem of flawed elections that lead to illegitimacy. If this is not done, the next elections will come and go, leaving the same problems currently affecting the country. There must be a break from the vicious circle, but it will not come merely because the ruling party and factions of the opposition stitch up a GNU.

The hard reality, of course, is that ZANU PF has no incentive to carry out serious reforms. If the opposition waits for ZANU PF to initiate or create space for reforms, it might as well look forward to the sun rising from the west.

The incentives for reforms must be created and driven by the opposition conducting politics in a manner that opposition parties dealing with authoritarian regimes do. This is not done by appealing to the conscience of the ruling party or waiting for it to start the reform process. It is not done by watching as the ruling party picks opposition leaders one by one, jailing them on the most ridiculous and unlawful charges and waiting for them to through the mill of Zimbabwe’s slow and in large parts compromised justice system. It can only be driven by sustained political pressure. ZANU PF is arrogant because it does not feel any serious pressure from the opposition.