Guest Contribution: The owl has no horns, but Zimbabwe should tread carefully…


(Note: This is a guest contribution by Max Gomera on a matter that has generated great interest across the world. The BSR platform welcomes contributions on topical matters)

If the prospect of Zimbabwe sliding into further authoritarian rule frightens you, then it is worth spending time trying to understand how it might be avoided. A Kenyan colleague recently remarked how much she feels a part of the extraordinary developments in Zimbabwe. She is not alone. Following the seizure of power by the Military, there is a general sense of achievement, euphoria and renewed hope amongst Zimbabwe. However our prevailing vision of democratic transition – and the politics intended to deliver it – are not to be taken for granted. The road ahead is still littered with landmines and fog.

At the core of the uncertainty over Zimbabwe’s future is the manner in which the transition has come about and is unfolding. The Generals have staged what looks like a coup de tat, although they are claiming that they have not seized political power. They have placed President Mugabe under house arrest and, with that, driven the country into unfamiliar territory. While many are happy to see Mr. Mugabe go, the transition has placed uncomfortable questions on our commitment to democratic practice.

To be clear, Zimbabwe is still on a dangerous precipice. President Robert Mugabe is reportedly asserting his ‘right and legitimacy’ to power and threatening to scupper the Generals’ plans. Loyalties have shifted dramatically. The powerful ‘War Veterans Movement,’ for long Mr. Mugabe’s enforcer and last line of defence has shifted allegiance. So has the Army. The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a powerful economic and political grouping, convened an emergency meeting of its security organ on Thursday and urged Zimbabwe to urgently restore the constitutional order. The head of the African Union has stated that it would not support a coup. Meanwhile, the Generals are enjoying growing support amongst ordinary citizens and increasingly around the world.

It is easy to understand why the Generals actions have galvanised national and international support. First, Mr. Mugabe had come to personify the worst excesses of power and corruption. His disdain for fellow Zimbabweans, contempt for basic human rights, inept leadership and failure to clarify succession but instead seek to establish a Mugabe ruling dynasty have paved the way for a humiliating fall from grace..

Second, Zimbabweans are standing up for their future. Unlike other jurisdictions where the international community has intervened, the Generals have taken issues into their own hands and galvanised support from within the country. So far, that process appears to be enjoying support from the public.

Third, the planning and execution has so far been supremely proficient. The Generals have conducted themselves in a calm, seemingly compassionate and clear manner. They have not mistreated Mugabe. The public messaging has been effective, portraying the intervention as an attempt to instil discipline and bring to justice ‘criminals surrounding the President.’ For now, at least, that messaging appears to be working. And Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe is remarkably business-as-usual.

Finally, the Generals have demonstrated that getting rid of Mr. Mugabe and other elements of tyranny in in ZANU PF is possible. They have, as the Shona would say, exposed that ‘the owl has no horns!’

No doubt, many have been consumed by euphoria at the prospect of change in Zimbabwe. However, The deal is not yet done and everything could go pear shaped. Mugabe is reportedly asserting his authority and refusing to accept transitional arrangements that don’t guarantee his hegemony. In addition, the Generals may well succeed in getting rid of Mr. Mugabe, but their intention is not necessarily to get rid of tyranny and authoritarian rule. They are simply supporting an alternative faction in the ruling party ZANU PF, and one led by Mr. Mnangagwa who himself has been accused of being the architect of much of Mr. Mugabe’s tyranny.

And, of course, regional and international governments are conflicted. Even though this change in power has popular support, it is not legitimate. Even assuming the Generals are successful at creating a thriving democracy once again, the censure of ‘a coup’ by other governments will make any transition difficult, as legitimacy will be questioned.

So what to do?

Looking ahead, the time is right for all Zimbabweans and the International Community to raise their voices in support of a transition process but one that embraces and strengthens democracy and democratic institutions in Zimbabwe. Achieving that depends on how the Generals move towards that goal. The idea of a transitional authority is a good one. Such an authority must be in the form of Coalition Government, with a tightly defined mandate and longevity. That mandate should be to (i) stabilise the economy (ii) define, agree and implement a political process towards fresh elections and (iii) strengthening State Institutions that will mediate in various aspects of Zimbabwean life.

Not only is this what country needs but also it is only this, which will ensure actions of Generals gain some legitimacy. History will judge these actions by what comes next. Now is also a time for everyone to use the small means they having at their disposal to push the country and the Generals in that direction. The Generals are no doubt on the horns of a dilemma. Any assistance in pushing them to make right decisions may help, and would likely make them receptive to democratic demands even if this wasn’t their intent. Most Zimbabweans like history to remember them favourably. The Generals are no exception.

The people’s will has a greater chance of prevailing this time. My late friend and mentor Dr. Ivan Bond once said to me ‘nothing ever stays the same. Even in Zimbabwe, things will change.’ He would have celebrated the infolding events. As is my Kenyan friend.

Maxwell Gomera

Max can be contacted at