“Rethinking Zimbabwe” brings together civil society, policy makers at NED

All three political parties comprising Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity (GNU), which is currently overseeing a constitutional reform process, were represented at a July 10 meeting at NED on “Rethinking Zimbabwe.” Co-sponsored by NED, the World Movement for Democracy, and the Solidarity Center, the meeting also included prominent members of Zimbabwean civil society, including NED grantees, as well as government officials from the U.S. and Zimbabwe.

Though political discourse in Zimbabwe is still highly polarized and the constitutional reform process is not without its frustrations, according to NED Senior Director of Africa Programs Dave Peterson, there is reason to be optimistic. Since the GNU came to power, NED grantees have taken advantage of greater space to push for comprehensive constitutional reform that takes into account long-term political needs necessary to securing a durable transition to democracy.

“Our partners have promoted human rights, monitored elections, and advocated for peace and tolerance, and while the NED is not in a position to prescribe the best path forward, choose winners, or predict the future for Zimbabwe, we have been persuaded by many of our Zimbabwean partners that the country is approaching a moment of democratic opportunity,” said Peterson.

Zimbabwe may hold national elections next year following a constitutional referendum. The referendum is a provision of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), the 2008 power-sharing agreement reached between President Robert Mugabe and political opposition brokered by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

The NED meeting included discussion of the constitution-making process and the content of the new constitution, as well as the political environment in which the reforms are taking place.

At a session on U.S.-Zimbabwe relations, Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara called on the U.S. to lift U.S. sanctions targeting President Robert Mugabe and high-ranking officials in his party, ZANU-PF, claiming they were detracting foreign investors and stifling economic development.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Rueben Brigety II vigorously defended the sanctions, pointing to meager political progress in the country and assuring they could be lifted if Zimbabwe demonstrated a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, including free and fair presidential elections and passage of a constitution that significantly strengthens democratic institutions and protects human rights defenders and civil society activists.

The comments followed a vigorous opening session in which panelists squared off on both the constitutional reform process and presidential elections, including whether elections should be held in the first place if the constitution fails to create institutions necessary to assure sustainable democratic development in the post-Mugabe era.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a NED grantee organization, criticized the GNU’s lack of transparency during the constitutional reform process, as well as its failure to effectively consult civil society organizations. The National Constitutional Assembly has been trying to create opportunities for popular participation in the reform process.

According to Madhuku, neither ZANU-PF nor the two chief opposition parties in the GNU—the two wings of the Movement for Democratic Change linked to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and Mutambara (MD-M)—have paid heed to calls from civil society for an end to Zimbabwe’s imperial presidency nor have they succeeded in generating a draft of the constitution that could be used to engage civil society organizations and ordinary citizens.

Minister of State Jameson Timba, who represented MDC-T, commended the progress afforded by the GPA, heralding the constitutional process and national elections as an opportunity to move forward while also criticizing ongoing U.S. sanctions as an impediment to economic growth.

Another panelist, Ambassador Chris Mutsvangwa (ZANU-PF), commissioner of the Zimbabwe Media Commission, expressed fears of a constitution that would weaken the state. This concern echoes resistance to security sector and other reforms that has been expressed by ZANU-PF.

The afternoon panel, which focused on opportunities for democratic progress, addressed the intense polarization in Zimbabwean politics and the need for democratic institutions to create and manage economic progress. Godfrey Kanyenze, director of the Labor and Economic Development Research Institute, pointed to rampant corruption, stressing the need to build viable institutions and rule of law.

These thoughts were shared by the other two panelists, Rukudzo Murapa, chairman of Great Zimbabwe Scenarios and chief editor of the Africa Democratic Leadership Academy, and Ibbo Mandaza, director of the Southern Africa Political Economy Trust, though they disagreed on the urgency to hold national elections. While Murapa stressed the importance of elections in order for the country to move forward and discussed the need to check executive power, Mandaza argued that elections could be delayed and that immediate focus should instead be paid to economic development.

The NED meeting followed an earlier meeting last month in Harare that was organized by the World Movement for Democracy. That meeting drew an impressive array of Zimbabwean civil society organizations, including several NED grantees, as well as provided a forum for an exchange of views between the groups and Prime Minister Tsvangirai.

“No one has a clear idea of what will happen in Zimbabwe over the coming months, but the better we understand the current political situation, the better chance we can respond in an appropriate and helpful way,” said Peterson. “Likewise, the more dialogue among Zimbabweans, the better chance good ideas will emerge and find a consensus.”