After Mugabe: Applying post-conflict recovery lessons to Zimbabwe


Todd Moss and Stewart Patrick

Zimbabwe is a country in deep economic and political crisis, but also one whose situation could change quickly. Waiting until the day after the fall of Robert Mugabe could be too late, so the international community should start preliminary planning now for responses to a transition in Zimbabwe. Given the war-like trauma experienced by the country and acute conditions today, any donor strategy cannot be limited to traditional development practice but must be informed by recent post-conflict experiences. This paper lays out a framework for an international effort and identifies priority actions to support a political transition and economic recovery. It also suggests some immediate steps that the US and other donors can take, including the formation of a Commission for Assistance to a Free Zimbabwe. Beginning the planning process now is not only prudent, but such a public effort could also be catalytic: letting the Zimbabwean people know they have not been forgotten and that the world stands ready to help once Robert Mugabe is gone could perhaps help to bring about that day a little sooner.


It is not too early to start planning for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The southern African country is in a perilous state of decline and could face a major transition at any time. The government, led since independence in 1980 by President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), appears impervious to international pressure to reform or even moderate political repression and disastrous economic policies. Zimbabwe is now an international pariah, having quit the Commonwealth, nearly been expelled from the International Monetary Fund, and listed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an 'outpost of tyranny' alongside the likes of Burma and North Korea. It is also clear that the situation inside the country is both extremely fragile and ultimately unsustainable: tensions are high, there are serious divisions within the ruling party and the military, and the economy is dangerously close to outright collapse. Importantly, this precarious state of affairs is being held together mainly by Mugabe himself. Although resilient and politically cunning, he is nonetheless 82 years old.

Once Mugabe is gone, the reality of his misrule will be immediately faced by a new government. Several post-Mugabe scenarios are possible, including a transition to a handpicked successor, the rise of a reformist faction within ZANU-PF, a broad government of national unity, a military coup, or even a descent into chaos. It is of course impossible to predict the outcome. What is likely is that the change will come without much warning and that a speedy and substantial international response will be necessary. Without presuming any particular configuration, this paper assumes that the next government is reform-minded enough that it seeks a genuine normalization of external relations and that the new leadership is sufficiently distanced from Mugabe and his cronies that the international community is willing to respond in kind.

However the transition unfolds, the United States and the international community should avoid getting caught flat-footed. As in post-conflict situations, Mugabe's departure will create a brief "golden hour," a fluid situation in which expectations are high and multiple possibilities quickly emerge. The international community can exploit this window of opportunity through targeted interventions to help set Zimbabwe on the right path to sustainable peace and recovery. Once this window closes, the odds of making a difference will become much longer.

Based on these assumptions, this paper argues that (1) the international community should start preliminary planning now for possible responses to a transition in Zimbabwe because (as with Cuba) waiting until the day after the fall of the dictator could be too late, and (2) given the acute conditions in Zimbabwe today, this response cannot be limited to traditional development practice but must be informed by recent post-conflict experiences. While Zimbabwe presents unique challenges of its own, the lessons learned from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, East Timor, El Salvador, Liberia, and Mozambique can be instructive in thinking about how to respond to a post-Mugabe era.

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