Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina: The tipping point?


Pretoria/Brussels, 17 August 2005

  • Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) cost some 700,000 Zimbabweans their homes or livelihoods or both and otherwise affected nearly a fifth of the troubled country's population. Its impact, as documented in a scathing UN report, has produced a political shock that has returned Zimbabwe to the international spotlight and made the quality of its governance almost impossible for its regional neighbours to ignore, however difficult they find it to be overtly critical. While an immediate requirement is to reverse as thoroughly as possible the disastrous humanitarian effects of the operation, action is urgently needed to address Zimbabwe's larger governance problem. This will require efforts on three parallel tracks -- the maintenance of overt international pressure, support for building internal political capacity and, above all, active regional diplomacy to facilitate political transition.

Kofi Annan's initiative to send Anna Tibaijuka, the Tanzanian director of UN Habitat, as his Special Envoy to report on the two-month military style campaign, has explicitly confronted the international community, in Africa and beyond, with its responsibility to help protect the people of Zimbabwe. Her findings show that the Zimbabwe government collectively mounted a brutal, ill-managed campaign against its own citizens. Whatever its intent -- the urban clean-up claimed by authorities, or more sinister efforts to punish and break up the political opposition lest resentment explode into revolution -- that campaign has exacerbated a desperate situation in a country already sliding downhill for a half-decade.

That much is clear, as is Zimbabwe's need for outside engagement, both for the sake of its own people and because the implosion that Murambatsvina has brought dramatically nearer would shatter the stability of southern Africa. The government lacks the resources, and has yet to prove it has the genuine will, to repair the immediate humanitarian damage. While this is not the time to be offering it any concessions, and certainly no development aid should flow until there is significant political and economic reform, traditional humanitarian relief principles require that donors offer assistance to those needing it. But they should take care that any such assistance is not diverted to serve ZANU-PF's political purposes.

Zimbabwe's own political forces are increasingly stalemated. The ZANU-PF party, already discredited in the eyes of many inside and outside the country for what the UN report starkly described as a decline in the rule of law as well as egregious economic mismanagement and human rights abuse, is deep into a fight for succession to Robert Mugabe, and playing an internal blame game on Murambatsvina as part of that internecine struggle.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is preoccupied with leadership controversies of its own and existential strategy debates in the wake of defeat in March in yet another rigged election. Inability to influence Murambatsvina has cost it much confidence in itself and among its supporters, and the party badly needs to refocus and reform. Some important backers in Zimbabwe's business community are showing interest in exploring a new "third force" party, but there is little sign of that gathering momentum.

Non-Africans, whether the U.S., the European Union and its Member States, or members of the Commonwealth, lack leverage to do much about this immediate situation. They can and should maintain international pressure for change by the mostly symbolic means at their disposal, including tougher targeted sanctions against key ZANU-PF figures, and rigorous monitoring of human rights abuses with a view to pursuing remedial measures in the appropriate international forums: such efforts force the ZANU-PF government to pay at least some cost for misdeeds and help keep Africa committed to genuine resolution of the problem. They should also seek ways, in consultation with local and regional players, to build up the long-term political capacities of Zimbabwean civil society.

But the heavy lifting -- if it is to be done -- must come from African states and institutions. They should receive understanding and support from the wider international community to conduct regional diplomacy in their own preferred quiet way -- provided that diplomacy is real and not just an excuse for allowing a dangerous situation to drift. Pretoria and other key African capitals should work, preferably under African Union auspices, to put together a team of distinguished former presidents to mediate a genuine and generous compromise that could start Zimbabwe toward new governance and new elections.


To pursue constructive change through regional diplomacy:

1. South Africa should work with Nigeria and other African states, if possible through the African Union's Peace and Security Council and with the support of other African institutions, to establish a mission of distinguished former African presidents to explore with President Mugabe, ZANU-PF, the MDC and other political forces in Zimbabwe a political transition strategy, which might involve a dignified option for withdrawal of President Mugabe from an active political role, creation of a credible government of national unity, a period for new or revised political groupings to form and, ultimately, properly internationally supervised elections.

2. The Zimbabwe government, ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) should adopt open and constructive attitudes to efforts by South Africa, Nigeria, other African states and African institutions to mediate an end to the national political stalemate.

3. South Africa should also apply conditionality concerning at least economic reform to the credit line it proposes to extend to Zimbabwe and require a monitoring mechanism so it can assure itself that the conditions are being met and the money is being used for the intended purposes.

4. The United States, the European Union and its Member States, the members of the UN Security Council, and the wider international community should support the efforts of South Africa, other African states and African institutions to conduct meaningful regional diplomacy with Zimbabwe, including efforts to pursue political mediation such as that outlined in recommendation 1 above.

To build political capacity:

5. South Africa and other African states, African institutions, the United States, the European Union and its Member States, and other interested members of the international community should engage in stepped up programs of assistance to democratic forces with a view to developing over time a stronger civil society, a more democratic polity and a generally more effective political class.

6. Zimbabwe civil society should seek the unity and regeneration of the pro-democracy movement, including by supporting elections for the leadership of the opposition at the earliest possible time.

To maintain international pressure for constructive change:

7. The United States, the European Union and its Member States, the members of the UN Security Council, and the wider international community should: (a) expand targeted sanctions such as visa refusals and asset freezes against senior government and ruling party figures and implement them more rigorously until there is meaningful progress on human rights and political reform; (b) encourage independent expert investigations, including by special rapporteurs, of allegations of serious human rights abuse, such as misuse of food aid for political purposes and torture of detained political opponents, with a view to pursuing remedial measures in the appropriate international forums; and (c) give no developmental assistance until there has been some meaningful progress toward political and economic reform, and then only upon the condition that specific further benchmarks are met.

To reverse the immediate humanitarian impact of Operation Murambatsvina:

8. The Zimbabwe government should take comprehensive action to implement in full the recommendations of the report of the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy (the Tibaijuka Report), including: (a) compensating those whose property was unlawfully destroyed, creating an environment for effective relief, reconstruction and resettlement, and ensuring unhindered access of humanitarian workers and delivery of aid to victims of the operation; (b) holding to account those responsible for planning and executing the operation, including through prosecution where laws were broken; and (c) respecting its international obligations to protect the rights of refugees and granting full citizenship to former migrant workers residing for a long period in Zimbabwe and their descendants.

9. The African Union, Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Zimbabwe's regional neighbours should make clear their expectations that Zimbabwe will implement fully the recommendations of the Tibaijuka Report.

10. The African Union should encourage the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights to investigate whether Operation Murambatsvina breached Zimbabwe's obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

11. The World Bank should conduct a comprehensive investigation of the economic consequences of Operation Murambatsvina with a view to assessing reconstruction, resettlement and recovery needs.

12. The United States, the European Union and its Member States, the members of the UN Security Council and the wider international community should insist that the Zimbabwe government implement fully the Tibaijuka Report recommendations, place the matter on the agenda of the Security Council for periodic review, and offer humanitarian assistance to the extent necessary, provided such aid can be delivered to the needy without unacceptable government interference and adequate monitoring mechanisms are in place to prevent diversion.

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