What’s the Deal With an Electoral Decree in Harare?

Hello All!

Some pundits are asking if the robbery is taking place early too

Some pundits are asking if the robbery is taking place early too

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that got its decree in blog-onomics.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the announcement by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe that this year’s presidential elections would be held much earlier than anticipated. The changes to the elections (if allowed to occur) would be significant for Zimbabweans and the prospect of democracy in the southern African country.

The Current: You think election fraud is bad in America…..

On June 13, President Robert Mugabe issued a presidential decree for Zimbabwe’s election  to be held on July 31 after the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruled on May 31 that the election must be held this year. Mugabe’s decree was immediately criticized by the Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) saying that neither Mugabe nor the court had the authority to set the election day via presidential decree. Further, by moving the elections to a date so soon, Tsvangirai and certain international rights groups are worried that important electoral changes won’t be made in time.

Overhauling the electoral commission, making a new voter roll, reforming the media and security forces are among the major reforms that observers say would be necessary for Zimbabwe to have fair elections. To make the process even murkier, Mugabe’s government has already barred any Western election observers – a move that worries peacekeepers that 2013 elections may mirror the violence and corruption of the 2008 elections. State security generals have already issued public statements that they would veto any transition of power away from Mugabe or his ZANU-PF party.

SA President Jacob Zuma won't be as pleased to greet Zimbabwean refugees

SA President Jacob Zuma won’t be as pleased to greet Zimbabwean refugees

In the 2008 elections, hundreds of refugees spilled over into South Africa and other neighboring countries after Tsvangirai supporters faced extreme violence from Mugabe’s security forces. At a meeting the weekend of June 15 regional diplomats in Southern African Development Community has now focused on the elections so that human right violations and refugee issues are not things these countries will have to deal with. In March, a new constitution was adopted that was supposed to limit executive power, but the absence of a peaceful and fair political process remains.

The adoption of a new constitution brought hopes of reform as the U.S. lifted sanctions on 2 banks, bilateral talks took place with the UK for the first time in a decade, and the EU lifted restrictions on most Zimbabwe officials and entities (excluding Mugabe and a mining corporation). Progress towards full democracy after Mugabe’s decree seems to slight the recent open handed gestures by the “Friends of Zimbabwe.” Mugabe’s latest move is a sign that unlike steps made in Myanmar, progress towards democracy has many more hurdles to clear.

Well that's new! It says in here we're a Republic!

Well that’s new! It says in here we’re a republic!

To understand the longevity and strong-fisted control of the Mugabe presidency and what his latest presidential decree could mean in this year’s election, we’ll take a look at Zimbabwe’s history and leadership under Robert Mugabe.

Pre-Colonial Kingdoms

The region now known as Zimbabwe was comprised of several different ethnic groups that spoke a similar language. Different peoples including the Shangni/Tsonga, Venda, Kalanga, Ndebele, Karanka, Zezuru, and others all resided in different regions of southeast Africa, but were frequently organized together by scholars and Europeans under one umbrella term of ‘Shona’ or ‘Ndebele’ to refer to their similar languages and cultures. This is similar to the Spanish referring to different native american groups with shared attributes such as ‘Pueblo’ and ‘Algonquin’.


A window into the Empire of the great stone city

Several great kingdoms emerged around these peoples starting with the Great Zimbabwe State and its ancient stone city – ‘Zimbabwe’ means Great Stone houses or buildings – to the successive kingdoms of Mutapa, Rozvi, and Ndebele.

These empires were built on agriculture, artisanry, and iron smithing and were also important centers of trade for southern Africa with far reaching lands such as the Middle East and even East Asia. These empires folded when they grew too large and became subject to coup plots and internal wranglings from different ethnic groups.

So, the region was multi-ethnic and had a rich history of central kingdoms with a relatively developed economy prior to encounters with Europeans.

Knights in Rhodesia

Though the Portuguese were the first Europeans to encounter the kingdoms within Zimbabwe in the 16th Century, their engagement was limited to Christian missionaries and trade until small-scale attempts to take over parts of the kingdom were repelled. It was the invasive land-grabbing activity of the Dutch Boers ‘Afrikaners’ and the colonial policy of the British that had a lasting impact on Zimbabwe.

Yawn... Dutch settler "republics" were such a Boer

Yawn… Dutch settler “republics” were such a Boer

The Afrikaners had been in southern Africa since the late 18th century, but faced with the unseemly prospect of being under the administration of the British crown and becoming Anglicized, branched out to the North to form their own separate republics, the Transvaal and Orange Free State (after fighting fierce battles with local native groups). Most native groups sided with the British during the Boer War (1898 – 1901) choosing the “lesser of two evils”

Colonial activity by the British significantly affected the development of the current Zimbabwean state and set in place non-democratic political institutions that continue to hinder economic development and full democracy.

whew! subjugating locals sure takes it out of you

whew! subjugating locals sure takes it out of you

In 1890, the British South Africa Company, under the leadership of Cecil Rhodes secured an imperial charter from the British government and sought to develop rich resources such as gold fields and diamond mines in Zimbabwe. Superior arms by the BSAC’s private army subdued serious resistance from the Ndebele kingdom but eventually, the colony of Southern Rhodesia, named after Rhodes was formed in 1901.

Serious rebellion to colonial tax demands occurred in 1896 when over 900 Europeans were killed by Ndebele and Shona resistors in a guerrilla style war known as the Chimurenga. This rebellion was smashed by the British imperial response and 9,000 Shona and Ndebele men, women, and children were killed. Ndebele Warriors were severely outmatched technologically as the Brussels Treaty of 1890 banned the sale of modern arms to sub-Saharan Africa and often pitted maxim guns (proto-machine guns) against spears and wooden shields.  In 1893, it took fifty British South Africa Police just an hour and a half to slaughter 3,000 Ndebele warriors.Northern_Rhodesian_Miners

While Rhodes’ economic ventures to mine gold and diamonds didn’t turn much of a profit for Southern Rhodesia, they did subject thousands of African laborers into slave labor like conditions and dependency. Meanwhile, white settlers from South Africa and other places crowded into S. Rhodesia for the fertile landscape and carved out the best plots under protection of force and law. In 1913, the South African Natives Land Act set aside just 13% of the land for Africans within British colonial dominion – a move that forced Africans to become wage laborers for the British companies or landholders instead of continuing to practice subsistence agriculture as they had.

Africans were forced into paying colonial taxes, and forced to travel great distances – either to white owned farms or companies as laborers. The ‘Color Bar,’ a set of apartheid laws similar to those in South Africa, prevented Zimbabwean workers and their families from living on the land that they worked. Even if they now had “access” to world markets through the British empire, most Africans were hardly in any position to exercise basic liberties, let alone own a thriving business.

Britain had an enormous impact on many parts of the continent of Africa, even if their intentions for colonialism were never more than politically strategic. The activity in Zimbabwe displays this effect marvelously. The British administration of Southern Rhodesia through the British South Africa Company had created extractive political institutions (taxation and low cost labor of the many for the benefit of the powerful few)- institutions that continued once Zimbabwe had fought and won its war for independence in 1980.

Fighting Apartheid

pointing the gun at independence

pointing the gun at independence

After British colonial efforts deteriorated following the Second World War, white landowners in Rhodesia declared independence from Great Britain in 1965. This conservative group, led by Ian Smith hoped to keep their society where a small white elite (5% of the population) controlled most of the wealth. While the UN levied sanctions against Rhodesia, Zimbabwean rebel groups waged an intense war against white rule. The two main groups were the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by General Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo.

Zimbabwean nationalism had grown out of labor movements for greater political and economic freedom for blacks within Rhodesia. Several different nationalist groups had formed during the post-War Rhodesian government and showed the relatively fragmented state of the independence groups – a climate that would reemerge after independence.

At attention for liberation

At attention for liberation

The struggle for independence did not spare civilians, livestock, infrastructure or much else and severely broke the economic engine of the country – a process that put civilians in a difficult position of trying to appease both the incumbent white Rhodesian government and the rebel guerrillas. The extent of damage and international pressure eventually forced Smith to negotiate an internationally brokered settlement which after the elections of 1980, created an independent Zimbabwean state.

Promises: Far from Fulfilled

In his address to the new nation, head of the ZANU goverment PM Robert Mugabe made these remarks just before the independence ceremony:

“Democracy is never mob rule. It is and should remain a disciplined rule requiring compliance with the law and social rules. Our independence must not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups of individuals with the right to harass and intimidate others into acting against their will. It is not the right to negate the freedom of others to think and act as they desire.”

the self portrait above was a tell-tale sign

the self portrait above was a tell-tale sign

But negate the people’s freedom is precisely what the Mugabe regime did by harassing and intimidating those who did not follow the wishes of his leadership.

Though Mugabe did overturn the dual black/white society that had relegated blacks to second class citizens, he did away with any chances of democracy by bulking up his personal power and instituting one party rule. He did this by violently eliminating opponents or corrupting them. As many as 20,000 people were killed in the early 1980s as supporters of the opposition Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU were subject to egregious acts of violent coercion. By 1987, Nkomo’s power had been diluted and the ZANU had merged with the ZAPU to create the ZANU-PF. Mugabe rewrote the constitution through his newfound “majority” rule in government and made himself president and abolished the senate in 1990 and made the legislative body by appointing the MPs himself.

Mugabe continued to use the economic system left in place by white ruled Rhodesia that, ironically, benefitted white landowners and elite supporters of ZANU-PF who were given lucrative state employment and benefits. Corruption was rampant as public funds were funneled to Mugabe and top ZANU-PF members. When the economy started to sour, instead of changing the economy to include less intervention by the state, Mugabe instead laid the blame on white landowners who still lived in Zimbabwe. Open season was wrought on the land and was quickly snapped up by ZANU-PF compatriots. The economy tanked in the 1990s as Mugabe printed money to pay off debts and the Zimbabwe dollar became worthless.

A prescient campaign button

A prescient campaign button

Election fraud was rampant and violence against opposition supporters was frequent. Inconceivable results like Mugabe winning 93% of the popular vote in 1996 as well as reports of ballot stuffing, double counting, and opposition candidates dropping out. Even as the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change has seen a significant decrease in support for ZANU-PF, their tactics to retain control have not ebbed despite international condemnation and sanctions.

Far from implementing a democracy that Mugabe had promised in his speech, he formed a one party dictatorship with complete economic control and suppression of freedoms and opposition. Instead of allowing all Zimbabweans to participate in an open economy, Mugabe retained the institutions that concentrated political and economic power in Rhodesia, only instead of the white elites benefiting, it was Mugabe and the ZANU-PF pocketing the spoils. Modern day Zimbabwe is one of the only countries where per capita income is lower now than it was in the 1960s.


Considering the rich history of wealth and empire and the abundance of natural resources, Zimbabwe could be a country leading the African and/or global economy. Yet despite their history and geography, Zimbabweans still live in a closed political climate and continues to rank near the bottom in all global development categories.

Why has Zimbabwe struggled to thrive economically and create a democracy to the present?

  • British colonial power backed private companies to develop in Zimbabwe while subjugating its people and creating a top down economic system that benefited a small white elite.
  • Instead of reversing colonial institutions upon independence, Mugabe kept them for the benefit of himself – policies that have hindered any economic development or private sector development.
  • Mugabe has used corruption and a strong-fisted response to any challenges to his power – efforts that have earned him international pariah status.

Mugabe’s decree this month shows yet again, that despite creating a new constitution, he is not ready to get rid of the infrastructure that brought himself great power while subjecting the majority of his people to extreme underdevelopment. Public services, especially education and health are abysmal and will only continue to be insufficient as long as the ZANU-PF does not change the system.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai's uncomfortable coalition

Will Mugabe and Tsvangirai look the other way in the 2013 election?

Tsvangarai and the MDC have seen a dropoff in their own popularity in recent years as their coalition government with the ZANU-PF from the 2008 election has yielded little change. But new elections that could actually pass and enforce the new constitution would open up the country’s resources and freedoms for all Zimbabweans. The international community would continue to loosen restrictions and world markets would once again be available. There certainly would be internal fighting and possible violence that Mugabe’s crackdowns prevented, but that should not be a deterrent for ridding the country of its dictatorship.

Will this happen though?

Only with enough pressure from surrounding countries, especially South Africa, will Zimbabwe move towards fair elections. This may be difficult to determine as election watchdogs are prohibited from following the election and entering Zimbabwe. So even if all the electoral changes are made and the elections pushed back to a reasonable time, elections could still be far from “free and fair.”

ZANU-PF security follows in Mugabe's footsteps

ZANU-PF security follows in Mugabe’s footsteps

The ZANU-PF security forces which violently repressed opposition supporters in the past have already proclaimed they wouldn’t accept anything except a ZANU-PF government. This spells trouble for the opposition and all Zimbabweans unless Mugabe prevented this – something history tells us is unlikely.

The situation in Zimbabwe has the potential to make a real democracy and it is worth seeing what happens as the political arguments intensify – arguments that have huge implications for Zimbabweans and their country’s development. Here’s to a violence-free election that fairly voices the opinions of the people.

Until the next postponed election,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:







The British Imperial Century, Timothy Parsons

Why Nation’s Fail, Daron Acemeglu, James Robinson


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Africa, colonialism, Elections, International Affairs, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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