Zimbabwe: Pandora’s box opened

I have followed, with great interest, the timeline travelled by the unique developments in Zimbabwe over the leadership of (Ex) President Robert Mugabe. The developments have ended with the popular acclamation of a new leader, however the preceding events have been utterly intriguing and worrying. Chief among them is the very unusual international media response. Many shied away from labelling what happened a coup d’état. Some reports have been clear in calling it a coup but others have tried to avoid using the term, preferring rather to call it a military takeover. With a new leader in place, the risk is now very high that we may misunderstand what these developments mean for stable constitutional governance in Africa. In this article I argue that, by channelling an unconstitutional event through a constitutional process, this scenario creates a new source of headache for international governance norms and re-illustrates the Greek myth of a Pandora’s box opened once again into the continental political troposphere.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (L) and his wife Grace at a rally at Chubuku stadium in Chitungwiza town about 35km south of Harare, July 16, 2013. Zimbabwe goes to the polls on July 31.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (L) and his wife Grace at a rally at Chubuku stadium in Chitungwiza town about 35km south of Harare, July 16, 2013. Source: :DandjkRoberts

Fundamental to this problem is the difficulty to label what has happened as a coup d’état. The online  Encyclopaedia Britannica  defines a coup as “a sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group”. Considering this definition, it should not be difficult to label this as a coup.  It was relatively sudden, was perpetrated by a small military group, and was violent because of the forceful detention of the head of state. The overthrow of (Ex) President Mugabe’s leadership may not have been sudden, but that was clearly the intended objective of the plotters. So; Yes. I consider it an attempted coup d’état (a putsch).

Nevertheless, it is important to understand the rational choice of the military actors to avoid signalling this as a coup. Such a signal would have called for the African Union (AU) to suspend the membership of Zimbabwe under a joint inspiration from its July 2000 Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government and the January 2007 African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance (ACDEG). Similarly, the resultant government would have been ostracised and limited in economic and diplomatic engagements with the wider international community. If that had happened, the military actors would probably not have been enjoying the ongoing praise-singing of many Zimbabweans. So, things needed to be done in a cunning way; exactly the way they did it. Without prejudice to the simmering rumours that this coup may have been externally planned, it seems to me that coup plotting in Africa is taking a new turn and (potential) plotters may begin adopting new forms of agency.

In respect of this, the layers and hatchers of the ‘Zimbabwean’ plan had carefully thought about how to circumvent the international norms that prohibit the unconstitutional changes of government. To their credit, they have succeeded in unconstitutionally changing a government without attracting the sanctions that are prescribed for it. To the discredit of international norms however, they have been impotent to deal with such craftiness. For example, the Lome Declaration and ACDEG (Art. 23) define unconstitutional changes in government as any of such: (i) a military coup d’état or putsch against a democratically elected Government; (ii) intervention by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected Government; (iii) replacement of democratically elected Governments by armed dissident groups and rebel movements; (iv) the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and regular elections; (v) any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.

Definitions IV and V are inapplicable to the Zimbabwean situation. Definition III does not fit because the active military elements did not seek to assume leadership. The scenario hangs between definitions I and II, but II is less applicable because those who intervened do not fit into the category of mercenaries. For the fact that there was a sudden military intervention against the actions of a democratically elected leader, this ordinarily would have been unanimously accepted as a coup, and attracted international condemnation. Yet, the plotters’ acknowledgement of  Pres. Mugabe’s sustained authority over the Zimbabwean Defence Forces doused the seriousness of the intervention, the eventual constitutional process that followed lowered that seriousness even further and now the popularity of the outcome has totally whitewashed the issue. Very few seem to remember now that this military intervention has led to a change of government, which was unlikely to have happened without it.  

I am concerned about this development in Zimbabwe because of the political peer-learning I have referred to in another article. If this attempted coup goes unsanctioned due to the technical issues I have raised in this article, it could motivate other similar events on the continent and reverse the efforts towards promoting stable constitutional governance in Africa. (Ex) President Mugabe may have overstayed his welcome in office, or may have stifled freedoms in Zimbabwe, but he was still the (de jure) democratically elected and constitutionally empowered leader of the Zimbabwean state and his rights were equal to that of any of his counterparts on the continent and beyond.

To conclude, we need to be minded that in many African countries, there is either a one-party or two-party dominance within a multi-party environment. Hence, the bid to become head of state is reduced to intra-party struggles rather than multi-party competitions. For that matter, ‘palace-coup-like’ events such as what we have observed in Zimbabwe may become the new evils emanating from this ‘new’ example of unconstitutional changes of government unless the international community is proactive in dealing with them.

Dennis Penu

Dennis Penu

Staff Writer at InPRA
Dennis Penu is a Ghanaian, and a Principal Research Assistant with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He holds an advanced master's degree in Governance and Development studies from the University of Antwerp in Belgium and a research master’s degree in Peace and Development Studies from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
Dennis Penu

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