In mature democracies elsewhere and even in some young democracies in Africa, elections are the central institution of democratic representative governments. Why? Because, in a democracy, the authority of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed. The fundamental rationale for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections. This is contrary to staged managed elections held by dictatorships and one-party governments to give their rule the aura of legitimacy in the face of public decent. In such elections, there may be only one candidate or a list of candidates, with no credible alternative choices. Such elections may offer several candidates for each office, but ensure through intimidation or rigging that only the government-sanctioned candidate is chosen. These are not democratic elections but a mere academic process of legitimising autocratic and repressive regimes.

Failure of Democracy in Zimbabwe, a Tragedy for SADC and Beyond

By Crisford Chogugudza (March 6, 2008)

For many years now Zimbabwe has repeatedly failed the democracy test and it appears there are no prospects that this test will ever be passed as long as president Mugabe and his moribund Zanu PF party are at the helm. In 1980, Zimbabwe became a shining example of a seemingly democratising country amongst a bunch of African autocracies, dictatorships and an absolute Monarchy in Swaziland. This ray of hope did not only earn the country a lot of respect from other countries, but it created the basis for Mugabe’s unprecedented reverence as a shrewd leader in the West, which resulted in him being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1990s.

However, little did the Queen know that ‘Sir Robert Mugabe’ would soon become an international Pariah? Today, Mr Mugabe is rated the world’s 4th worst dictator behind Omar al-Bashir of Sudan who has been in power since 1989, Kim Jong II of North Korea, in power since 1994, Than Shwe of Burma (Myanmar) in power since 1992, according to David Wallechinsky (2006), in consultation with Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Amnesty International, and Reporters without Borders. For the benefit of readers, a “dictator” is defined as a head of state who exercises arbitrary authority over the lives of his citizens and who cannot be removed from power through legal means. The worst commit terrible human-rights abuses. There are many civilian, military and monarchical dictators spread across the breath the African continent.

Why Democracy has Failed in Zimbabwe?

There are multifarious reasons why democracy has not been achievable in Zimbabwe and chief among which includes president Mugabe’s desire to impose life presidency in Zimbabwe. This idea seems to come and go at every elections and has been and continues to be championed by the deadwood part of Mugabe’s inner circle who cannot not survive politically on their own without his protection and appointment in parliament. This inner circle of deadwood and misguided scribes continue to subscribe to the political naivety that Zimbabwe cannot move forward without ‘Gushungo’ Mugabe. As long as these people some of whom are in charge of important political intuitions are still in positions of influence democracy will only be realised in Zimbabwe over Mugabe’s dead body, which is a tragedy for Zimbabwe. These people have for many years stifled the development of a voting and democratic culture in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans have for many years been considered as passive spectators of their own political processes. Zimbabwe has had election after election but yet nothing changes and the rural and perhaps the most gullible members of the electorate have been and continue to have their votes manipulated by the establishment. However, the majority in Zimbabwe today are increasingly becoming disillusioned because they do not see their vote making any positive difference to their lives. If democracy is only pronounced in terms of elections then Zimbabweans can forget ever testing democracy.

In mature democracies elsewhere and even in some young democracies in Africa, elections are the central institution of democratic representative governments. Why? Because, in a democracy, the authority of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed. The fundamental rationale for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections. This is contrary to staged managed elections held by dictatorships and one-party governments to give their rule the aura of legitimacy in the face of public decent. In such elections, there may be only one candidate or a list of candidates, with no credible alternative choices. Such elections may offer several candidates for each office, but ensure through intimidation or rigging that only the government-sanctioned candidate is chosen. These are not democratic elections but a mere academic process of legitimising autocratic and repressive regimes. The voting process in these kinds of elections is manipulated and results are doctored to reflect the wishes of the dictatorship. More often than not genuine international observers from credible institutions and countries such as the Carter Centre, UN, Transparency International, Amnesty International, EU, UK and USA among others are barred. It is paradoxical in the case of Zimbabwe that those in charge of running elections continue to preach democracy and transparency yet in practice they have presided over electoral fraud of grotesque proportions in previous elections. Some wonder why there have not been any changes at the Registrar General’s department and the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC).

Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argues that democratic elections are competitive. ‘’Opposition parties and candidates must enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters. Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Elections in which the opposition is barred from the airwaves, has its rallies harassed or its newspapers censored, are not democratic. The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair’’.

In Thomas Jefferson's ringing but shrewd phrase, the promise of democracy is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In Zimbabwe however, it is hard to imagine how the above values would fit into the political fabric. It appears that Zimbabweans have been reduced to beggars of democracy not natural custodians, as is the case elsewhere. When people ask for their political freedom, they get punished for it and this has led to many distancing themselves from the political process for fear of being victimised.

SADC and the State of Democracy in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is undoubtedly one of the most influential countries in SADC and the presence or lack of democracy in the country matters to the whole region. It is a fact that Investment flows into the SADC region have been significantly affected by the status quo in Zimbabwe. The harmonisation of policies in the region has not been effective due to the political volatility and high risks in Zimbabwe. Intra SADC trade has not significantly improved due to the political quandary and economic nightmares in Harare. South Africa-Zimbabwe trade volumes have been significantly affected due to lack of a viable economy in Zimbabwe and this has had ripple effects in the entire region. Zimbabwe is strategically located in the SADC region and the stability of the country is an imperative for the development of the region.

What Role can the International Community play in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe has lived under ‘sanctions’ for many years and the situation is unsustainable and as such the international community may have a role to play to save the economy there as well as halting the process of impoverishment. Zimbabwe is the only country in the world where you find very poor multi millionaires. SADC can help the situation by exerting more pressure on Mugabe and Zanu PF to ensure improvements in human rights abuses and the holding of free and fair elections where Candidates are free to campaign without harassment. SADC election protocols should be applied to Zimbabwe without adaptation. South Africa, quite possibly can exert more pressure on Mugabe hold free and fair elections of face rebuke by SADC as an organisation. The UN and EU who recently have been pressing for the Independence of a small unviable but important state of Kosovo can use the same level of enthusiasm to emancipate the suffering people of Zimbabwe. The new UN Secretary General in particular, must play a much bigger role in Zimbabwe, in a more aggressive manner than Kofi Annan’s policy of condemnation without action.


Since it has become clear that Mugabe and Zanu PF cannot be removed through the ballot, there is need for the UN, EU, UK and the US to change their policy on Zimbabwe. It appears that sanctions and the policy of international isolation of Mugabe and his cronies have not been successful. Infact, what has happened is that the majority of Zimbabweans are the ones directly affected by the targeted sanctions. If the West can afford to engage Gaddafi of Libya and Kim Jong ll of North Korea, honestly what can stop them engaging ‘little’ Mugabe for the sake of the suffering Zimbabweans. It appears, there are double standards when it comes to dealing with the Zimbabwean issue. The West is gradually drifting away and Zimbabwe now runs the risk of being a forgotten state for as long as Mugabe and his Zanu PF party are still in charge. Some argue that Mugabe could have survived the onslaught of the West if he had perhaps behaved like some of the benevolent dictators such as Mahatir Mohammed of Malaysia, who used his power to make his country prosperous not misdirecting the power of the state towards defenceless innocent civilians whose mere crimes are to ask for their freedom.

What Impact does the March Elections have on Zimbabwe?

There has been a lot of enthusiasm recently following Dr Makoni’s entry into the gladiatorial presidential contest, which for many years now has always been a duel affair between lethargic and calamitous Mugabe and the hugely popular but not very inspirational Morgan Tsvangirai. The two choices have not been very appealing though one would have preferred the later for obvious reasons. It appears this year’s presidential contest may change the course of politics though not in a significant way. Dr Makoni’s entry into the contest is a significant factor as his impact is likely to be felt in largely urban areas particularly, amongst the working class and Zanu PF moderates. These people are increasingly becoming disillusioned by Mugabe’s longevity in power and suspicious of his ambitions for a life presidency. Dr Makoni is a very intelligent, able and a tested leader but the big question remains, why did it take him so long to throw his hate into the race? Dr Makoni may be by far the most qualified person to lead Zimbabwe and repair several years’ damage inflicted on the country but politics being a game of numbers, he may not be able to garner enough votes to unseat his former boss and veteran octogenarian Zanu PF leader, Mugabe. It is reality that Dr Makoni has no solid grassroots base which Mugabe and Tsvangirai enjoy, and this may work against him. However, it is true that Dr Makoni’s task is difficult but certainly not impossible if he and his public supporters work hard. Hopefully, the MDC Mutambara factor will play a significant role in his bid for presidency. The most likely thing to happen is that Dr Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC candidate may share the urban vote and leave Mugabe with a narrow lead courtesy of the rural vote which is easy to manipulate.

Tsvangirai, MDC will certainly gain a significant proportion of the rural vote but it may not be enough to grant him tenancy at State House. On the whole, it appears Mugabe will sail through albeit with a very slender margin and become president for term due to the division of votes between Dr Makoni and Tsvangirai. The one thing for certain is that under free and fair elections Mugabe and Zanu PF will be lucky to win 30% of the vote in today’s political climate. No party will emerge with a clear majority in parliament and this may also lead to a kind of hung parliament, first of its kind in Zimbabwe.

Again, the above situation brings us back to the Kenyan elections of the 1990s in which the combined efforts of Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki failed to unseat Daniel Arap Moi. However, if the opposition is serious about changing the status quo, it is still not too late for either Dr Makoni or Tsvangirai to withdraw from the elections if either of them entertains any chance of unseating determined Mugabe. Some analysts are saying that the reason why Mugabe was not publicly angry with Dr Makoni’s candidature is because he knew for sure that his entry into the race would almost certainly be to his advantage.

My message to the people of Zimbabwe is that they should brace themselves for a situation similar to that of recent Kenya in which the elections results were seriously disputed and still being contested. Mugabe’s legitimacy after elections will be heavily contested if he wins elections as expected. Time has come for Zimbabweans to choose change than drift further into political wilderness. Change will not come if they vote for life presidency ahead of democracy and a new dispensation in Zimbabwe. Only Dr Makoni and Tsvangirai carry the hope for a future prosperous Zimbabwe and they need the support of every sensible and progressive minded Zimbabwean. It’s a pity that those of us in the Diaspora are only perceived by the establishment as mere footnotes of our own history in Zimbabwe, denied our democratic right to vote and consigned to political irrelevance.

In conclusion, once again, I wish to emphasise that time has now come for African leaders particularly those in SADC to call a spade a spade and stop dictatorships and the economic demise of Zimbabwe. The era of empty rhetoric and misguided solidarity at the expense of people’s lives should be condemned accordingly. It goes without saying that a stable, viable and democratic Zimbabwe has the potential to be the engine of economic growth and social development in the region. Zimbabwe enjoys the highest adult literacy rate in Africa at about 90% (OCED) and a very educated work force unparalleled in Africa. The above attributes coupled with the vast resources in the country provide a strong basis for significant economic development in the region, if democratic efforts are supported in Zimbabwe.

Crisford is a political commentator based in London, England.