In his 2015 international diplomatic thriller “Minute Zero,” former deputy assistant secretary of state and national bestselling author Todd Mossimagines a moment of extreme national disruption in the Southern African nation of Zimbabwe following a disputed election.
In his fictionalized account, he exposes the forces of good versus evil jockeying to define Zimbabwe’s future — the good, seeking to rid the country of a thirty-year dictator and the bad, determined to hold on to power at all costs.
Is fiction now becoming reality?
Even the ingenious Moss could not have predicted that Zimbabwe’s military generals and the ZANU-PF would be the architects of the demise of Robert Mugabe, the country’s 93-year old dictator.
On the contrary, Moss’ protagonists are a brave female opposition leader, a human rights advocate, a K-Street lobbyist, and a mid-level State Department bureaucrat. They ultimately out-maneuver the dictator and his co-conspirators, including a U.S. ambassador, insistent that his bosses at C Street in D.C. prized the constancy of a dictator over the uncertainty of a political transition.
Notwithstanding the plot line, the presumption of Moss’ novel, that a window of opportunity arises in a moment of instability, remains valid in this real-life crisis in Zimbabwe, and U.S. policy makers need to understand this, and take advantage.Robert Mugabe, who has maintained a firm control over the country for 37 years, has had many enablers including a self-propagated mythical stature as a post-independence fighter, a weak and disunified opposition, and a system of patronage which has enriched his party and military leaders. Mugabe has also been empowered by a compromising regional leadership body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC),which has consistently sided with Mugabe, arguing for stability over democracy.
In elevating his 52-year old wife, political novice Grace Mugabe, over his standing Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe went too far even for his political cronies in the ZANU-PF.
Corruption may be acceptable. A consistent and gross display of arrogance and entitlement by the first family could also be tolerated. But creating a family dynasty and leap frogging the leadership cue of those who have waited patiently for Mugabe to pass away marked the tipping point.
What is unfolding in the country is an internal political struggle for control of the party and Zimbabwe’s future. Robert Mugabe’s inner circle is imploding and we are witnessing an attempt to restore party succession to Vice President Mnanagagwa.
The tanks and army generals are props in what is likely to be a negotiated departure of the president. Even ZANU-PF knows that the regional leaders will tolerate many things, but not a military take-over. The latest news is that on Sunday Zanu-PF stripped from Mugabe his role as party leader.
In the capital city of Harare, ordinary Zimbabweans from all walks of life are out in the streets celebrating the demise of Mugabe’s rule and calling for a reclamation of their future. Not surprising of course given the ruin of this once-celebrated country under Mugabe, and the fact that Afrobarometer, Africa’s leading polling institution, found in its 2017 survey that 8 of 10 Zimbabweans support democracy.
Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics at Oxford University, says “autocratic leaders are facing a new and dynamic opposition.” Indeed, this is what we are also witnessing in Togo where the opposition has taken to the streets to demand term limits for a presidency which has been held by the same family for 50 years.
Whatever the original intent of the generals and their party allies, the door has been opened for a transition in Zimbabwe. The people have found their voice. And what matters now, as author Moss says, is seizing this “Minute Zero.” The United States has an essential role to play.
On Friday, during his first foray into Africa policy and diplomacy, at a three day Ministerial on Trade, Security and Governance in Africa, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Zimbabwe has an opportunity to set itself on a new path, one that must include democratic elections and respect for human rights.” He emphasized that the people of Zimbabwe must choose their government.
That’s a start Mr. Secretary. The United States needs to work urgently with its allies in Africa, including the African Union (AU) and SADC, to create the political space for fundamental change. Together, you and our African partners must resist the temptation to make a short-term play for peace and stability, and insist on a broadly inclusive transitional authority and internationally supervised elections. The United States could further use its convening power and fiscal leverage, to mobilize a package of assistance for a post-Mugabe transformation.
There is already an institutional framework in place in Zimbabwe to work with through the Platform for Concerned Citizens (PCC), a coalition of civil society groups, churches, academics, and professionals committed to the idea of a dialogue that could establish an inclusive National Transitional Authority to oversee a transition, including making institutional reforms and preparing the country for elections.
The end game in Zimbabwe is about more than the fate of a single country. As the New York Times suggest, it would signal the beginning of the end to leaders who have clung to power for decades in Africa — from Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to Eritrea and Uganda.
I watched the crisis unfold this week from my vantage point in the West African nation of Liberia, a country navigating its own moment of political uncertainty as it awaits a court ruling on the continuation of its presidential elections. I have asked around. Rodney Sieh, Editor of Front Page Africa seemed to summarize the collective views I heard the best.
“Mugabe’s predicament,” he told me, “is further evidence that the continent is growing weary of oligarchic-style governments and rulers who see the presidency as an inheritance. Look at Togo. See what is happening there. That is our past no longer. The chickens are coming home to roost.”