Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point?

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