HARARE - Calls for protests to back a push for long-overdue electoral reforms have put Zimbabwe on guard, with opposition leaders seeing an explosion of mass anger “soon”.
Yet to many, a sustained uprising, appears unlikely, at least for now.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told a news conference last week that imminent mass protests will serve as an ugly thorn in the Robert Mugabe regime’s side unless the nonagenarian hears the popular calls for political reform.
Despite the government’s warning to pro-democracy activists that their planned protests would be ruthlessly quashed, Tsvangirai said protesters are expected to take to the streets en masse if the governing party continued to spurn calls for talks to agree on a framework for a truly free, fair and credible election.
The Mugabe regime has sluggishly refused even the slightest modicum of reform, and ruled with impunity by subjecting any dissenters to harsh treatment.
“Beyond the deceptive veneer of a stable country is a monumental crisis of multiple proportions that could implode any moment,” Tsvangirai warned.
“Due to this government’s culture of repression and its unique capacity to successfully prevent people from expressing themselves, it would be folly for Africa and the world at large to mistake the people’s induced silence as a sign of stability in the country.
“What the world needs to appreciate is that when Zimbabweans eventually express themselves — as they certainly will, in the not-so-distant future — the implosion will engulf the entire Sadc region.
“The current false peace is just calm before the storm.
“Given the worsening situation, it is only a matter of time before things come to a head; and the international community should take heed.”
Yet, on the ground, there are few signs of preparation for the mooted mass protests.
Tsvangirai, a charismatic leader and former prime minister in the GNU that ran Zimbabwe between 2009 and 2013, said the imminent protests will add popular weight to the opposition’s bid to force political reforms.
With memories of how the regime used draconian measures to respond to past protests and the subsequent ruthless crackdown by authorities, to ordinary Zimbabweans, the significance of the planned opposition manoeuvres is hard to fathom, with many wary of State-led retribution at a time the opposition movement is weakened by a deep schism.
Analysts say the brute heavy-handedness of the reactionary Mugabe regime has discouraged many from protesting or speaking out, but mounting public animosity towards the regime shows no sign of letting up.
In a Constitutional Court application, two fringe opposition political parties the little-known Kisinoti Mukwazhe-led Zimbabwe Development Party (ZDP) and the Voice of the People president Moreprecision Muzadzi asked the Con-Court to force Mugabe to dissolve Cabinet and Parliament, citing gross incompetence and confidently said they expected widespread protests as the economy stutters.
“The applicants are of the opinion that taking into account the disgruntlement that has crept in the minds of the citizenry, riots and civil unrest are imminent unless respondent (Mugabe) dissolves his Cabinet and Parliament,” Mukwazhe said in his Con-Court affidavit.
Yet to many Zimbabwean analysts, the idea of an imminent outbreak of widespread insurrection, similar to those that are reshaping the Arab world, seems fanciful.
Some question whether the opposition is even serious in calling for the protests.
Piers Pigou, a Southern Africa senior consultant at international conflict prevention organisation International Crisis Group, said there is much speculation about a possible “Zimbabwean spring” in context of growing food insecurity and reduced or squeezed survival options, but said “a combination of limited faith in political leadership to galvanise a necessary coherence in opposition and a State security modus operandi that clamps down quickly on protests — not dissimilar to the kind of rapid reaction we see in Luanda from Angolan authorities — lends to sense that those suffering will seek alternatives as they adduce the cost-benefit of protest and the accompanying risks.”
“Having said that, we will see protests, especially amongst disenchanted youth and in urban areas; every situation has its tipping point, but has Zimbabwe reached its, as MT (Tsvangirai) is suggesting?” Pigou asked rhetorically.
“The last major protests were the food riots in 1997, although this was at a time when there was a more organised working class. MT may be correct that this is the calm before the storm, and it would be folly not to address the issues that are bubbling underneath, but current prognoses suggest the metaphorical boot will remain on the neck of the Zimbabwean populace, who will seek first and foremost a gasp of fresh air, before considering how they can tackle what is really responsible for their asphyxiation.”
Regardless, some people will probably take to the streets in response to the opposition call. Yet if past experiences of the 1997 and 2003 “mass action” is anything to go by, the participation will not be large. Opposition protests called in recent times have failed to galvanise large numbers.
Stephen Chan, professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said: “I doubt the protests will be large.
“There are very real issues in Zimbabwe, but many of them owe to external constraints as well as local inefficiencies, corruption and lack of finance. And the government cannot be blamed for late rains.
“What Morgan should do is advance technocratic ways forward and show he is more thoughtful than the government — that he has solutions.”
As the crisis deepens, security authorities are also said to be preparing for trouble.
The brute heavy-handedness of the governing Zanu PF has discouraged them from speaking out, but public animosity toward the regime shows no sign of letting up, analysts warn.
Worsening social, economic and political conditions have fuelled the momentum for change, and while the establishment owns billions in public assets and lives in grandeur, the majority of the population face a stagnate economic climate with limited job opportunities.
Dewa Mavhinga, a senior Africa researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said mass protests do not just happen on their own, they have to be organised and led, bringing masses together around a specific issue.
“If Tsvangirai is promising to lead mass protests from the front, then it is possible that there could be mass protests because the environment of extreme poverty, no jobs, and heavy taxation and oppression in the face of an uncaring government — is a ripe environment for protests,” Mavhinga said.
“What is needed is leadership to galvanise the masses.”
Tsvangirai said he was aware that the EU has decided to re-engage Zimbabwe but restated his position that the international community must not just re-engage without a framework.
“The world must insist on the need to respect the rule of law and the conditions sanctioned by Sadc to ensure that the next election is vaccinated from the periodic mischief that has blighted the credibility of all our elections,” the 63-year-old former trade unionist said.
This comes as Zimbabwe has struck a landmark deal with western multilateral institutions that would see it clear billions in arrears of unpaid debt, access new funds and end 15 years of international isolation.
Talks have reportedly been stepped up between Harare and its creditors following government’s pledge in Lima last year to repay $1,8bn-plus external debt.
Diplomats say there is an “increasing appetite” in the west, especially in the EU, to reengage Zimbabwe because of what might happen in the event of Mugabe leaving office.
“Any re-engagement must be accompanied by a stubborn insistence on universally accepted standards that ensure the guarantee of full freedoms and the enfranchising of the ordinary citizen,” Tsvangirai said.
“Any re-engagement must be alive to the past and present acts of omission and commission and the crimes committed against the innocent citizens of the people of Zimbabwe.”
So far, there is no indication that the Mugabe regime will yield, and every reason to expect that the next wave of protests will see unwarranted mass arrests, torture, and probably some casualties, analysts warn.