The International Republican Institute (IRI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established in 1983 that is committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide. Since the early 1990s, IRI has supported pro-democracy activists in their struggle to bring real and lasting democratic reform to Zimbabwe, with activities including capacity-building support for democratic political parties, public opinion research, civic education, and fostering citizen and civil society engagement with local elected officials to address service delivery challenges.
Over the course of the last four months, Zimbabwe has turned a page in its political history. On the evening of 14 November 2017, several leaders within the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) led a coup d'état against the government of Robert Mugabe, which led to Mugabe grudgingly resigning the presidency. Just two weeks ago today, the Zimbabwean opposition leader and former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai succumbed to his battle with cancer – a significant loss to Zimbabweans’ struggle for greater democracy in their country.
Zimbabwe has arrived at a critical waypoint in its journey toward democracy. The departure of Mugabe and Tsvangirai has upset the political order and left a leadership vacuum. Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) had already been engaged in succession battles prior to Mugabe’s resignation and Tsvangirai’s passing, and while some see the present situation as an opportunity for positive change, it is also a very fragile time for both the opposition and ruling factions. The next 6-12 months will prove decisive in determining the trajectory of Zimbabwe's democratic development.
Between the start of the military coup on November 14, 2017 and Mugabe's resignation on November 21, thousands of Zimbabweans poured onto the streets of Harare in a euphoric expression of free speech, shouting "Mugabe must go." This experience encouraged reformers and democracy activists to push for more significant change in the post-Mugabe period. While Mugabe’s ouster was an important moment, it is important not to overstate its impact in achieving democratic change. At the same time Zimbabweans were on the streets clamoring for democratic change, the leaders of the coup were busy negotiating with ZANU-PF on plans for a tightly controlled non-democratic transition.
Today, ZANU-PF remains in full control of Zimbabwe's governing institutions and has chosen Mugabe's former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who Mugabe fired in the days prior to his resignation, to serve as Zimbabwe's third president. In many ways, the country's leadership has engaged in an exercise of simply shifting the deck chairs. Mnangagwa, known from his days in the liberation struggle as the "Crocodile," was also Mugabe's Minister of Defence and Minister of Justice. While in charge of the country's security and intelligence apparatus, he is widely believed to have played a central role in Gukurahundi – a series of massacres of Ndebele citizens by the Zimbabwe National Army from 1983 to 1987.
Mnangagwa’s reputation precedes him, leaving many skeptical of the prospect for genuine democratic reform under his leadership. In fact, one of his first acts as president represented just how little has changed since Mugabe's resignation. He appointed a new 22-member cabinet that included ZANU-PF hardliners with strong links to the liberation struggle and several military leaders who led the coup that put Mnangagwa into power. For instance, General Major Sibusiso Moyo, the soldier who announced Mugabe's ouster on the state broadcaster – now occupies a crucial cabinet post as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
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