The “Power-Sharing” Trap

Issue Date April 2015
Volume 26
Issue 2
Page Numbers 170-173
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

Power Politics in Zimbabwe. By Michael Bratton. Lynne Rienner, 2014, 281 pp.

Michael Bratton, Afrobarometer’s founder and now one of its senior advisors, has written a powerful and deeply personal book about Zimbabwean politics that also yields considerable comparative insights for students of democracy in other parts of Africa. Bratton was born in 1949 in what was then called Rhodesia, and spent his formative years [End Page 170] there. While growing up, he became keenly aware of the overwhelming injustices that prevailed in his country and of his own privileges. This experience has nourished his career as a leading Africanist who has always shown a deep respect for the voices and political aspirations of Africans themselves.

But Bratton’s own circumstances aside, what drives this book is Zimbabwe’s catastrophic decline since its liberation from first colonial and then white-minority rule. The country last drew a Partly Free rating from Freedom House in 2001, and since then has been stuck in Not Free territory, with ratings for political liberties and civil rights that cluster around 6 (on a scale where 7 is the worst score). Can the violent and patronage-ridden legacy of colonization and liberation that so burdens Zimbabwe ever be overcome? Bratton wants to know, not only because he is a scholar and intellectual, but also because he aches to see the land of his birth gain a purchase on a better future.

About the Author

Pierre Englebert is H. Russell Smith Professor of International Relations at Pomona College and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. He is coauthor (with Kevin C. Dunn) of Inside African Politics (2nd ed. 2019).

View all work by Pierre Englebert

After a brief introduction to the concepts of “power politics” (force and bullying, mostly) and “political settlements” (inclusive elite coalitions built around power-sharing agreements), which provide the book with its analytical underpinnings, Bratton sketches his main argument: The fundamental “power politics” nature of Zimbabwe’s successive regimes since colonization (but particularly since 1980) has choked off prospects for inclusive, credible, and lasting power-sharing settlements, whatever donors and other well-intentioned outside actors may have hoped. To fill in this picture, Bratton provides a historical overview that moves from the days of political settlements (colonial and postindependence) to the crisis of 2000–2008, when the long-ruling regime of President Robert Mugabe met democratic aspirations with stepped-up violence and repression.

Then Bratton analyzes the unusual and dramatic power-sharing pact that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) formed with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) between 2009 and 2013. His account provides a wealth of analysis of the various dimensions of the power-sharing period: the 2013 constitutional revision, the electoral system and the 2008 and 2013 elections, the sheer domination of the security apparatus over national politics, and the difficulties of transitional justice. To conclude, Bratton revisits some of the theoretical and policy implications that he has raised.

There is more that is excellent and insightful in this book than a brief review can adequately reflect. Bratton asks how the increasingly cornered Mugabe regime, which found itself forced to share power with the opposition after the violent debacle of the 2008 elections, nevertheless managed to come out on top four years later, with Mugabe crushing Tsvangirai 61 to 34 percent and regaining full control of the state. What can this outcome teach us about Zimbabwe, power-sharing, and democratization in Africa? [End Page 171]

One of Bratton’s most compelling arguments has to do with the “path dependence” that tends to inhere in autocracies such as the one under which Zimbabwe was born 35 years ago. Autocratic rulers worthy of the name capture the state. Unsurprisingly, they do not make for credible partners in power-sharing agreements. This pattern of autocrats pretending to share power certainly dates back to colonial Rhodesia, and may even date back to some of the societies that preceded colonial rule (pp. 34–36). It was visible in the travesty of power-sharing that marked the white-dominated Ian Smith regime (with its “moderate” black representatives), and could be seen as well in the Lancaster House agreements of 1980 between Mugabe, his rival Joshua Nkomo, and representatives of the white minority. The disquieting question to which Bratton keeps implicitly returning—and which stands in contrast to Bratton’s most hopeful work with the Afrobarometer—is whether the colonial legacy of the African state can ever admit of reform. Mugabe retained for a time a vast chunk of the repressive legal and institutional arsenal left over from colonial rule and the Smith regime, including the colonial-era Law and Order Maintenance Act. In view of this, it becomes hard to fathom why Tsvangirai ever accepted a power-sharing deal with such a partner.

A propensity for repression and a “militaristic ethos” (p. 37) form large parts of this autocratic legacy. Reading Bratton’s account of all this is wrenching. As a student of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I am all too familiar with the Kabila regime’s appalling human-rights record. Opposition candidates and civil society activists in the DRC often face intimidation and imprisonment, and may even be disappeared or simply murdered. Yet Kabila’s repression is elementary compared to that of the Mugabe regime. In Zimbabwe, security forces create “no-go areas” where they can rampage with impunity; gangs and militias wreak violence on those deemed disloyal, raid businesses, and extort payments; and oppositionists are hurled out of office windows while their wives are executed. In 2000 and 2001 alone, Zimbabwe witnessed 16 politically motivated murders, 256 abductions, 1,485 assaults, 1,476 threats of assault, and more than 6,000 displacements. In 2008, security forces launched “Operation How Did You Vote?” The goal was to “kill MDC officials and polling agents” in what Bratton rightly refers to as an episode of “electoral cleansing” (p. 89). In the end, “up to 200 MDC officials and supporters” were killed (p. 90). While violence might have peaked in 2008, Bratton shows convincingly that it has always been a building block of the regime, starting with the liberation war, followed by the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s, and then continuing with efforts to crush democratization after 1990. Chapter 10 offers a chilling list of the number of formal and informal security agencies that exist to do the regime’s dirty work and carry out its depredations. [End Page 172]

This security state—which also steals the country’s diamonds through direct occupation of certain mines—was largely responsible for the failure of Tsvangirai and the MDC to capitalize on their participation in the 2009–2013 power-sharing agreement. Other reasons for the MDC loss were massive fraud (with votes cast exceeding voters registered, even though around a million voters were turned away from the polls), divisions and lack of democracy within the MDC, and a failure by the MDC to take credit for and capitalize upon the improvement in economic conditions. In this respect, while Bratton clearly indicts the Mugabe regime, he does not give the MDC a free pass. Yet as Bratton acknowledges, there seems to be little hope of genuine change while the liberation-war generation, headed by the nonagenarian Mugabe, remains in office (p. 208).

Although far from Bratton’s prime focus, his discussions of the role that customary chiefs played in shoring up autocratic rule at key moments (in 1925, 1943, 1966, and 1988) are of particular interest. This is especially so at a time when the alleged indigenous authenticity of African chiefs is receiving much attention from reformers eager for “local solutions” and “institutional ownership.” In Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent, many chiefs appear to have acted on behalf of incumbents—securing compliance and silencing dissent—rather than on behalf of local people with views to present. In Zimbabwe, to put it bluntly, many chiefs appear to have benefited from their subjects’ misery.

Michael Bratton has offered us an instant classic of Zimbabwe studies, with implications reaching well beyond the borders of that troubled place. His critique of donors who tend to invest irrational hopes in “power-sharing” is stringent and compelling. His searching exploration of how one country exemplifies the structural barriers to democratization in postcolonial Africa is deeply researched and masterfully articulated. His book is highly recommended, especially at a time when an aging Mugabe seems to be doing all he can to ensure that his clan, if not his immediate family, will remain the captor of the Zimbabwean state after he is gone. [End Page 173]