Zimbabwe’s disputed election: why resource politics matter

Here we go again…. Zimbabwe has a disputed election, with all sorts of deeply damaging uncertainties that will follow, perhaps for years.

The final results were announced late at night on 26 August, with Emerson Mnangagwa declared the winner of the presidential poll with 52.6% of the vote, and Nelson Chamisa coming second with 44%. The parliamentary results had already been announced, with ZANU-PF winning 136 seats and the CCC winning 73, importantly denying ZANU-PF a two-thirds majority. The presidential inauguration is happening today.

Disputed elections in Zimbabwe have been a regular occurrence. But this one was chaotic in the extreme, with the Zimbabwe Election Commission not coming off well. There was a catalogue of complaints from questions about the voters’ roll, gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, media bias, misleading advertising, inequities in election funding, late delivery of ballot papers in opposition strongholds, intimidation of voters, the placement of exit poll desks by ruling party-allied groups. The list goes on. International press reports (see here, here, here and here) comment extensively on the irregularities.

The opposition claims that the vote was rigged and that the presidential election was ‘stolen’, while they (slightly strangely) seem to accept the parliamentary results. Proof of rigging requires the cross-checking of the infamous V11 forms, but these have not yet all been provided. Disputing the numbers is one strategy, but without full evidence goes nowhere as the CCC seem to have judged as no Constitutional Court case has been proposed. Instead, along with many commentators, the international observer teams commented mostly on the conduct and alleged illegitimacy of the overall vote (see here, here, here and here).

All observer teams in their initial reports had a broadly similar view and crucially the normally supportive SADC and AU teams were highly critical, with these positions being echoed by local election monitoring groups. This leaves the election result hanging, and everyone awaits the final reports. Without regional and international acceptance of the result it will be difficult to govern effectively.

A divided nation

The announced results of course were not very different to what everyone expected, including many of those in the opposition, and were certainly broadly in line with earlier polling. ZANU-PF won in the rural areas outside Matabeleland North and parts of Manicaland, while the CCC won in the urban centres, including claiming all the 12 Bulawayo seats, as their candidates there had been reinstated following a court dispute over registration. ZANU-PF remains a rural (mostly Mashonaland) party and people will continue to vote for it, partly because amongst the councillors and MPs there are some very committed candidates chosen through effective primary elections.

Questions of land, agriculture and rural development are the top priorities, themes that the opposition has historically been poor at engaging with. Even if the main parties’ policies are quite similar, as discussed in the last blog, many don’t trust the opposition on issues of land given their track-record. In the numerous discussions on the election that I have seen on social media, online and in the newspapers, this key rural dimension is barely discussed. Land and resources matter – and, as someone put it succinctly, it was the peasants and the squatters who won.

However, amongst these quite predictable patterns, there were some surprises. The finance minister, Mthuli Ncube didn’t get a seat in Bulawayo, for example, and various other ZANU-PF big-wigs who had pumped money into their campaigns lost. Votes were split in some areas with multiple opposition candidates competing, and some of these were apparently stooge candidates aiming to do just this.

But overall, despite the disputed process of candidate selection and organisation without structures that the opposition followed under the banner of ‘strategic ambiguity’, the CCC did remarkably well. And this despite the uphill struggle of organised state hostility, not being the incumbent and with no significant funds. The number of seats gained increased from the 2018 election and the presidential result was very respectable, even though some key former MPs, notably Tendai Biti, never got selected by the party and so will sadly not be in parliament.

We will have to wait to see if any other court challenges are made, what observer groups say in their final reports and what behind-the-scenes pressures are applied by regional leaders, but what is clear is that many are unhappy with the result. Once again Zimbabwe is split in two – rural and urban, to some extent older and younger, and increasingly ethnically divided. This is far from healthy and hopefully compromises will be made to bring different sides together, even if a formal national unity government is unlikely.

Alliances and alignments

A key choice for ZANU-PF will be whether it rides out the storm or makes concessions in the spirit of compromise and in order to create stability. Much will depend on how the political (and military) elite in ZANU-PF judges the importance of allying with the West and seeing an end to sanctions and a debt deal or whether they simply don’t care.

Some argue that the form of corrupt extractive politics that dominates Zimbabwe – led by the ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ as Ibbo Mandaza calls them – means that being in power is enough so that resource looting can continue. As long as there are other allies and sources of international capital who can back them, notably the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and of course the ANC as the other ‘liberation’ party in the region, then the status quo can continue.

This bigger picture matters, as alliances and political alignments are crucial – and importantly are rapidly shifting. Coincidently the Zimbabwe election happened at the same time as the BRICS summit was held in Johannesburg, when new members were admitted (including Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Argentina). Strong statements about a new alignment of political and economic forces were made, suggesting (perhaps rather hopefully at this stage) that the bloc was a new force to take on the West and challenge the hegemony of the US dollar.

While Zimbabwe is a small and insignificant player in this international scene, there are links between the two events as Zimbabwe contemplates another potentially prolonged period of political and economic instability. The sanctions that have crippled the economy over the past 20 years (along with economic incompetence and rampant corruption of course) are unlikely to be lifted if the international consensus remains that the election was illegitimate.

Many of the complaints levelled at the Zimbabwe election are of course the same as in many other parts of the world (including of course the US and Europe, as well as other parts of Africa), but such double standards do not matter when Zimbabwe is being judged against strict ‘good governance’ criteria, with the West setting the terms.

The gloss that President Mnangagwa acquired following the ‘coup’ in 2017 (perhaps somewhat naively promoted by some Western diplomats) has long gone. He will have to work much harder to regain commitments from the doubters in the West, and the conduct of this shambolic election certainly has not helped. Maybe he judges it doesn’t matter if the investors from elsewhere can come to the rescue.

Resource politics

This is where the politics of resources comes in. Zimbabwe is rich in minerals and has good agricultural land. Cecil Rhodes knew this, and so do the Chinese, Russians and others. The expose by the Al Jazeera documentary, The Gold Mafia, laid bare the way mineral wealth is appropriated and exported through a complex web of players, with strong political connections. This is a way of avoiding sanctions, while ensuring the amassing of vast private wealth. Lithium is another crucial resource, as global demand sky-rockets. Already the Chinese dominate lithium mining in Zimbabwe, making it the biggest supplier in Africa of a metal that is crucial for batteries and the global energy transition. With six mines operational in Zimbabwe, the Chinese are becoming the world lithium leader and the US are nowhere to be seen.

But a reliance on Chinese (as well as other non-Western) investment is insufficient, as the terms do not result in significant benefits locally, even if key players in the ‘comprador’ elite make a mint. Relying on such investment for national regeneration would be a naïve punt, and one that has not paid off so far ever since President Mugabe’s hopeful ‘Look East’ policies.

Struggles over resources – for mining and agriculture in particular – will become central to the way the next steps play out, whoever the Zimbabwean state allies with. Land issues will therefore be key, just as they were in Cecil Rhodes’ day. We can expect more land grabs for mining investments and more calls for joint ventures and large-scale farming as part of any attempts to create an economic revival under continued difficult circumstances.

Will these continue to be Chinese, Indian, Russian maybe Iranian, or will the West return to the fold? In a bankrupt economy and one in desperate need of investment, as ever resource politics are never far away in Zimbabwe.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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