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Culture

Valentin Bianki: For Africa, the cost of the West’s friendship exceeds the benefit

The election results in Zimbabwe almost replicate the situation five years ago, and this allows us to draw an important conclusion about Africa

By Valentin Bianki, PhD in political psychology, leading expert of Center for African Studies, HSE University 

A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Mabvuku suburb on August 23, 2023 in Harare, Zimbabwe. ©  Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images

These days, a rather stable trend is emerging – African countries strive to build relations with all the major players in world politics, but they choose to become partners with those countries that give Africa the freedom to remain itself, without imposing conditions. The continent wants to cooperate with countries that offer real partnership and interaction, not subordination. For Zimbabwe, these are primarily BRICS countries rather than the West, as the presidential election this August has clearly demonstrated. 

This was the second election in Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe was removed from power. This year’s presidential race was won by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who gained 53% of the vote. His competitor, Nelson Chamisa, received 44%. The election went smoothly for the most part, even though the opposition did not recognize the results. However, it was quite unusual that the main candidates, the election results, and the opposition’s claims were all nearly identical to the situation that developed during the 2018 campaign. At the time, Mnangagwa received 51% of the vote, and Chamisa received 45%, while protests by the opposition and its decision to challenge the results in court did not yield any results. Although apparently nothing new happened this time, the election results demonstrate important new trends in the region.

First of all, it is noteworthy that the political and media significance of Zimbabwe greatly surpasses both the size of its economy and its economic success. The country has become infamous for inflation (in 2005, inflation almost reached 25,000%), as well as the almost record number of sanctions imposed on it by Western countries. Zimbabwe’s political history is also quite intense – unlike many countries that easily gained independence in the 1960s, Zimbabweans fought for it, weapon in hand, until 1980. The leader of the victorious party, Robert Mugabe, then remained in power for 37 years. The government apparatus mainly consisted of his comrades–in-arms – in fact, the army removed him from power when he tried to hand power over to his wife.

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During Mugabe’s rule, foreign policy also played an important role. For example, China supported his party during the struggle for independence – and this was almost 30 years before discussions about Chinese interests and influence on the African continent became mainstream in the expert community.

When one of Mugabe’s closest associates, Emerson Mnangagwa, came to power in 2017, he followed the example of other African countries and tried to encourage a multipolar and more open foreign policy. One of his main slogans in the 2018 election was “Zimbabwe is open for business,” and he invited many Western businesses and even Western observers to the election. However, such moves were apparently not appreciated in the West. Even though there is no direct evidence for it, the campaign of the opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa demonstrated his orientation towards the United States, as it actively unfolded around the structure of US election observation institutions such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI). 

When it comes to a virtually two-party system (the third party scored only 3%, and others even less) and a near tie between the leaders, the legitimacy of the election and the correctness of the announced results become key issues. In 2018, Mnangagwa was close to competing in a run-off: the first official figures before the end of the vote count exceeded 50% only by tenths of a percent. The figure of 51.4%, which was eventually announced as the official result, was disclosed only a day later. Clearly, with such close results, the opposition could count on the support of observers, but it made a serious mistake.

A meeting of opposition supporters was organized across from the Rainbow Tower Hotel, which housed the press center of the election commission and where almost all journalists and observers were present. As the election commission gradually counted and announced the results, the protesters could not keep calm – they tried to break through the fence around the hotel before the official results were in, and even threw stones. 

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Despite siding with the opposition, Western observers and journalists found themselves attacked by the members of this very opposition who at the time didn’t even have a formal reason to behave in such a way. After the election, the sanctions regime against Zimbabwe (US, EU, and UK sanctions) was not lifted, and it wasn’t even weakened, although the African Union lobbied to lift the restrictions. As a result, by the time of the 2023 election, the president and the ruling party became even more oriented towards China and Russia. 

However, if in 2018 many people in Zimbabwe hoped that a new leader would improve the quality of life in the country, by 2023 the population was not satisfied with the economic results of the past five years (for example, the currency lost about 90% of its value in 2018-22). The main question was how strong this disappointment would be and whether this time around the opposition would be able to convince people that it could change things. 

Despite these factors, the voting results in 2023 almost completely replicated those of the 2018 election. Just like five years ago, only in three regions (Matabeleland North, Bulawayo, and the country’s capital Harare) did the majority vote for the opposition. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second major city and the central area of residence for the country’s second-largest ethnic group – the Ndebele. Just like Matabeleland, the city has had a negative attitude towards the ruling party since the War of Independence. Voting results in capital cities are often viewed as the preferences of richer and more educated voters, but at least in Zimbabwe this is not quite true – most of the inhabitants of its capital are internal migrants from rural areas, people separated from their traditional culture but poorly integrated into the modern way of life.

So why did the ruling party remain in power in Zimbabwe, despite the economic difficulties? 

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Firstly, despite the country’s supposedly tough military regime, the opposition is well represented at the top level – not only in parliament, but also among the capital’s officials. These are not merely concessions, but rather the country’s flexible policy. It is important to note that Zimbabwe has a history of achieving internal consensus – after the controversial results of the 2008 election, a government of national unity was formed, and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai became prime minister (by the way, Nelson Chamisa then became the youngest minister in the country’s history).

Secondly, because of the growing influence of BRICS countries, whose ties with Zimbabwe provide it with a certain ‘geopolitical safety net’ (and also due to the West’s preoccupation with other tasks), external interference in Africa’s political processes is currently decreasing. 

Thirdly, neither the country’s elites nor the population had grounds to believe that the situation would dramatically improve if there was a change of power. Therefore, they had no reason to believe the West (since there are no specific conditions for lifting sanctions) or the leader of the opposition. Chamisa was like the ‘boy who cried wolf’ – after the protests and attempts to challenge the 2018 election, few people believed him when he repeated the same theses word for word. The costs of destabilization turned out to be more apparent than the potential advantages. 

The aforementioned reasons do not guarantee that Zimbabwe will avoid political changes – including radical ones – in the future. Obviously, one of the contributing factors is generational change which gradually forces the “generation of victors” to step down from the political stage (even if on average, this generation is younger in Zimbabwe than in other African countries). One may hope that the elites will understand their responsibility: the ruling party will continue sharing power with the opposition without trying to change the rules to ‘winner takes all’, and the opposition will not attempt to break the political system.

The example of Zimbabwe clearly demonstrates how election scenarios may vary, despite the customary and standard election methods (and tools), including Western political technologies. Real interaction between countries is only possible when others accept and support the fact that Africa is looking for individual solutions to its problems, not ready-made globalist scenarios.

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