Elements of the ruling Zanu-PF party in Zimbabwe are pushing for President Robert Mugabe to suspend constitutional rule and declare a state of emergency in a move to deal with rising protests and internal divisions in the party.
Weeks of intermittent street protests and mass action targeting Mr Mugabe and demanding action on the economy have turned increasingly violent, with the police ignoring court orders and brutalising largely peaceful demonstrators – suggesting that constitutional rule has already ceased to exist.
However, an official state of emergency would allow the regime to unleash even more repression, including: mass arrests and detention without due process, an outright ban on any political activity (including strikes, marches or demonstrations), and, in extreme cases, would allow for the imposition of curfews and martial law.
How opposition parties and protest movements, such as the various hashtag groupings, would react to a state of emergency is open to question, but it is safe to assume that after an initial period of calm, the regime could find itself under even more pressure with demonstrations against the authorities turning increasingly violent.
A state of emergency would also be a tacit admission by the regime that it had lost control, but that may be a minor consideration.
Government apologists in state-controlled media – including one ‘columnist’ in local media identified as Presidential Spokesman George Charamba writing under a pen name – are urging Mr Mugabe to declare a state of emergency.
“The line has been crossed. From now onwards, it shall be another country. This caring world can go hang. We have a country to protect. And govern. After all, we have hit the bottom. We can’t fall,” the columnist wrote in a weekend report. It got worse: “Mugabe must ruthlessly and decisively crush protests in the same manner Syrian President Bashar Hafez al Assad moved to suppress dissent in his country,” he added, suggesting there would be no limits.
Veteran political analyst and respected academic, Ibbo Mandaza told local media that he would not be surprised if Mr Mugabe called for a state of emergency. “I wouldn’t be surprised because it’s a state under siege. But, if they do call for the state of emergency, it will only exacerbate the situation and it will also be an admission of failure by the State,” he said.
The fact that senior Zanu-PF officials are even talking about a state of emergency informs just how much the situation is sliding out of the regime’s control, leaving it with two hard options: negotiate or increase the repression and hope force will solve the problem. The negotiations would consist of much-needed discussions over the creation of a level playing field heading toward 2018 elections and some decisive action on saving the economy.
Force, however, is not a viable option; it would harden attitudes and move the protests from peaceful to potentially violent with disastrous consequences for everyone and all sides.
Taking a page out of Mr Charamba’s playbook, Mr Mugabe should perhaps take a closer look at what the Syrian president has actually achieved, and then tell us again what a great strategy that was.
Gary van Staden is a Senior Political Analyst NKC African Economics.