The students in my Central Africa survey are writing papers about whether there were any distinct points at which the independence of the Belgian Congo might have turned out differently than it did. Like most counterfactuals involving colonialism, it’s a hard question to think through, partly because the general outcomes in postcolonial Central Africa (a weak and fractured state, corruption and autocracy, underdevelopment) don’t seem to turn intensely on the precise sequence of events in any given decolonization process.

Another problem is that it’s hard to confidently assess which decisions were considered by key actors that might also have seriously been pursued. It’s one thing to know that a conversation took place in which a whole range of options were discussed, and another thing to have to evaluate which ones might plausibly have been alternatives to the actual course pursued by various leaders and elites, and another thing still to decide which of those alternatives might have produced genuinely different outcomes.

These are the problems that we’re all confronted by as we watch Zimbabwe at this moment, with our breath held. It’s entirely plausible to imagine that in some guarded room in Harare, Mugabe and his inner circle, as well as key leaders from the police and military, have considered every scenario that observers can imagine: Mugabe leaving into exile, Mugabe resigning peacefully but remaining in Zimbabwe, stalling on any decision while a run-off is set-up, allowing a run-off but deciding to pull out all the stops to fix the outcome, declaring martial law or suspending the election results, rounding up Tsvangirai and the MDC leadership and imprisoning or killing them.

But we don’t know anything about how they might judge the plausibility of any of those scenarios, and we don’t know some of the information that would let us make those judgements ourselves. How much does Mugabe actually believe in his public self-image, and how surprising was the outcome to him? How anxious is the current leadership of the security apparatus and the ruling party about the threat of possible prosecutions under the MDC? How much force can they actually expect to command? Have African heads-of-state sent any private messages about consequences or the lack thereof from a crackdown?

Now, not knowing any of these things has never stopped outside experts from calling the odds as they see it. Personally, I think it’s looking increasingly plausible that ZANU and the security forces will stall for time by permitting a runoff while they decide whether to allow Mugabe to lose. (I’m pretty sure that by now, Mugabe is not personally able to dictate that outcome. He might not even be able to personally control whether or not to resign, if the security forces don’t want him to.) In my view, that would also allow the MDC to prepare for sustained popular protest if Tsvangirai is denied a victory in a runoff.

I could well be wrong: this is a guess that depends on a very distant set of inferences about the perceptions, motivations and resources of a set of actors who deliberately obscure information about all three of those aspects of their lives. Whenever something actually happens to resolve the uncertainty, the hard thing will be to remember that there was a point where that event, whatever it might be, didn’t seem inevitable.

Update: An ominous sign.

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8 Responses to Contingency

  1. A sobering account of Zimbabwe’s circumstance and the limits of our knowing, Tim. It reminds me of chapter 8 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, “The Character of Generalizations in Social Science and their Lack of Predictive Power.”

    I often lament how generalizability — in an extreme sense: not only across spaces, but also across times — has come to stand as the pre-eminent measure of worth for social science claims (well, probably all academic claims). It seems to be hard for many academics (and certainly policy makers) to accept the irreducible contingency of social processes over time, and that is why we’re better at explaining things after they’ve happened.

    This of course doesn’t mean that post hoc analyses cannot offer anything to decisions about the future. But it does seem as if many want analysis to direct, specifically and non-negotiably, a course of action, rather than see it as an important guide to critical judgment.

  2. peter55 says:

    It is likely that you don’t intend it, but the impression of your post is that you think Mugabe and his security advisors are making reasoned, sober, rational decisions — identifying comprehensively their decision options, weighing the consequences of each option, strategically assessing the likely counter-moves of their opponents, gathering the information needed to select between options, and so one. That presumes a style of decision-making found in the classrooms of Harvard Business School and University of Chicago Economics Department, and pretty much nowhere else. My guess is that he and his advisors are acting and reacting very emotionally, and possibly in response to an event (his loss of power) they may well now believe to be inevitable. Rational choice theory is all well and good, except that it doesn’t apply to human beings.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I don’t mean to give that impression at all, Peter. I think it’s very much as you say, that the ways in which they are making decisions are very bound by their knowledge and understanding, by their personhood, by the internal culture of power in the Zimbabwean elite and the larger culture of Zimbabwe as a society, and so on. As are all such moments where power crystallizes into action.

    I am saying that it’s actually hard to imagine or know certain things about those bound spaces where these conversations are happening. For example, as I said, how much Mugabe actually knows about anything is hard to judge. How much “Mugabe” is the man himself and how much he’s a fictional front for a group of elites is hard to know.

    Historically, it seems to me, rural Shona elites have had a mode of political discourse that is very much about indirection, about telling silences, about open conspiracy. When I look at some very striking actions that I’m interested in my current manuscript about chiefs, I’m always struck at how dramatic, contradictory violence or action by powerful individuals seems to come from a miasmic haze of feinted intentions and indirect hints–and I’m convinced in many cases that there was no secret conversation where a deliberate, conscious, consultative decision to commit rational or programmatic action was taken, but neither were those actions wholly spontaneous, irrational or reactive.

  4. ca says:

    If they’re right, we may yet see Mugabe leave power soon.
    I have been wondering what the price may be. My suspicion is that it may be not simply with protection/immunity for himself, but also his supporters/cronies. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions of justice, and comparisons with the Lancaster House Accords that protected those who had taken the country to war, abused other Zimbabweans and blocked regime change. Thoughtful Zimbabwean politicians in the 1980s and after denounced such deals, including oh, wait, Robert Mugabe et al.
    A deal, though, whether fully rational and just or not, may be the best we can hope for. The politics won’t be ending anytime soon.
    And I’d expect that fatigue would be as much a factor as rationality. Repression and destruction must get exhausting when sustained and intensified for years.

  5. peter55 says:

    “Historically, it seems to me, rural Shona elites have had a mode of political discourse that is very much about indirection, about telling silences, about open conspiracy. ”

    Timothy, this also describes very well ordinary social discourse with people in contemporary Shona culture. Of all the societies I have experienced (on all continents but South America), the maShona are the most adept at metaphoric and indirect speech, at speaking between the lines, at saying while not saying, at maintaining deniability, at secret signalling (sending contradictory messages to multiple audiences simultaneously), and at speaking truth to power while allowing the power to retain face.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I agree, Peter. I think it’s a very striking part of Shona life.

    Ca: MDC has publically assured the military leadership that they will not be prosecuted, and those that received land after the seizures of white-owned farms will be allowed to keep it. So I think you’re right that if there are negotiations going on, they’re likely including more parties than just Mugabe himself.

  7. peter55 says:

    Another thought, Timothy, that may be relevant. In 2001, documents claiming to be transcripts of discussions within the leadership of the Communist Party of China prior to the suppression of the Tiananman protests in 1989 were published (Nathan et al 2001, see below). If these transcripts are genuine, they are very revealing about major public policy deliberations in a dictatorship.

    The relative political power of the participants appears to have greatly influenced what they say to one another, and there is little substantive discussion of the consequences of alternative courses of action, or their relative advantages and disadvantages. For such a major decision, there is (at least in these documents) remarkably little debate or substantive analysis. For example, once Deng Xiaopeng, the most powerful participant in the discussions, had decided upon martial law, all but two of the other participants, the brave Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili, also supported it. The nature of this support appears to have mostly been political point-scoring and scape-goating, primarily directed against Zhao; in reading these transcripts, one has the impression that the speakers expressing such views were articulating positions they already knew Deng to support.

    See: A. J. Nathan and P. Link, editors. “The Tiananmen Papers.” Little, Brown and Company, London, UK, 2001. Compiled by Zhang Liang, with an afterword by O. Schell.

  8. There was an article that I can’t find that gave a quite dramatic account of what went behind the scenes within security forces during the Orange Revolution. The whole thing may have been exagerated to make for a more spectacular read but it gave a good impression of various schemes and interest between some players and how much influence they had on the outcomes of a “social” event.
    In short, the army while not openly supporting the opposition did prevent the government from using its loyal security forces against the protesters. The generals who made those decisions all had different motivations. Some were concerned about a possible civil war, some were concerned about the institution itself and some had relatives and friends protesting.

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