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.