I don’t see any reason for enthusiasm about the signing of a Zimbabwean power-sharing agreement. Whether it will be at all meaningful not only remains to be seen, but depends very much on changes that are very much below the visible surface of events.
When I was in graduate school, the students working on doctorates in history and anthropology who had an interest in Africa met once a year with a group of doctoral candidates studying African affairs who were working in a public policy institution affiliated with my university. We presented our work in progress to each other. It was an awkward meeting for both sides.
The problem for me then (and now) is that the policy scholars treated at least most issues and problems as amenable to policy. Not just a custom-designed, situational policy, in fact, but a policy recipe or formula that could be applied to a broad range of supposedly similar situations. For some problems, that was fine, either because the issue at hand was already circumscribed by the formalities of the interstate system or lay well within the formal infrastructure of the global economy. In other cases, while local histories and practices might affect how a policy would be received or implemented, the formula seemed sound enough to me.
But I remember one presentation very well, in which the student (with very evident support from one of the senior professors in his program) laid out a ten-step procedure for negotiating an end to civil conflicts in Africa. This was in the 1980s, mind you, so some of the most uncontrollable and violent insurgencies in contemporary Africa had not yet become prominent. This student was mostly addressing the situation in Angola and Mozambique, where external actors were playing a big role in fueling civil conflict. Still, the basic idea seemed wrong to me, because wars of that kind (maybe any kind) strike me as unique, and because the end of civil conflict rarely relies substantially on a well-designed accord or agreement. If such an agreement takes hold, it is because there are more complex political, economic or social transformations underway in response to war: one class of elites is losing its grip on resources or its ability to coordinate social action. Two social groups have decided they have more to gain through some kind of accord than they have to gain through all-out war. A new generation of political leaders have mobilized a new political base, or have acquired a new vision through education or novel forms of socialization. Maybe a charismatic leader helps to sway elite opinion or coordinate mass action. In any event, none of that is created by an agreement: the agreement, if meaningful, is a visible sign of more complex transformations.
Do I see that in Zimbabwe right now? Not especially. Part of the problem is that the people I need to be able to see are invisible to me and even to most observers closer to the scene. Mugabe is not the issue. The issue is the upper ranks of various security services. The issue is the upper elite of the ruling party, and for that matter, the mid-level apparatchiks. What have they decided, if they’re conscious of having decided anything?
If they do not help to make the words in the agreement real, the agreement will not be anything but a potential trap for the opposition. By themselves, the opposition cannot make power-sharing or political reform a reality. Without the security apparatus ceding some power, without institutional elites conceding to or joining in reform, this is just one more case of ZANU-PF’s long-running tactic of neutralizing opposition by momentarily appearing to bring it inside the fold. All of the most adroit authoritarian regimes in postcolonial Africa have practiced this technique. (Mobutu, for example, was a master of it.)
The real signs of movement or change will appear in the next three months, if the agreement was meaningful rather than a brief intermission in a long, depressing drama. The official media in the next three months will be telling. Not whether it praises the power-sharing deal: that would just be more of the same. What would be really telling is opening up the state-run newspaper and television station to a diversity of views, or to good reportage. Or privatizing the official media outright. Watch fiscal policy: if reform is really taking hold, the central bank will start acting like one. Watch how the police and military move and act: if they’re going to allow a political transformation, they’ll start their own processes of reform and begin to stay out of Zimbabwe’s public affairs. And so on.
If the only visible sign of the accord is that Morgan Tsvangirai has a new title and ostensibly speaks for the government on television from time to time, then nothing really happened and the agreement is just another of the many ten-point plans that mediators and policy experts (Africans or Westerners) have helped to draft as figleafs to cover their own impotence.