Brown University

Why U.S. Officials Will Likely Take a ‘Wait and See’ Approach to the Zimbabwean Coup D’etat by Erin Brennan-Burke @ Brown University

On November 14, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces deployed a convoy of armored vehicles to the streets of Harare, placed President Robert Mugabe on house arrest, and seized control of the state media station. The army spokesman insisted in a televised statement that it was not a military takeover, but the intervention was widely viewed as an unconstitutional coup d’etat. When 93-year-old Mugabe officially resigned six days later, thousands of people waved national flags and danced in the capital. The authoritarian strongman had clung to power since independence in 1980, systematically dismantling political and economic systems at the expense of the impoverished citizenry. As the military quickly ushered in Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling ZANU-PF party to lead the transition process on November 24, the democratic prospects in Zimbabwe remained unclear.

What would a U.S. response to the military coup look like if the only interest at stake was the future of democracy in Zimbabwe? Should the State Department cautiously support the coup in hopes that it will lead to democratization in a historically autocratic nation? Or should it condemn the power grab as inherently undemocratic and illegitimate? Ultimately, American officials will likely take a “wait and see” approach to the crisis because of the complexity of predicting the political outcomes and the historical precedent of prioritizing more tangible interests.

The first policy option for the United States is cautiously sanctioning the November coup d’etat as a possible catalyst for democratization. Conventional wisdom states that coups are exclusively anti-democratic and that leaders of these takeovers are ill-intentioned. But as Ozan O. Varol argues in Harvard International Law Journal, some coups may actually promote democracy “because they respond to popular opposition against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, overthrow those regimes, and facilitate free and fair elections.” The Zimbabwean coup appears to largely fulfill the first two conditions about the origin and nature of the coup, but the early warning signs indicate that the outcome may not be genuinely democratic.

The Zimbabwean coup could be viewed as a domestic military response to a popular uprising – a position recently adopted by the African Union. Although protests were routinely repressed under Mugabe’s regime, civil society actively opposed the abuses of power and dismal economic conditions. In the last few years, the populace has condemned the President through “Mugabe Must Go” demonstrations and social media criticism such as the #ThisFlag movement. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans marched in Harare in the days following the November coup to expedite Mugabe’s official resignation, a level of popular opposition that could justify U.S. support. The military elite and civilian protesters also overthrew a deeply entrenched autocratic with a 37-year history of exploitative policies – which may help legitimize the coup in the eyes of the international community.

The outcome of the military takeover is much less clear. Scholars have highlighted how a coup d’etat is more likely to lead to democratization since the Cold War and may “shock” the domestic system into providing unprecedented opportunities for political liberalization. But they also agree: “democratic coups are the exception, not the norm.” The international community should be concerned that the proximate cause of the November coup was a political power struggle, that the interim government is headed by a repressive member of the ZANU-PF, and that one of Mnangagwa’s first actions as President was convening a cabinet of primarily Mugabe loyalists. In order to cautiously support the coup for the sake of democratic principles, the U.S. would need to accept the risk of an undemocratic outcome and actively work to promote a democratic transition.

The second possible U.S. response is condemning the Zimbabwean coup as bad for democracy because it (a) increases the likelihood of future coups and (b) undermines institutional processes. As Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler argue, a military takeover de-legitimizes the new regime and legitimizes future coups – which can lead to “political black holes of repeated regime change generated from within the army.” The danger of a coup trap in Zimbabwe should make the U.S. hesitant very hesitant to support the November revolt.

Additionally, scholars such as Richard Albert contend that democracy is about institutions, and circumventing those mechanisms is always undemocratic. He argues that military coups especially present “an affront to the democratic ideals of stability, consent, and legitimacy.” The American legal code reflects this hostile position. Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 clearly delineates that no federal funds should be “obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country” which has experienced a military coup without a transition to a democratically elected government. By firmly opposing unconstitutional power grabs and withholding financial aid, the United States can pressure states like Zimbabwe towards democratic reforms.  

The third option facing American politicians is a “wait and see” approach which acknowledges the difficulties of predicting the democratic consequences of a coup d’etat. Even if the State Department solely based its policies on the democratic priorities outlined in this blog post, the best solution in Zimbabwe would still be unclear.

In reality, President Trump has largely ignored Zimbabwe – contrary to the actions of the past three American presidents to isolate Mugabe and push for democratic reform. The State Department refrained from calling the military takeover a coup and stated that it “does not take sides in matters of internal Zimbabwean politics.”American officials employed similar tactics in 2013 when they resisted calling the Egyptian overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood a coup and continued to provide $1.5 billion in necessary annual aid. Ultimately, the U.S. will likely base its policy response to President Mugabe’s overthrow not on the unclear democratic prospects in Zimbabwe on its own national interests – particularly regional stability.

*Photo: Jekesai Njikizan, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images, November 18, 2017.

Leave a Reply