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Drop “regime change” agenda: ZDI tells NGO’s

Zimbabwean civil society has been urged to drop the “narrow” “regime change agenda” and refocus on political, social and economic reforms which have a direct bearing on the lives of Zimbabweans.

Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya is the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)
Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya is the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)

This recommendation was made by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), a local political think tank, in its recently published policy document titled“Priorities for civil society-donors engagement in Zimbabwe.”

Below is a summary of the report:

Key Questions

  • What is the fundamental problem facing Zimbabwe today?
  • How has the national problem manifested on the national fabric?
  • What are the contradictions among different actors in understanding the national question?
  • Is there a drive or basis towards reconciling differences and building national convergence post 31 July 2013?
  • What needs to be done from a civil society perspective to address the national problem and its manifestations?


The articulation of the national question and practices in terms of the ‘will to power’ is the fundamental problem facing Zimbabwe at this historical juncture. By the ‘will to power’ it refers to the corruption of the politics leading to a cultural domination in the Zimbabwean society of a logic to grab, conquer and retain power by the ruling party, opposition political parties and civil society actors in order to change society.

In this context, politics and changing society is reduced to the narrow road to state house. The ‘will to power’ has superseded the ‘will to transform’ which reflects the logic to sustainably transform the embedded extractive and undemocratic political and economic institutions.

The path to transform, as history shows, from Europe, North America and some parts of South America, has always been slow and convoluted, but produced robust inclusive democratic and economic institutions.

This policy brief examines the fundamental national questions of the day and the possible strategies and programming interventions for civil society emerging from the national questions post July 31, 2013 elections. It identifies the will to power as the major challenge of the day.

Using discussions and presentation at the national think tank conference held by ZDI on 9 October 2014, this paper expounds the national crisis of will to power and recommendations for civil society programming.

It starts off by analysing why the will to power is problematic and how it is manifesting as a national crisis and concludes by proffering recommendations on civil society programming in the context of the shifting political economy of the state in past decade.

Why the ‘will to power’ is problematic?

History is littered with examples of reform movements that conquered power but replaced one set of extractive and authoritarian political and economic institutions with even more pernicious ones. For example, Nasser wanted to build a more egalitarian society in Egypt but this led to the corruption of the political by Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

President Robert Mugabe was a freedom fighter and fought the colonial regime and its extractive and undemocratic institutions of power. However, Zimbabwe’s institutions did not become less extractive to date upon Mugabe’s assumption of the saddle of power.

What is common among political reform movements, which paved way for more democratic and inclusive institutions and gradual institutional changes like post-colonial Botswana, England in the 19th century and North America, is that they succeeded in empowering a broad cross section of society driven by the ‘will to transform’.

Manifestation of the national problem

The corruption of the political has resulted in fetishism of power in which Mugabe and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) believe they are the sovereign centre of political power and are ordained to rule for life.

In their view, power has to be conquered and retained the Machiavellian way that is by any means necessary. In this regard, elections become a mere ritual to justify the rule of ZANU PF for ‘eternity’ and are always contested by the participants.

The cultural domination of the ‘will to power’ has largely led citizens to become servile or dormant rather than be active actors in the construction of the day to day political. This has produced passive rather than active citizens as the daily weight to seek power imposed by civil society and political parties and its ramifications becomes too heavy a daily cross for the ordinary citizen’s shoulder.

The ‘will to power’ has resulted in civil society, donors and the international community to be engaged in the politics of regime change. To them change can only occur when one grabs power hence ‘seek yee the kingdom of political power first’. Democracy and economic prosperity become embedded in the politics of regime change. The art of building inclusive political and economic institutions for durable transformation is relegated.

The corruption of the political has also resulted in perverse extractive economic institutions.

The economic malaise Zimbabwe faces is as a result of how power is exercised and monopolised by a narrow elite. Those who wield power set up economic institutions to enrich themselves and augment their power.

The resources these economic institutions generate enable the ZANU PF ruling elites to corrupt the state security forces to defend their absolutist monopoly of political power. This is augmented by political institutions that churn out ideological nationalist justifications.

In this economic malaise, the modality of accessing, ownership and distribution of state resources is dominated by party-state patronage. This has resulted in the exclusion of citizens who are perceived to practice ‘wrong politics’ from state resources leading to high levels of poverty.

The political economy, shaped by extractive political institutions has resulted in the radical structural informalisation of society and the national economy. In this regard; the question of livelihoods is now pervasive and affects ordinary citizens irrespective of their political affiliations.

It has become a consensual building bloc across race, ethnicity, class and gender. It can thus be used across the political divide to mobilize citizens for social change.

Another consequence of the ‘will to power’ is the prolonged transition to democracy, characterised by one step forward and two steps back. Inter-alia, another effect of using the power lens is that some analysts wrongly conclude that the transition to democracy has permanently failed and that Zimbabwe is a case of state failure.

Because of the prevailing logic to power, if regime change does not take place, the transitional path is misunderstood and political paralysis takes place. Indeed, within this context, what we see is state unwillingness to effect changes that threaten its power base which is not synonymous to state failure. It is simply a state unwilling to act. In addition, history has shown that democratisation is a long and arduous task.

The very fact that ZANU PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and some civil society organisations are rocked by fierce factionalism which threatens to tear their foundational fabric is a clear manifestation that all key actors follow a similar political logic of the ‘will to power’.

In most cases, those with power are not willing to let go and are bent to consolidate by any means necessary and those without power are not willing to take the long historical path of transforming the extractive and undemocratic institutions around them. Power has to be grabbed and once conquered all is perceived solved.

Was there a similar problem in Zimbabwe’s history?

Here, we provide a lineage of the national question, looking at the underlying logic both in theory and in practice to establish the foundational basis of our national problem today. In the 1960s to 70s the national question stood as a colonial question.

The theoretical underpinning was the ‘will to transform’ society rather than just to grab power. Hence the national question stood for a complete integrated society, equality of opportunity in every sphere and social, economic and political advancement of all.

At the heart of the national question was the mobilisation of the masses to demand inclusive political and economic institutions from Ian Smith’s extractive and authoritarian institutions. In 1980, at the end of colonial rule, the national question more broadly evolved to nation building and state making.

There was significant achievement in building schools, clinics, roads et cetera. However, the ‘will to power’ began to dominate as the extractive political institutional foundations of authoritarianism were not transformed but modified to sustain the regime in power. Hence Zimbabwe missed a chance to build a solid foundation for a new democratic order.

As the corrupted political institutions began to shape the economic institutions to benefit the narrow ruling elite, in the early 1990s the national question became dominated by the vices of economic malaise and corruption.

The imposition of policies such as the Economic Structural Adjustment Programs (ESAP) by the Bretton Woods institutions did not resolve the national economic crisis. Even better policies would not have worked because they were being foisted on extractive political and economic institutions.

From 1997, one dominant national question was to build inclusive and democratic political and economic institutions through crafting a new constitution. Constitutionalism became a key national question and this was led by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA).

It should be noted that initially the NCA was driven by the ‘will to transform’ rather than to grab and conquer state power under extractive institutions. This logic was to change as the ‘will to power’ dominated debates resulting in the formation of the MDC in 1999.

More recently, after the July 2013 general elections, the NCA transmogrified into a political party which is a clear manifestation that key actors now act on the ‘will to power’. From 2000 onwards as the opposition MDC and its civil society allies began to seek state power and as ZANU PF began to viciously defend state power the national question became much more contested to justify the underlying ‘will to power’ by each actor.

Post 2000- Internal contradictions

ZANU PF and its traditional allies have defined the national question on the ideas of race, land, indigenisation, redistribution, patriotism, sanctions and sovereignty. This was constructed by ZANU PF intellectuals as a justification of authoritarian politics to retain state power.

ZANU PF lost its legitimacy through the excessive use of state violence in the general elections of 2008, but regained legitimacy following the 2013 national elections putting the question of legitimacy to bed.

On the other hand, the MDCs and its civil society allies have defined the national question on the ideas of civil freedoms, democracy, human rights and liberalisation. The democracy and human rights discourse which dominated after the cold war had its roots in neo-liberalism and has been embedded with the regime change agenda.

The ideas were knitted to form a powerful campaign to grab state power from ZANU PF. This, however, has failed and is now much more difficult following the victory of ZANU PF on 31 July 2013. The defeat was partly a pitfall of being driven by the ‘will to power’ rather than the ‘will to transform’ first.

Convergence beyond July 2013?

It is important to note that a national question should forge national identity and national convergence across race, gender, class and political parties. The inclusive government that existed from 2009-2013 tried to forge national convergence.

Even though it was an elite pact that did not include the broader sections of society it managed to produce a new constitution that gave life to the notion of remaking the post-colonial state and nation building founded on inclusive and democratic political and economic institutions.

The new constitution tried to fuse the ideas of ZANU PF and its traditional allies and those of the MDC and its civil society allies to a remarkable degree and can form a basis for national convergence.


The will to power, where changing people’s lives and building a critical mass is conflated with grabbing, conquering and retaining power is Zimbabwe’s fundamental problem today. This is manifested in the articulation and practice of national politics by political parties, civil society and some donors.

This has resulted in missing the fundamental basis of remaking the state and the nation following July 2013 general elections which should be premised on building inclusive political and economic institutions for sustainable transformation.

The path to transform has been abandoned because it is a long and convoluted process but history has proved that there is no short cut to building durable democracy and Zimbabwe is unlikely to be an exception.

As Dumiso Dabengwa, the president of ZAPU has argued, ‘We need to change the system first and foremost, more than we just need to change the person’.

But how can civil society help the nation to move from the ‘will to power’ to the ‘will to transform’.


Civil society must drop the regime change agenda with its logic rooted in the ‘will to power’ and adopt a ‘will to transform’ approach. Civil society must not be funded to produce political change narrowly constructed as regime change. This makes them abandon their broad role as conscience of society meant to transform society.

Office holders in civil society must be driven by the ‘will to transform’ rather than the ‘will to power’ in their day to day internal practices before focusing on the external.

Because civil society programming has been built on the ‘will to power’ nationally this has subconsciously corrupted the psyche of some office holders as they are now largely driven by the ‘will to power’ in their small internal spaces leading to fissures, factions and paralysis.

Civil society programming must be driven by the ‘will to transform’ that is to advance the life of the community, of people to improve political consciousness and quality of life. It is possible to change people’s lives without taking power.

Civil society must watch those in power and those who want to take it.

Political and economic questions must be addressed concurrently in programming. The rupture between redistribution and human rights and democracy discourse must be bridged. Addressing one without the other is building on quick sand.

Civil society must coordinate the demands and actions of the population so that change will come from diverse groups of people courageously building and demanding inclusive and democratic political and economic institutions.

In order to coordinate the demands and actions of society there is need to activate the new constituencies produced by the extractive political and economic institutions that includes but are not limited to resettled farmers, informal miners, informal traders, informal workers, small-scale business operators and the new generation.

The reactivation of the old civil society such as professional associations, think-tanks, residents associations, and community based organisations, trade unions, women’s movement, churches, student movements, social movements, media and debate groups is also of essence in coordinating and maintaining the demands of society.

Citizen engagement theories must inform civil society programming rather than theories of elite change. In a context where the national problem is located in the ‘will to power’ it is most unlikely that change will come from above but rather from below.

There is need to invest in citizenship programmes than voters. This entails going back to the basics and have outreach village, ward, district and provincial citizen programs on the new constitution’s bill of rights, devolution; operations constitutional commissions such the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, the Zimbabwe Media Commission with view of making governmental accountable.

Civil society need to play a pro-active role in nation-building and re-making the state through giving life to the new constitution as a way to build inclusive economic and political institutions.