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Sep 19, 2013 | 10:31 GMT

Zimbabwe: The Political Consequences of Lifting Diamond Sanctions

(ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

The European Union announced Sept. 17 that sanctions against the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp., whose diamonds have long buoyed President Robert Mugabe's regime, will be lifted. The move follows Zimbabwe's July 31 parliamentary and presidential elections, which the African community determined were largely credible, and it corresponds with the less confrontational approach Western governments have been advocating recently toward the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. Though the lifting of sanctions was likely intended to encourage political and economic reform in Harare (as well as to give the Belgian diamond industry an advantage in the country), the eased restrictions may further entrench the ruling party and support one party leader in particular in his bid to eventually succeed the long-time president.

Mugabe's party swept the July elections, defeating long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change with some 76 percent of the parliamentary vote and 61 percent of the presidential vote — but an incumbent victory was never really in doubt. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front has governed the country since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. The party has a deeply held belief that it is destined to lead and defend Zimbabwe's gains since liberation. Despite criticism about poor governance and policies that have undermined the Zimbabwean economy, the party has maintained tight control over domestic affairs and would likely overturn an election, were the opposition ever to win.

The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front learned from its mistakes in the country's national elections in 2008, when it did not take the electoral threat posed by the Movement for Democratic Change seriously enough, and Tsvangirai came out ahead in the first round of the presidential vote. Tsvangirai did not win a majority, however, and the ruling party engineered a Mugabe victory in the run-off. Since then, Mugabe's party has waged a grassroots campaign of voter intimidation and propaganda to the extent that when the most recent elections finally took place, there was little need for direct suppression at the polling stations to secure re-election. Some Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, say the vote was free, but it could hardly have been fair given the years of furtive manipulation against the Movement for Democratic Change.

Zimbabwe After Mugabe

Though he was re-elected to another five-year term, at 90 years of age, Mugabe is in declining health and is unlikely to serve out his full term (there is nothing indicating that an immediate abdication is looming). The composition and orientation of the government once the long-time president departs is unclear. Mugabe has avoided anointing a successor, likely to maintain control over those aspiring to replace him and ensure his position as Zimbabwe's ultimate arbiter of power.

Within the ruling party, there are arguably two primary competing factions, plus a weaker third. One of the main wings is headed by current Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who oversaw the Defense Ministry until the July elections. The justice portfolio may soon be given oversight of the Zimbabwean police and internal security services, so his recent appointment may be key to maintaining the ruling party's control.

The other main faction is led by Vice President Joyce Mujuru, who rose through the ranks of the ruling party's women's league and has strong political credentials from her days as a freedom fighter against the Rhodesian regime. Mujuru can also leverage the popularity of her late husband, Gen. Solomon Mujuru, who led the fight against the Rhodesians and commanded the Zimbabwean army after independence, for additional grassroots political support.   

The third faction is led loosely by Simon Khaya Moyo, a career diplomat who chairs the ruling party. Moyo benefits from his long-standing experience and connections in the ruling party, but his posts abroad, such as ambassador to South Africa, have kept him away from the corridors of power in Harare. His faction also lacks the military credentials that are important to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, and it is seen as lacking the strength of the other two wings.

The challenge facing the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front is to manage a transition of power from Mugabe without succumbing to economic and political vulnerabilities. Thirty-three years in power and a weakened economy have undermined the party's coherence and its long-term grip on power. Mugabe has maintained unity, but no one else commands the same broad base of support. The fear in Harare is that no successor can manage the outside pressures to liberalize and rehabilitate the political economy.   

How Diamonds Could Determine the Successor

The decision to lift the sanctions on the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp. was driven by several countries in pursuit of various national interests. Belgium, for example, has been the EU member most ardently in favor of removing the restrictions, likely because it has long been a global center for the diamond cutting and polishing trade. The country may be hoping to gain an upper hand in the market for Zimbabwean diamonds, the trade of which, despite the sanctions, has continued heavily in several global cutting centers, from Europe to India to Israel.

The push to ease sanctions was also in line with the broader goal in the West, including the United States and the United Kingdom, of engaging the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. The European Union likely recognizes that a confrontational approach to Harare has failed to moderate Zimbabwe's political or economic policies, so reducing overt hostility may seem like a worthwhile tactic. Moreover, Brussels may hope that supporting Zimbabwe's diamond industry may incentivize additional steps toward political and economic reform.

However, Europe's move will have unintended political consequences in Zimbabwe. Few areas of the Zimbabwean economy generate meaningful revenues, but the Mugabe regime has been able to manipulate mining for factional gain, even while the majority of the country subsists. Instead of smuggling diamonds to international cutters and polishers who had been receiving discounted rates for circumventing sanctions, the Zimbabweans will be able to legally negotiate market prices. This will lead to an increase in the revenues the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front will be able to generate from the diamonds that remain under their uncontested control.

Zimbabwe: The Political Consequences of Lifting Diamond Sanctions

Zimbabwean Diamond Mines

The Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp. is most well-known for its control of the Marange diamond fields, an area in eastern Zimbabwe along the border with Mozambique. Operations at the Marange fields have been overseen by the Zimbabwean military, which Mnangagwa, the justice minister, controlled until recently, and troops have been deployed there several times to crack down on smuggling and illegal mining. The sanctions levied against the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp. resulted from allegations that the fields have been a source of "blood diamonds" since the army controls the entire supply chain involving Marange diamonds.

The army has not changed its position in Marange, and Mnangagwa remains a fully empowered senior government leader with control over Zimbabwe's security services. Thus, the ruling party — especially Mnangagwa's constituency — is positioned to benefit greatly from the relaxed constraints on the diamond trade. Meanwhile, Solomon Mujuru once held an interest at River Ranch, Zimbabwe's secondary diamond-mining area along the country's southern border, but these concessions are rumored to have degraded since the general's death in 2011.

The ruling party has no clear or timely process for how to determine who will succeed Mugabe. The next generation of leaders may not even be determined before Mugabe dies, leaving it up to the various factions to fight for control. However, with Mnangagwa and the military faction of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front positioned to benefit most from the lifted diamond sanctions, there may be a new favorite in the looming power struggle in Harare.

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