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Zimbabwe’s Political Elites and Ethnic Conflict

Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa’s most prosperous states, backed up by a thriving tourism industry, a lucrative precious metals sector and a robust agricultural industry. However, most of these successes have dissipated under an unstable economic and social environment, which has been worsened by the existence of an intolerant regime, under the leadership of the current president, Robert Mugabe. This report narrows down Zimbabwe’s steady decline to bad politics, which hinge on ethnic conflict and people manipulation by the Zimbabwean elites. In the paper, I first outline the theoretical background of ethnic mobilization by exploring the concepts of instrumentalism, essentialism, and constructivism. In the same section of the paper, I also explore the elite predation model. This theoretical foundation provides the framework to explain how political elites in Zimbabwe have fanned ethnic conflict through political intolerance, restructuring of opposition politics, and the promotion of negative politics about nationalism and language differences. This paper also demonstrates how political operatives in Zimbabwe have manipulated people’s psyche and forced them to become intolerant of diversity through divisive politics that have centered on social and political balkanization. The key argument in this paper is that the elites have done so, not to protect, or promote the interests of the masses, but to get and protect power.

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Research Questions

  1. How have political elites in Zimbabwe perpetuated ethnic conflict
  2. What is the goal of Zimbabwe’s political elites of engaging in manipulation and promotion of ethnic conflict?


H1: Political elites in Zimbabwe have perpetuated ethnic conflict by promoting political, racial, and ethnic intolerance among the people

H2: Political elites in Zimbabwe manipulate their citizens and promote ethnic conflict to protect their positions in power

Null Hypotheses (Opposing or Incompatible Answers)

H1: Political elites in Zimbabwe do not have any method for perpetuating ethnic conflict

H2: Political elites in Zimbabwe do not have a defined goal of manipulating citizens and promoting ethnic conflict

Relevance of Case Study

This case study is relevant to our understanding of social mobilization as a tool for political control. While it only outlines a prism of this topic, its findings help us to relate how the ruling elites use ethnic sentiments to preserve political power in Africa. The same insight would help us understand how elites use the same tool to solidify their political bases (even in western democracies, through classism, racism, and religious segmentation). Concisely, this case study could help us to understand the nature of some of the ethnic conflicts in Africa because as Herbst says, many African leaders have encountered the same problems in leadership, and often, they have resorted to using the same solutions to manage them (5). Thus, the principles of the Zimbabwean case study are not unique to the Southern Africa nation because they have tentacles in other parts of the global political governance system. Indeed, they could be useful in explaining how other regimes use different social, political or economic constructs to ascend to power.

Theoretical Background

Researchers have come up with different theories to explain the relationship between ethnic identities and political constructs. The instrumental theory is one such framework because it postulates that ethnicity is a social construct of political competition (Bergin 14). Comparatively, the essentialist approach views ethnicity as the fundamental building block of human societies through the assumption that identity could be defined and measured using ethnic-based metrics (Bergin 15). The constructivist approach is a bridge between the essential and instrumental theories because it argues that ethnicity is a construct of people’s heritage and current political circumstances (Bergin 18). Powerful elites often use the different theoretical frameworks of ethnicity for self-preservation.

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The elite predation model is another approach used by researchers to explain ethnic influences in politics. This model often views ethnic conflict as a top-down system where the people do not necessarily choose conflict, but the powerful elites choose to ignite it for their selfish interests (usually, to maintain power) (Fearon & Laitin 715). Leaders who feel like they are losing their influence, or power, often use this type of political strategy to maintain political control. By igniting ethnic hatred, they stand a chance of creating chaos and possibly maintaining the little influence they have left. Often, people who are pit against each other act in fear and their primary motivation becomes “security” (Fearon & Laitin 715). Therefore, they see the opposing party as a threat to their security and act accordingly (by fighting or “eliminating” them). The Zimbabwean case study demonstrates how powerful elites have used this type of thinking to rise to power. They have done so using different ways. Some of them appear below.

Political Intolerance

For a long time, Robert Mugabe developed the reputation of being a revolutionary leader in his country. Over the years, he has tried to make Zimbabweans believe that he works for their best interests by making endless speeches about his opposition to neo-colonialism and his advocacy for self-dependence. However, a deeper interrogation of his political philosophies shows that he has presided over a government that has consistently used ethnic mobilization to suppress political dissent and to maintain power in the once prosperous nation. Since his rise to power, in the 1980s, Mugabe has always strived to portray himself as a diplomat and not necessarily a revolutionary leader (Laakso 1). However, a deeper assessment of his transformation and role in Zimbabwean politics shows that it has been largely shaped by the need to remain in power. This fact is evident in his response to political dissent from a rival party called ZAPU, which gets support from a “rival” ethnic group in the country. Here, it is pertinent to understand that Mugabe’s ruling party is called ZANU. It largely gets support from the majority ethnic group – the Shona population (most of ZAPU’s support comes from a minority Ndebele population) (Laakso 1).

When the Ndebele expressed their dissatisfaction with Mugabe’s style of leadership (through the ZAPU party), Mugabe reacted by inciting the population to rise against each other. In other words, he made his Shona ethnic group believe that the Ndebele people were the enemy (Muzondidya & Ndlovu-Gatsheni 275). Evidence of this fact comes from his use of political and military force to quell pockets of uprisings from the ZAPU political wing of leadership. The police used excessive force to quiet dissents from the Ndebele population. They did so indiscriminately, never drawing a distinction between the political players and the larger Ndebele people (Muzondidya & Ndlovu-Gatsheni 275). Such types of actions make us question the difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence, as described by Evans et al. (173) because the actions of the Zimbabwean government could easily be misconstrued as “thuggery.” In other words, it was as if the regime was fighting one ethnic group for the preservation of power by another. This action highlights how Mugabe and his group of elites have used ethnic conflict and manipulated people to preserve their political power to date.

Politics of Language and Nationality

The effects of ethnic mobilization in Zimbabwe also arise through an interrogation of language and identity formation in the Southern African nation. The Zimbabwean political elites have often popularized the politics of nation-building through ethnic mobilization strategies. Zimbabwe is a diverse country where people speak different languages and come from different cultural affiliations (Ndhlovu 1). However, the ruling elites have made it seem as though the two major ethnicities – Ndebele and Shona drive the agenda of nation-building in post-colonial Zimbabwe (Muzondidya & Ndlovu-Gatsheni 275). In other words, smaller ethnic groups have been relegated to become “spectators” in nation-building projects. This exclusionary philosophy has contributed to their marginalization and the development of an unprecedented constriction of educational and economic opportunities for people who are not perceived as liberators (Muzondidya & Ndlovu-Gatsheni 275). This type of politics has further advanced the ethnic thinking that characterizes politics in Zimbabwe.

Structure of Opposition Politics

Few people could dispute the fact that ethnic divisions characterize Zimbabwe’s political landscape. While ethnic manipulation has mostly been associated with the ruling party ZANU, recently, opposition politicians have manifested the same problem (Laakso 11-12). Tribal considerations have played a significant role in how the opposition plans to oust Mugabe from power. They have reinforced the fact that tribal arithmetic is important in selecting a good leader for the country by choosing an opposition candidate that subscribes to the same ethnic affiliation as Mugabe – the Shona. This leader is Morgan Tsvangirai. He is the candidate for the vibrant MDC party, which is a formidable opposition party in Zimbabwe (Laakso 11-12). He was selected to run against Mugabe because of his ethnic background, and not necessarily because he was the most qualified candidate to run. This strategy of the opposition reinforces the belief that only the Shona ethnic group is fit to rule Zimbabwe. The same strategy exemplifies the principles of the elite predation model, which show how the ruling elite use ethnic mobilization skills to get power for self-preservation. If service were the main consideration for the opposition party to bring change in Zimbabwe, it would not only select a candidate that fits the ethnic profile of the Shona; instead, it would focus on presenting one that is most qualified. This is another example of how manipulation continues to spur ethnic divisions in Zimbabwe.

Treatment of the White Minority

The ethnic divide pitting Zimbabweans against each other is an old problem in the country. There have been efforts by the government to mitigate this issue by creating a government that seems all-inclusive. However, these attempts are superficial in the sense that they have failed to unite the people under one umbrella of nationalism. White people who comprise a small population in Zimbabwe have suffered under the same ethnic politics of Zimbabwe that have relegated minority tribes in the country to “second-class citizens.” The treatment of some white lawmakers exemplifies this fact because the ruling African elites have often inspired their people to spew hate to people who are not considered one of their own. Some white lawmakers, such as Edy Cross, Senator David Coltart, and Ben Freet have experienced this type of treatment whenever they have tried to express their views about the country (Laakso 11-12). Politicians have always reminded them that they are “outsiders,” although they are either third, or fourth generation immigrants in Zimbabwe.

Instead of building consensus and extending inclusion across all racial and ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, the political elites have constantly perpetrated ethnic hate to cement their positions in power. This strategy largely explains the economic ruin of Zimbabwe, which happened when Mugabe and his accomplices convinced the people that they need to raid white farms and revert the land back to the indigenous people. The raids happened, but, over time, it became clear that the elites wanted to keep the land to themselves because landless Zimbabweans never benefitted from the exercise. This event also heralded the decline of the Zimbabwean economy because the farms were no longer productive. Generally, the negative politics of ethnic mobilization are largely responsible for this situation and it has worsened race and ethnic relations in the once prosperous nation.

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Liberal perspectives on political governance support the main argument in this paper because they demonstrate that elite manipulation often builds up to ethnic conflict. The key characteristic of such conflicts is the exploitation of people’s fears for the advancement of the self-interests of the ruling elite. Based on a broader understanding of the history of Zimbabwe, we find that the conflict pitting different ethnic groups against one another has been around since the colonial times. The antagonists are the ones that have changed (a shift from colonialists to the ruling regime) because the same politics of balkanization that happened during the colonial times is perpetuated under the current regime.

Works Cited

Bergin, Melanie. “Intractable Concepts and Conflicts: Evaluating Power Sharing Agreements in Africa.” Ruor, Web.

Evans, Peter, et al. Bringing the State Back in. New York, Cambridge, 1985.

Fearon, James, and David Laitin. “Explaining Interethnic Cooperation.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 90, no. 4, 1996, pp. 715-735.

Herbst, Jeffrey. “States and Power in Africa.” Princeton University, Web.

Laakso, Liisa. “Opposition Politics in Independent Zimbabwe.” African Studies Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1-19.

Muzondidya, James, and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni. “Echoing Silences: Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Zimbabwe 1980-2007.” African Journal on Conflict Resolution, vol. 7, no. 2, 2007, pp. 275 – 297.

Ndhlovu, Finex. “The Politics of Language and Nationality in Zimbabwe: Nation Building or Empire building?” South African Journal of African languages, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1-10.

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