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When faced with the severe problems of confronting a dictator in any country, some people may lapse back into passive submission. Others, seeing no prospect of achieving democracy, may conclude that they must come to terms with the apparently permanent dictatorship hoping that through “conciliation,” “compromise,” and “negotiations” they might be able to salvage some positive elements and to end the brutalities they may have suffered or endured in the past.  

On the surface, lacking realistic options has an appeal in that line of thinking and serious struggle against brutal dictatorships is not a pleasant prospect, so why is it necessary to go down that route? Can’t everyone just be reasonable and find ways to talk and to negotiate the way to a gradual end to the dictatorship? Can we not appeal to the dictators’ sense of common humanity and convince them to reduce their domination bit by bit and perhaps finally to give way completely to the establishment of a democratic society?

It is sometimes argued that the truth is not all on one side or perhaps we may think that a dictator like Robert Mugabe would gladly remove himself from the difficult situation facing the country if only given some encouragement and enticements. Is it not much better to offer him a “win-win” solution, in which everyone gains something?

The risks and pain of further struggle could be unnecessary if the MDC is only willing to settle the conflict peacefully by negotiations which may even perhaps be assisted by some skilled individuals or even another government as is the case in Kenya and now probably in Zimbabwe. Would that not be preferable to a difficult struggle, even if it is one conducted by nonviolent struggle rather than by military war? I give my credits one hundred percent to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) for following this route even though it sounds a bit daft and looks as if it is taking forever to reach the final destination.

Negotiations are a very useful tool in resolving certain types of issues in conflicts and should not be neglected or rejected when they are appropriate. In some situations where no fundamental issues are at stake, and therefore a compromise is acceptable, negotiations can be an important means to settle a conflict. A labour strike for higher wages is a good example of the proper role of negotiations in a conflict.

A negotiated settlement may provide an increase somewhere between the sums originally proposed by each of the contending sides. Labour conflicts with legal trade unions are however quite different from the conflicts in which the continued existence of a cruel dictatorship or the establishment of political freedom are at stake.

When the issues at stake are fundamental, issues affecting religious principles, issues of human freedom, or the whole future development of the society, negotiations do not provide a way of reaching a mutually satisfactory solution. On some basic issues there should be no compromise. Only a shift in power relations in favour of the opposition can adequately safeguard the basic issues at stake. Such a paradigm shift will occur through struggle and not through negotiations. This is not to say that negotiations must never be used.

The point here is that negotiations are not a realistic way to remove Mugabe in the absence of a powerful democratic opposition. Negotiations, of course, may not be an option at all. Firmly entrenched dictators like the former president of Uganda, the late Idi Amini, the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and the Libyan president, Mr. Muammar Gaddaffi  (just to mention a few)  who feel secure in their position may refuse to negotiate with their democratic opponents.

Negotiations are especially likely to become an issue to the MDC where the president has clear military superiority and the destruction and casualties among one’s own people are no longer bearable. There will then be a strong temptation to explore any other route that might salvage some of the opposition’s objectives while bringing an end to the cycle of violence and counter-violence.

The offer by a Mugabe of “peace” through negotiations with the MDC is, of course,


rather disingenuous. The violence could be ended immediately by Mugabe and his uneducated militia, if only they would stop waging war on their own people. He could at his own initiative without any bargaining, restore respect for human dignity and rights, free political prisoners, end torture, halt military operations, withdraw from the government, and apologise to the people, a thing he has failed to do to the people of Matabeleland.

Mugabe has in the past felt that he was strong since the time he lost the elections in March of 2008 but an irritating resistance by the MDC has forced him to negotiate the opposition into surrender under the guise of making “peace.” The call to negotiate can sound appealing, but grave dangers can be lurking within the negotiating room. A very good sign is that since the formation of the Government of National Unity, Roy Bennett has not been sworn in as the deputy Minister of Agriculture.

The opposition in this case became exceptionally strong and now the dictator feels genuinely threatened, forcing the ruling party to seek negotiations in order to salvage as much of their control or wealth as possible. In neither case should the MDC help these evil dictators achieve their goals.

The MDC, in this case referred to as the opposition, must be wary of the traps that may be deliberately built into a negotiation process by the ageing president Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his Zanu PF cronies. The call for negotiations when basic issues of political liberties are involved may be an effort by the dictators to induce the MDC to surrender peacefully while Zanu PF’s violence continues. In this type of conflict, the only proper role of negotiations may occur at the end of a decisive struggle in which the power of the dictators has been effectively destroyed and they seek personal safe passage to an international airport. Clear thinking is required as to how this will be done.

“Negotiation” does not mean that the two sides sit down together on a basis of equality and talk through and resolve the differences that produced the conflict between them. Two facts must be remembered. First, in negotiations it is not the relative justice of the conflicting views and objectives that determines the content of a negotiated agreement. Second, the content of a negotiated agreement is largely determined by the power capacity of each side. Several difficult questions must be considered:

  • What can each side do at a later date to gain its objectives if the other side failed to come to an agreement at the negotiating table?
  • What can each side do after an agreement is reached if the other side breaks its word and uses its available forces to seize its objectives despite the agreement?
  • What did the MDC do to ensure that their minimum claims could not be denied?
  • What can Robert Mugabe do to stay in control and neutralize his opponents?
  • What objectives of the ruling party did the MDC forces accept?
  • Did the MDC give the dictators a constitutionally established permanent role in the future government?
  • Attention must also be given to what each side gave up in order to reach an agreement. In successful negotiations there is compromise and a splitting of differences. Each side gets part of what it wants and gives up part of its objectives, but is this going to happen in a country called Zimbabwe?

A settlement is not reached in negotiations through an assessment of the rights and wrongs of the issues at stake. While those may be much discussed, the real results in negotiations come from an assessment of the absolute and relative power situations of the contending groups.

Even assuming that all went well in negotiations, it is necessary to ask: What kind of peace will be the result? Is life going to be better or worse than it would be if the MDC continued to struggle?