Social, economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe demand urgent resolution. The economy has virtually collapsed and Zimbabwe is the first country in the 21st century to hyperinflate. Unemployment rages at 70 percent and HIV/AIDS ravages the population.

More distressing, the ruling ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe is stone-deaf, hopelessly blind, and clueless. Impervious to reason, appeals and even international condemnation, it does not see the failures of its own policies, preferring to blame the West and colonialism for Zimbabwe’s woes.

By Joao EM Matandirani

Even more disconcerting is the impotence of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU) and the international community to effect real change and bring relief to the suffering people of Zimbabwe. “smart sanctions” by the U.S. and the European Union have failed to dislodge the Mugabe regime or bring change. Now, the international and African community is divided over what to do next.

The coalition government between ZANU PF and Movement for Democratic Change has not gone well at all. President Mugabe has ignored the objectives of the deal and instead used the “coalition” as a platform to rebuild ZANU PF and an opportunity to manage the transition to the next leaders of ZANU-PF.

Past efforts to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis failed because they appealed to the good sense of the Mugabe regime to initiate change. But the depth of the crisis in Zimbabwe is such that the government of Robert Mugabe alone cannot solve it; nor can the MDC or any single individual or political party. Hence, it must take the collective action of all Zimbabweans. As such a mechanism must be established that permits this. Fortunately for Zimbabwe, it does not have to re-invent the wheel. Such a mechanism, known as the “Sovereign National Conference” (SNC) already exists in Africa itself and derived from Africa’s own indigenous institution of village meeting.

When a crisis erupts in an African village, the chief and the elders would summon a village meeting and put the issue before the people. At the village assembly the issue is debated by the people until a consensus is reached. During the debate, the chief makes no effort to manipulate the outcome or sway public opinion. Nor are there bazooka-wielding rogues, intimidating or instructing people on what to say. People express their ideas openly and freely without fear of arrest. Once a decision is reached, it is binding on all, including the chief.

In the early 1990s, this indigenous African institution was revived by pro-democracy forces in the form of “sovereign national conferences” to chart a new political future in Benin, Cape Verde Islands, Congo, Malawi, Mali, South Africa, and Zambia. Benin’s nine-day “national conference” began on Feb 19, 1990, with 488 delegates, representing various political, religious, trade union, and other groups encompassing the broad spectrum of Beninois society. The conference held “sovereign power” and its decisions were binding on all, including the government. It stripped President Matthieu Kerekou of power, scheduled multiparty elections that ended 17 years of autocratic Marxist rule.

In South Africa, the vehicle used to make that difficult but peaceful transition to a multiracial democratic society was the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). It began deliberations in July 1991, with 228 delegates drawn from about 25 political parties and various anti-apartheid groups. The de Klerk government made no effort to “control” the composition of CODESA. Political parties were not excluded; not even ultra right-wing political groups, although they chose to boycott its deliberations. CODESA strove to reach a “working consensus” on an interim constitution and set a date for the March 1994 elections. It established the composition of an interim or transitional government that would rule until the elections were held. More important, CODESA was “sovereign.” Its decisions were binding on the de Klerk government. President Frederick de Klerk could not abrogate any decision made by CODESA – just as the African chief could not disregard any decision arrived at the village meeting.

Clearly, the vehicle exists in Zimbabwe for a peaceful transition to democratic rule or resolution of political crisis. This vehicle worked in Benin, South Africa and Zambia. This is the vehicle all

stake-holders in Zimbabwe must insist on for Zimbabweans to solve their own internal problem. It is the same vehicle all outside Zimbabwe – from SADC, the AU, UN, European Union to the  U.S. Congress – must insist on for peaceful change in Zimbabwe.

AU should enjoin all member states to insist on the convocation of a SNC, not just ask Mugabe and opposition activists to “talk to one another.” African sanctions should be imposed if the Mugabe regime fails to comply. Such sanctions may include the blockade of land-locked Zimbabwe by SADC member countries and a cut-off of electricity by South Africa.

Indeed, the alternate scenario is horrific. If nothing is done in Zimbabwe, there will be a complete meltdown and implosion, as was the case in Liberia (1991), Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Burundi (1993), Zaire (1996), Sierra Leone (1999), Ivory Coast (2000) and Togo (2005). And the cost of rebuilding and putting Zimbabwe back together will be enormous.