Zimbabwe is in flux. There are regular protests, especially in the capital, over currency and food shortages, unemployment, and alleged government corruption and mismanagement.
Observers say an effective political solution may not be soon in coming.
President Robert Mugabe, 92, and his ruling ZANU-PF party have been in power for 36 years. But the party is breaking into factions, and at least one former member, onetime Vice President Joyce Mujuru, has formed her own party, Zimbabwe People First.
The longtime opposition Movement for Democratic Change has new competitors, including more than a dozen new parties and youth-driven protest movements inspired by social media. All are preparing for national elections in 2018.
Participants in a recent symposium at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace looked at some of the challenges facing Zimbabwe, and they agreed that its citizens and the international community alike would favor a "soft landing" in a post-Mugabe future.
Military is 'really central'
Symposium participant Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at the London-based policy institute Chatham House, said the West has become complacent and has lost contact with the military and with different factions within the ruling party.
"If we get into a really uncertain and unpredictable security situation in Zimbabwe," he said, "it will be the military that will have a role in managing that process. ... I believe the military will play a key role ... in whatever happens, as a kingmaker in whatever coalition or inclusive political entity that might come up [between] the opposition and parts that have split from ZANU-PF. The military is really central here."
Symposium delegates also urged the U.S. and its allies to revisit sanctions on Zimbabwe targeting more than 80 people and 50 groups linked to human rights violations, corruption and mismanagement. They said the sanctions list was outdated and included government critics like Mujuru.
Vines said many Zimbabweans blame the sanctions for their suffering, rather than the government.
"I do believe that ... ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe won the propaganda battle about sanctions, and I'm surprised at how many well-educated Zimbabweans from civil society and others blame sanctions partly for economic woes and not economic policies," he said. "It has been used as a fig leaf to hide financial mismanagement and other problems. That was one of the drivers for the European Union and Australia to significantly reduce their targeted measures on Zimbabwe to Mugabe, the first lady and Zimbabwe Defense Industries, and I do believe the U.S. and Canada ... need to [revise their outdated sanctions] lists very carefully."
Role of sanctions
Also taking part in the seminar was Johnnie Carson, former U.S. assistant for secretary of state for African affairs under the Obama administration. He said the U.S. government had considered lifting sanctions in order to encourage democratic reforms. But he suggested that the U.S. maintain them as a way to encourage democratization and good governance in Zimbabwe although those efforts have not succeeded so far.
"In 2010 and 2011," he said, "we worked very closely with the South Africans looking for solutions ... and said ... that we, and I, would have been willing to do everything possible to pull down the sanctions if the Zimbabweans were willing to do one or two significant things in the runup to [the 2013] elections, [such as] invite the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and the Commonwealth to be monitors for the elections. ... We must continue to probe and look for opportunities, but recognize there are times we don't have partners, and times when the environment does not permit."
Carson said U.S. ambassadors to Africa should continue to reach out to Zimbabwe's business community — an idea also backed by Whitney Schneidman, former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs and current senior associate at the Washington-based law firm of Covington and Berling. He noted the efforts of former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Bruce Wharton to strengthen ties with the country's private sector last year.
The Corporate Council on Africa was invited to send a trade mission to Zimbabwe and a reverse trade mission from Zimbabwe came to the U.S.," Schneidman said. "This activity should be continued. A delegation from the President's Advisory Committee on Doing Business in Africa could conduct a fact-finding visit to the country."
Strive for more stability
Schneidman said the Mugabe government should take action to enhance stability in the runup to elections and a new administration. He said the government had proposed a land compensation fund for both black and white farmers who have been displaced as owners by administration supporters. It is also considering long-term leases that would allow farmers to invest in fallow land.
Schneidman also urged continued efforts by Harare to improve relations with the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
Participants in the Washington panel said Zimbabwe had lost the interest of some policymakers in the West. But they said the country remained an important player in southern Africa politics and trade, and that state collapse and a worsening refugee crisis could destabilize the whole region.