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  • The “Power-Sharing” Trap
  • Pierre Englebert (bio)
Power Politics in Zimbabwe. By Michael Bratton. Lynne Rienner, 2014, 281 pp.

Michael Bratton, Afrobarometer’s founder and now one of its senior advisors, has written a powerful and deeply personal book about Zimbabwean politics that also yields considerable comparative insights for students of democracy in other parts of Africa. Bratton was born in 1949 in what was then called Rhodesia, and spent his formative years [End Page 170] there. While growing up, he became keenly aware of the overwhelming injustices that prevailed in his country and of his own privileges. This experience has nourished his career as a leading Africanist who has always shown a deep respect for the voices and political aspirations of Africans themselves.

But Bratton’s own circumstances aside, what drives this book is Zimbabwe’s catastrophic decline since its liberation from first colonial and then white-minority rule. The country last drew a Partly Free rating from Freedom House in 2001, and since then has been stuck in Not Free territory, with ratings for political liberties and civil rights that cluster around 6 (on a scale where 7 is the worst score). Can the violent and patronage-ridden legacy of colonization and liberation that so burdens Zimbabwe ever be overcome? Bratton wants to know, not only because he is a scholar and intellectual, but also because he aches to see the land of his birth gain a purchase on a better future.

After a brief introduction to the concepts of “power politics” (force and bullying, mostly) and “political settlements” (inclusive elite coalitions built around power-sharing agreements), which provide the book with its analytical underpinnings, Bratton sketches his main argument: The fundamental “power politics” nature of Zimbabwe’s successive regimes since colonization (but particularly since 1980) has choked off prospects for inclusive, credible, and lasting power-sharing settlements, whatever donors and other well-intentioned outside actors may have hoped. To fill in this picture, Bratton provides a historical overview that moves from the days of political settlements (colonial and postindependence) to the crisis of 2000–2008, when the long-ruling regime of President Robert Mugabe met democratic aspirations with stepped-up violence and repression.

Then Bratton analyzes the unusual and dramatic power-sharing pact that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) formed with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) between 2009 and 2013. His account provides a wealth of analysis of the various dimensions of the power-sharing period: the 2013 constitutional revision, the electoral system and the 2008 and 2013 elections, the sheer domination of the security apparatus over national politics, and the difficulties of transitional justice. To conclude, Bratton revisits some of the theoretical and policy implications that he has raised.

There is more that is excellent and insightful in this book than a brief review can adequately reflect. Bratton asks how the increasingly cornered Mugabe regime, which found itself forced to share power with the opposition after the violent debacle of the 2008 elections, nevertheless managed to come out on top four years later, with Mugabe crushing Tsvangirai 61 to 34 percent and regaining full control of the state. What can this outcome teach us about Zimbabwe, power-sharing, and democratization in Africa? [End Page 171]

One of Bratton’s most compelling arguments has to do with the “path dependence” that tends to inhere in autocracies such as the one under which Zimbabwe was born 35 years ago. Autocratic rulers worthy of the name capture the state. Unsurprisingly, they do not make for credible partners in power-sharing agreements. This pattern of autocrats pretending to share power certainly dates back to colonial Rhodesia, and may even date back to some of the societies that preceded colonial rule (pp. 34–36). It was visible in the travesty of power-sharing that marked the white-dominated Ian Smith regime (with its “moderate” black representatives), and could be seen as well in the Lancaster House agreements of 1980 between Mugabe, his rival Joshua Nkomo, and representatives of the white minority. The disquieting question to which Bratton keeps implicitly returning—and which stands in contrast to Bratton’s most hopeful work with the...


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pp. 170-173
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