Bridge the legitimacy deficit


Legitimacy is the currency of international engagement among democratic nations. Even a stop-gap President mentored during the autocratic era of President Robert Mugabe knows legitimacy is key to the readmission of Zimbabwe to the comity of nations.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a beneficiary of a November putsch, wants legitimacy bestowed on his regime by June. Mnangagwa figures legitimacy, attained through a free and fair election, will spare Zimbabwe the tarring of being a pariah state.

Mnangagwa, a long-time ally of deposed Mugabe, wants Zimbabwe to hold elections in five months. The ‘hurry’ is unusual in a continent where presidents find excuses to delay elections. Mnangagwa has that option, but he knows Zimbabwe needs the world more than he craves power.

African presidents, citizens of countries that US President Donald Trump regards as stuck in ‘shitholes’, often cite sovereignty to defend the excesses of their illegitimate regimes. They have low regard for legitimacy and local or international acceptability.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is anarchic because President Joseph Kabila is clinging on to power. In December, the UN declared the DRC crisis an acute emergency, as in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Millions are dying, starving or being forced into exile. But Kabila, who should have left office in 2016, has no moral qualms with the illegitimacy tag.

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza wants to rule up to 2034 — 18 years beyond his welcome. He should have quit in 2015. Nkurunziza’s illegitimate hold on power has spawned murders of thousands of people.

About 500,000 Burundians have been forced into exile in neighbouring countries. Nkurunziza cites sovereignty to shield himself against international accountability. Legitimacy means nothing to Nkurunziza.

Herald, a state-owned newspaper in Harare, last week reported Mnangagwa saying free and fair elections would ensure Zimbabwe “engages the world as a qualified democratic state”. Zimbabwe was ejected from the Commonwealth in 2002, following controversial elections. Zimbabwe was a pariah state during many of the 37 years Mugabe was President. Eviction of White settlers from their farms further sullied Harare’s relations with the West.

Locally, legitimacy, a political currency recognised internationally, has been a familiar word since the bungled 2017 presidential elections. This word will trend for as long as the post-election stalemate persists. It may take a different meaning when NASA leader Raila Odinga is sworn in as the People’s President on January 30.

The leadership of the National Super Alliance and their supporters do not recognise the legitimacy of the Jubilee government of President Uhuru Kenyatta. But Jubilee supporters claim Uhuru won the fresh presidential election on October 26.

NASA presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and about 65 per cent of the electorate, boycotted the repeat presidential election. A voter turnout of about 30 per cent, NASA holds, robbed the winner of the one-sided presidential contest of legitimacy.

For NASA supporters, Jubilee may ride on weapons of violence, but it runs low on legitimacy that comes with free and fair elections. The trouble with this local stalemate is that some see it, others do not. But competing with ostriches will not bestow legitimacy.

Legitimacy is the right and universal acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or regime. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines legitimacy as “the quality of being legal”. A government, action or law that lacks such quality becomes illegal or illegitimate.

Dialogue on national issues — electoral justice and ‘food insecurity’ — may bridge the legitimacy gap, but Jubilee is not interested. Kalonzo Musyoka, NASA presidential running mate, cautions: “If we don’t hold dialogue between now and January 30, we will hold dialogue under very difficult circumstances.”