The Ph.D. student, a small man with a huge problem and a beseeching, sincere attitude, asked us, "But what about my country?"
Until the dictator is gone, I will respect this man's anonymity, but his country is Zimbabwe and he was asking us, collectively at a symposium of nonviolence scholars, what could be done with nonviolence to depose Robert Mugabe, the thug who jails journalists, tortures dissidents, and uses colonial history to smear anyone in his way with labels that excuse his brutality.
Zimbabwe is a traumatized land with a warlord-for-life, and enough of his people accept that to prevent his downfall. He led the violent victory that terminated racist white minority rule in the armed struggle ending with independence in April 1980. This means the revolutionaries who were with him are also still around, elderly like him, and are often in power locally. This points to many problems of using violence to gain independence, not the least of which is the continuation of that violent method to keep the power gained by violence.
Mugabe thus has his loyalists who can be counted upon to respond to his predictable pattern of naming all opposition tools of the West, instruments of colonialists. He has used this successfully for decades and is quite elderly, determined to stay in power for life by the means he has always used.
So, how can nonviolence hope to unseat him?
Ultimately, like the hope of nonviolence everywhere, the base of success or failure is the populace of the nation. No external actor can make this determination, even for an overmatched military. Externals can influence events, but the indigenous population will show its mettle or reveal its inability to rise to the occasion.
So Zim will be free from the oppressor who calls himself the commander of the liberation forces when the people of that nation decide that it is time. Many have, and of course they suffer the consequences. Brave women of Women of Zimbabwe Arise Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams have led nonviolent efforts and have been imprisoned numerous times for their efforts.
If the people of Zim simply went on general strike until Mugabe stepped down, that would end his rule. This would mean sacrifice, but Zimbabweans know sacrifice already. What it really requires is for the people of Zimbabwe to understand that their founder has presumed power much like a king, not a liberation leader. Imagine George Washington deciding that he would rule America for the remainder of his life after leading the violent revolution against Britain. That level of corruption and personal power grab should be unacceptable to the citizens of Zimbabwe, but until it really is, Mugabe will hold power.
Africa itself is experimenting with in a number of directions, under enormous pressures from within and outside. The power sharing that Mugabe was convinced to try two years ago is very likely coming to an end as his political machine prepares to steal another election by violence.
So, how can a hypothetical nonviolent revolution succeed in Zimbabwe?
First, the citizenry needs to assume complete responsibility for its leadership and it needs to commit to not accepting anything less than democratic rule. No power sharing with dictators. No partial democracy. No more business as usual.
Second, the people of Zimbabwe need to negotiate with Mugabe, publicly. They need to assure him that there is life after presidency. He may be investigated but he will never be tortured or executed. They need to guarantee that.
Third, they need to convince the rest of the world to stay out of it except to use nonviolent sanctions to enforce human rights laws. The unfolding disaster in Cote d'Ivoire, with the spectacle of the African Union and the UN blustering about using "legitimate force" to depose the Mugabe wannabe, Laurent Gbagbo, will likely only strengthen Mugabe's hand as he points to threats from the outside, using that case to further smear his domestic opponents as agents of outsiders. When the African Union, the UN, the US and the EU can unite to shut down the flow of money and arms to Mugabe, and deny all his people access to international finance and travel, the externals can be of some value. Of course, the influence of the major power player on the rise in Africa, China, has no interest in human rights or democracy, so that is a confounding factor that the outside world must grapple with or fail in its basic obligations.
Fourth, civil society outside of Zimbabwe can support WOZA and other nonviolent civil society organizations inside Zimbabwe (such as Amnesty International giving them their 2008 award) and take their lead. When WOZA calls on us to act, to write, to call, to publicize, and to support them, that is our chance to help. This is a tough struggle and we can do our part, small though it may be, toward another victory for nonviolence, one in a place so hurt by violence for so long.
This is my very tough answer for that Zimbabwean Ph.D. student. It requires so much from so many Zimbabweans who have already suffered so much, and yet, short of another violent process that results in yet more violence, this is one nonviolent path that would work. Ultimately, the general strike is painful and, if done with complete nonviolent discipline long enough, will emerge victorious. Mugabe's shreds of legitimacy only relate to the external threats he can whip up because the only ones left who support him are the ones dependent on his ZANU-PF for their bit of power. Only the people of Zimbabwe can end this political patronage that allows for so much murder, torture, abduction, and oppression. That is reality and we can do our small part to help.