Nurturing political consensus – advances against the odds in Zimbabwe

by Pedro Mendes · December 4, 2015.

How do you create political space for dialogue on security sector reform (SSR) when the very term is rejected as a regime-change tool by the political elite? Our recent in-depth look at lessons from the Zimbabwe context have revealed the sensitivities tied up in definitions, the advantages of alternative fora for dialogue to tackle extreme political polarisation, and the capital of legitimacy, timing, tools, and substance in contexts where the security sector is central to the political economy.

Names like SSR can be very polarising. The Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme (ZPSP) managed to carve out an unlikely space to work in Security Sector Transformation (SST) — an alternative term used to move away from the negative association with post-conflict or fragile states —and survive the exercise thus far. The originality of the programme rests on a paradox that sheds light on the art of political dialogue. The premise of this paradox is that the SSR ‘taboo’ can be unlocked by talking it over in an informed way, aiming at some form of non-partisan consensus about security transformation over time. In other words, a common vision has to be prepared through dialogue that aims to forge a common ground.

In contexts like Zimbabwe, such an endeavour might be challenging and perilous. Political violence, political polarisation and international isolation from 2000 onwards closed the space for SSR in the country. The environment for reform became polluted - as one ZPSP trustee put it - because the very framework for change was discredited as inimical to national interests and sovereignty, and because the possibility for untainted external support to SSR became practically impossible. How is consensus achievable in such context? The experience of ZPSP seems to put in evidence on four elements for building meaningful political consensus through dialogue: legitimacy, timing, tools, and substance.

Legitimacy relates in the first place to the very possibility of bringing about a discussion on the topic of SST: it is about putting personal authority and charisma at the service of the idea that the security sector should meet the needs and expectations of the Zimbabwean people. In Zimbabwe, such authority is predicated on having participated in the liberation struggle. This individual inscription in a collective narrative is the source of respect and tolerance from fellow former combatants in power that, at least, are ready to listen to those they trust. People without equivalent credentials would not be allowed to start the dialogue.

Timing is key to building a space for dialogue. While it is never too late for SSR—and arguably it is never started early enough—there is frequently the risk of it misfiring if suitable windows of opportunity to seed a programme are not built on. In Zimbabwe, the ZPSP seized the opportunity of the Global Political Agreement of 2008, and the momentum of an Inclusive Government to start convening adversaries (political, social, economic, etc.) at the same table, using broader issues pertaining to human security as entry-points. A modicum of consensus was fostered amongst the participants of the dialogue series because the political terrain was less polarised than a few years before, and because the ZPSP’s approach purposely de-politicised the discussion on SST. The human security lens enabled the creation of platforms where, for the first time, a set of stakeholders could talk directly in a constructive manner, at least agreeing on the way to disagree, as put also by another trustee of the programme.

Tools aid the process. Political dialogue doesn’t simply happen. On the contrary, given that security issues were at the core of the political and social conflict in the country,  an important aid was to approach SST with tools which are more commonly found in peacebuilding, especially in international/’track one’ mediation. That was, after all, the background of some of the founders of the programme, and therefore, political consensus for SST is being built with strategies and tools typical of a peace process. This illustrates the importance of conflict-sensitive analysis as the base for conflict transformation and the potential of conflict resolution methodologies in forging consensus-based SST processes.

Finally, true substance and SST content of a compelling and worthwhile nature are vital to sustaining the consultation and dialogue. Discussions were often convened around practice-based knowledge and robust academic expertise on SST. These imparted a lot more than expertise and training as such; learning together enables trust, forging common ground, and fostering ownership.

The seed of a consensual vision for SST in Zimbabwe has been slowly gaining shape— and space—for whenever the political landscape allows it to grow. For some stakeholders, the transformation is not happening fast enough, or is not tangible enough. Against such scepticism, ZPSP trustees and directors argue that trust and knowledge are the backbone of nationally driven change, and, in their own words, dialogue is a physical commitment and a tangible output that you can look at.