Now that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has been convinced by U.S. officials to accept a run-off election, concern is rising about the possibility of that election being free and fair. The violence that kept voters home the first time is still believed to be a problem for a re-run. Consequently, talk is growing among Western leaders about the possibility of a Government of National Unity (GNU) either in lieu of a second round of elections or until such elections can be organized effectively. Before such a GNU is pressed on the Afghans, two examples in Africa should be taken into account.
In light of suspect election results in Zimbabwe in March 2008, the international community pressed Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai to form a GNU to ease tensions and bring into the executive branch those in the opposition considered more representative of the voters’ intent. Opposition parliamentarians already out-numbered the Zimbabwe African National Union in the legislature as a result of the 2008 elections. In theory, this would ensure that both sides were involved in governance – the same sentiments heard in formulating suggestions for Afghanistan.
In Zimbabwe, however, ZANU leaders had little intention of really sharing power. Leading up to the formalization of the GNU in early 2008, Mugabe’s security forces reportedly murdered five opposition activists in a 24-hour period alone. Many others were killed, jailed or harassed. Even after the formation of the GNU, Mugabe’s government has pursued power over cooperation. Civil leaders and human rights activists in Zimbabwe last week released a memo describing ZANU round-ups of people in Mashonaland East province to force them to chant party slogans or sign up for party training. According to the memo, villagers were threatened with decapitation if they opposed the version of the constitution being pushed by ZANU, which would retain strong presidential powers.
For more than a year, the Zimbabwe GNU has been hanging by a thread, but late last week. Tsvangirai announced that his party members in government were distancing themselves from their ZANU colleagues. They weren’t pulling out of government, a spokesman made clear later, but by not participating, government would not be able to function constitutionally without their cooperation.
Yet another African example of the dysfunction of GNUs is Kenya. Ethnic violence in the aftermath of the disputed results of the December 2007 election surprised the world in what had been a formerly stable African country. So horrific were the slayings that the international community again believed a GNU would put together the major ethnic groups, much as is now being proposed in Afghanistan. President Mwai Kibaki and then-opposition leader Raila Odinga represented major ethnic groups in Kenya, and the thinking was that an alliance would calm the ethnic storm. That thinking did not take into account the mistrust the men have for one another nor the antipathy of their supporters, which is largely ethnically fueled. The office of Prime Minister is a created one that has no longstanding constitutional authority. Its success depends on the good will of all parties, which has been lacking in Kenya. Such considerations should be taken into account when deciding how to handle Afghanistan’s situation.
In Kenya, the Government of National Unity has become known inside the country as the “Government of National Impunity.” The broad nature of corruption in Kenya has led to a sort of alliance of corrupt officials who cover for one another or use investigations to offer up sacrificial lambs. The one thing they aren’t doing is trying to end corruption and punish those who have subverted the system. The government broadly has been unwilling to cooperate with investigations of the post-election violence because both sides have leaders involved. We already know that Afghanistan suffers from rampant corruption so why would anyone think a GNU would solve this problem? If Kenya is any indication, it could make the government less accountable rather than more.
The temptation to press for GNUs seems like an effective way to include those cheated in a poor election and ensure that various ethnic groups are included. Often, American officials will point to Democrats in Republican administrations and Republicans in Democratic administrations as examples of GNUs here in the United States. However, those individuals of other parties represent themselves and not their parties, which is the major difference between what we do and what we ask others to do.
It was somewhat extraordinary for President Obama to select his main rival for the nomination as Secretary of State, but he didn’t consider nominating Senator John McCain for a major post. That has not happened in modern history because what ruling party would want someone who could use their position to run for President later, and what opposition party leader would want to help his rival’s government succeed when he or she may face them in a subsequent election? We should keep that dynamic in mind when we recommend to others to form a GNU. Harmony in such cases is more than a notion. It isn’t that GNUs cannot work; it’s just that those governments that promote them ignore the necessity of certain conditions required to make them work and forget why they don’t institute GNUs themselves.