Returning to Africa

Publication Date: 
23 Jun 2011

Election experts often move to different countries for their work. Sometimes they are lucky to return to some of their favorites, as has been the case for Staffan Darnolf, IFES Chief of Party in Zimbabwe, who lived in the Southern African country in the 1990’s. He chatted with Laura Osio, IFES Press Officer, via Skype from Barcelona, Spain where he was attending a conference on mitigating electoral violence with members of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).

LO: When did you arrive in Zimbabwe?

SD: I arrived in November last year. As I spent a significant amount of time in Zimbabwe back in the 1990s, but not been back since 1997, I was very eager to return. I must say it's exceptionally nice to be back.

LO: What is it about Zimbabwe that made you so glad to return?

SD: Many of my old friends are still around. For me personally, I think this is one of the few times where I am actually establishing an IFES office in a place where I have a personal history. On the surface I do recognize many places and people. But I also need to be cognizant of the fact that people have experienced many difficulties in the intervening years. Fortunately things are improving on a daily basis.

LO: I have heard that Zimbabweans have an incredible attitude, in spite of all they have been through. Would you agree?

SD: The city, just like its people, is very welcoming. We tend to say that the people are what make a country different, unique and enjoyable. It is especially the case in Zimbabwe.

LO: Turning to the political situation, what is the latest?

SD: The Global Political Agreement (GPA) that was signed some two years ago between the former ruling party and the former opposition spells the way forward. As in almost all such agreements it is likely to hit snags and delays. Sometimes it’s over the interpretation of the agreement itself, sometimes it’s personality clashes. As the GPA is a rather vaguely defined document, Zimbabweans have certainly seen its fair share of delays.

I also think that we have to be realistic. It took South Africa four years of extensive public discussions before they held their first transitional election, and by then they had already spent several years negotiating behind-the-scenes. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has given the President of South Africa the responsibility to mediate in the conflict. I think the Arab Spring has had ripple effects all the way to Zimbabwe. No doubt has the South African mediators felt the need to become a bit more proactive, but I honestly think the Zimbabwean partners also realize what's at stake. Having said that, as the GPA comes to an end with a completion of the constitutional process the political stakes are increasing and thereby the risks for renewed delays and potential violence.

LO: Where does Zimbabwe stand with elections now? Are any scheduled?

SD: Officially, the drafting of the constitution is supposed to be completed at the end of September 2011. Once the text is agreed upon, it’s up to the ZEC to organize the referendum to vote for or against it, and based on the new constitution (if accepted) the country should hold elections. However, the drafting process is currently stalled as the parties are discussing how to analyze and incorporate the information they collected during their public consultation phase. My sense is that we will actually not see a referendum before March 2012, as ZEC also needs sufficient time to properly prepare the referendum.

LO: Based on this, what role should the international community play in Zimbabwe?

SD: We should strive to ensure that democratic elections are held in Zimbabwe allowing the people of Zimbabwe to freely elect its leader and continue to enjoy the fruits of being an independent state. IFES, just like the rest of Zimbabwe, eagerly awaits the electoral roadmap that the GPA partners are currently developing with the support of the South African mediators

LO: You are currently in Barcelona. What are you doing there?

SD: Electoral violence was significant in the 2008 election. As a result ZEC is fully aware of its responsibility, as the institution charged with organizing the next election, to do everything in its power to deter and mitigate electoral violence. We are, therefore, in Barcelona right now attending a conference meeting with fellow Election Management Bodies to discuss strategies and actions that can be taken by an EMB to overcome this threat to a credible electoral process.

LO: You have worked in many African countries. Is there a common thread between them?

SD: I have worked in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. In my previous career as an election scholar, I specialized on Africa in general and Zimbabwe and Botswana in particular. Africa is a continent. I would say that the conditions and situations in each country are vastly different. Having said that, there is a common feeling that one simply cannot describe—it has to be experienced. And I must admit, after being away for 7 years working in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Cambodia, it's simply a huge privilege to be back.

LO: I am glad you’re working in a part of the world you feel a special resonance with. Thank you for chatting with me, Staffan.

SD: Thank you!