By George Ayittey
IT is extremely difficult to criticise opposition forces in Zimbabwe because of the heinous brutalities unleashed on them by the Mugabe regime. Critic
ism may sound like condoning the brutalities or rubbing salt into their wounds.
But the opposition in Zimbabwe needs a good talking to. The aborted Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) protest march was, to put it mildly, dumb.
To effect peaceful change in Zimbabwe, we need an intelligent opposition, not one which continuously repeats old stupid mistakes. Harsh words but they need to be spoken because if the corrupt and incompetent Mugabe regime can’t get it right, those who seek to replace that regime ought to get it right. The people of Zimbabwe demand nothing more or nothing less.
A failed opposition strategy or move prolongs the tenure of a brutally repressive regime and the suffering of the people. Further, it demoralises the people and lulls them into thinking that if the squabbling and ineffective opposition groups can’t get their act together, then they might as well let the tyrant stay or join him in order to survive. It is called “politics of the belly”.
Opposition groups need to realise that public patience is not inexhaustible. If their actions continue to fail, the public may simply write off the feckless opposition. Next time they call for a national strike, the public will ignore it.
The ZCTU action was flawed on all fronts and doomed to failure right from the get-go. The ZCTU had planned to march in protest against high levels of taxation and inadequate anti-retroviral drugs for HIV and Aids patients among the country’s workforce. Some marchers intended to present a petition to Labour minister Nicholas Goche and Finance Minister Herbert Murerwa.
First, the objectives were too broad, general or amorphous. How does one define “high levels of taxation” for example?
The second problem was the exclusivity of the language chosen. It is not just the country’s workforce that is suffering. All the people are suffering, including housewives, peasant farmers and everyone who is self-employed in the rural and informal sectors of the economy.
Where was the ZCTU during Operation Murambatsvina that rendered more than 700 000 traders and informals homeless in May 2005? If the ZCTU does not represent them, why should they embrace any planned mass action by the union?
Third, the nature of the objectives suggested that ZCTU does not want a “regime change” but wants the same regime to introduce new policy changes to alleviate the suffering of the country’s workforce. It is an exercise in grand delusion if the ZCTU thinks the regime, which has failed Zimbabweans for the past 25 years, is capable of improving the lot of the country’s workforce, let alone that of all Zimbabweans. The vast majority of the Zimbabwe people want regime change — a new horse, rather than flogging a dead horse.
Fourth, the objectives were non-achievable. The regime could have allowed the strike to proceed, accepted the petitions, and promise to import more anti-retroviral drugs as well as introduce legislation that would give each worker $1 million. Would that have amounted to victory?
It also appears the ZCTU acted on its own, without collaborating or consulting with other opposition groups — the political parties, churches and student organisations. But it is not the ZCTU alone that is guilty of this. At one time, you hear of church leaders mobilising for action, then at another time you hear of opposition parties taking their own separate action.
Divided opposition groups are a delight to a barbarous regime. If each group does its own thing, the regime will play one group against the other and remain in power. It is called “divide and rule”, stupid.
It needs to be reiterated that no single opposition party or group by itself can remove entrenched tyranny from power. It takes an alliance of opposition forces. If Zimbabwe opposition group leaders don’t get it by now, they never will and the country will slide into war.
ZCTU leaders don’t seem to have learned anything at all from their own experience or that of other African countries. Name me just two objectives that protest marches have been able to achieve in the past five years. Just two!
Protest marches, to put it bluntly, are just plain dumb. Just because they worked against the white colonialists, who were “frightened” by a huge mass of black people, does not mean they will work against black neo-colonialists.
Have ZCTU leaders not heard about security forces in other African countries arresting leaders of protest marches, beating up demonstrators and even opening fire on protestors? Have they not followed events in Ethiopia where 45 were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting fraudulent elections in May 2005? How about Nigeria, where trade union leaders were arrested in a bid to protest high fuel prices in 2004?
You don’t fight a tyrannical regime with protest marches unless the security forces are neutral and professional or are on your side. Short of this, the regime will unleash them on the protestors and their leaders. This does not require rocket science.
There are better ways of fighting a tyrannical regime and they require a huge dose of the imagination and learning from the experiences of other countries. First, if a strike should be called, it must be of the “stay home” nature, not in the streets for security forces to beat people up and arrest leaders. Such a successful “stay home” — dubbed “dead city” campaign — was launched by Pa Fru Ndi, of the Social Democratic Party of Cameroon in 1991. On a certain particular day, all the residents of a certain city just stayed home, rendering the city “dead”. And it revolved from one city to another across Cameroon.
The objective was simple: a demand for a new voter register. The government caved in, although President Paul Biya subsequently stole the 1992 election.
Second, if a strike must be called to put pressure on government, the most effective is a civil servants’ strike. In March 1978, civil servants in Ghana went on strike to press their demands for better working conditions. It led to a chain of events which culminated in the ouster of the military regime of General IK Acheampong in July 1978.
General Akuffo did not address the grievances of the civil servants. Another strike was called in November 1978. That too set in motion events which led to the overthrow of the Akuffo regime by Jerry Rawlings in June 1979.
In 1989, civil servants in Benin went on strike to demand payment of their salary arrears. That strike too paralysed government and the country, setting in motion events which led to the ouster of Mathieu Kerekou in January 1991.
In Benin, the political parties, churches, and civil society groups stepped in and convened the first Sovereign National Conference, which tossed the Marxist-Leninist Kerekou out of office. Benin has been a democratic country since then.
In the case of Ghana, Rawlings stepped down after three months in 1979. Two years later, he staged another military coup to remove the civilian government in 1981 and ruled for nearly 20 years. In 2000 and fed up with his tyrannical rule, Ghanaians kicked him out of office. I was part of that effort.
The bottom line is this: if opposition groups in Zimbabwe cannot shut down the civil service or think imaginatively of effective ways of instituting political change, they will be politely ignored by the international community and the people of Zimbabwe will continue to suffer. Protest marches, appeals and petitions don’t work against a regime that is blind and stone-deaf.
* George BN Ayittey is a Ghanaian academic who teaches at the American University in Washington DC.