OPPOSITION Movement for Democratic (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s acquittal on trumped-up charges of high treason has triggered a heated debate on the political meaning and significance of the ruling.
P align=left>There is a variety and a breath-taking range of explanations of the judgement and what it means in the current political scheme of things. Analysts touched on a number of fundamental political issues such democracy and rule of law, judiciary, elections, and by implication, economic recovery.
They also examined how events are likely to pan out in the short to medium-term in reflection of a case that could easily have had far-reaching political consequences had it ended with Tsvangirai sentenced to life imprisonment or condemned to the gallows.
Some analysts say Tsvangirai’s acquittal was to be expected because there was simply no case to begin with, some say it was unexpected given the political situation, others say it was a victory for justice, and others claim it was a triumph for democracy. Some say it opened a window of opportunity for a negotiated political settlement.
Yet others think the ruling vindicated Tsvangirai’s plea of innocence, while it exposed Zanu PF’s malicious and dictatorial prosecution. Others say it showed the civilised face of the raging Zanu PF regime as opposed to its barbaric political culture, and some say it also proved Zimbabwe’s judiciary and the rule of law are still intact.
Political observers differ on the impact of the ruling on the political fortunes of the MDC and the ruling Zanu PF. Some say the ruling was victory for the MDC because Tsvangirai is finally out of danger and will now concentrate of leading his party without being constrained by political harassment and fears of a death penalty.
Those who think like this say the ruling will reinvigorate Tsvangirai and galvanise MDC from a state of limbo into dynamic political action ahead of next year’s general election. They say the treason case had become a chink in the MDC’ armour as it had disoriented the party into political uncertainty.
MDC deputy leader Gibson Sibanda said Tsvangirai’s acquittal was a blow to the “forces of tyranny”. In classical thought, a tyranny is a thoroughly corrupt and incompetent regime which rules in its own interest and not those of the people that it purports to represent. It relies more on coercive power in the absence of the rule of law than legitimate governance. This absence of the rule of law suggests government by will of the tyrant.
“His acquittal is a victory for the people of Zimbabwe and a huge blow to the forces of tyranny,” Sibanda said. “The ruling sends out a message of hope to all those struggling for freedom and democracy both inside and outside Zimbabwe.”
Although the MDC leaders feared the worst could happen, Sibanda said they never doubted Tsvangirai’s innocence. “The MDC and the people of Zimbabwe have never had any doubt about the innocence of Tsvangirai and have always remained confident that justice would eventually prevail. People were not fooled by the state’s desperate attempt to smear the image of the MDC and its leadership,” he said.
“The treason charge, and the unrelenting campaign of violence and intimidation against the MDC exposes clearly the level of panic that the emergence and growth of the MDC, as the leaders of Zimbabwe’s social liberation movement, has caused within Zanu PF.”
While the MDC clearly thought it was victory for them, some analysts did not think so.
University of Zimbabwe law lecturer and National Constitutional Assembly chairman Lovemore Madhuku said Tsvangirai’s acquittal benefited Zanu PF more than the MDC.
“It benefits Zanu PF more than the MDC because the ruling party is now able to lie to the world that there is rule of law and independence of the judiciary,” Madhuku said. “The MDC is now more likely to contest next year’s election, which Zanu PF desperately needs to see happening to avoid having a farcical poll. It was an attempt at a sophisticated political approach.”
Madhuku said Zanu PF tried to create a win-win situation by destabilising the MDC during trial and appearing magnanimous at the end, as well as claiming the case proved the rule of law and judicial autonomy existed.
He said Zanu PF would deny that it was authoritarian in the first place to pursue a political trial which had no chance of succeeding before a competent court of law and judge by saying it was only following the due process.
A day before the judgement, government warned the MDC against violence in the aftermath of the ruling, suggesting Tsvangirai was going in. It also created drama and a security spectacle to raise tension.
Jet fighters hovered over Harare, soldiers — some mounting horses paramilitary units and anti-riot police swarmed the city. Roads leading to the High Court were blocked and people were harassed. Prison vehicles were put on duty awaiting the ruling.
But after the ruling the whole melodrama was deflated. Police looked glum as MDC officials and supporters celebrated outside the court. The visibly exasperated security agents, who seemed to be out of their depth about the political deception around them, later fired tear-gas at celebrating MDC supporters, while rampaging Zanu PF youths stampeded across the streets.
After the stage show, came in perhaps vintage Machiavellianism, deception, and threadbare opportunism.
Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said government was disappointed that a “guilty man” had been allowed to walk away scot-free.
Information minister Jonathan Moyo waxed lyrical about the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, diverting attention from the content of the ruling that exposed an amateurish sting operation by Zanu PF agents.
Few observers of Zimbabwean politics however can doubt that the judiciary has been politically re-engineered and compromised.
A number of independent judges were hounded out of office and replaced by political appointees who later went on to refuse to deal with urgent election petitions and allegedly played a collaborative role in the closure of private newspapers.
In some cases previous rulings were reversed and political programmes like unlawful land seizures were legalised, analysts said.
While the MDC was clumsy in falling into such a juvenile trap, the issue remains that the wicked plot was cruel and needlessly wasted more than $20 billion of taxpayers’ money. Discredited state witness Ari Ben-Menashe reportedly used US$2 million ($14 billion) alone.
However, UZ political analyst John Makumbe said Zanu PF was a major beneficiary of Tsvangirai’s acquittal. “It creates an opportunity for Zanu PF to posture as a democratic regime and claim that the rule of law is there,” he said. “It also helped Zanu PF to avoid elevating Tsvangirai into a (Nelson) Mandela and setting him on course to power.”
Former South African president Mandela was convicted of treason in 1964 with several other nationalists and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 27 years in detention but his image grew well beyond the control of the apartheid regime. Mandela emerged from jail in 1990 as a towering statesman and cruised to power in 1994.
Makumbe said Zanu PF did not want a Tsvangirai conviction, especially at a time when it was battling to “extinguish fires across Africa about its appalling governance record”.
Government has of late been struggling to defend itself against an African Union Commission on Human and People’s Rights report and a United Nations Economic Commission for Africa report which said there were widespread human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
However, Makumbe said the treason case also left Zanu PF further damaged because it confirmed the regime was bent on destroying opponents, the whole idea of democracy and competitive politics through “fictitious treason cases”, as has always been done since Independence in 1980.
The MDC also raised the same point last Friday after Tsvangirai was set free. “Zanu PF’s distorted view of democracy tolerates no threat to its power, hence attempts to decapitate the opposition by laying an elaborate trap in order to level charges of treason against the MDC leader,” Sibanda said.
Zanu PF unsuccessfully charged former PF Zapu leaders Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku, as well as Ndabaningi Sithole with treason. “This is the third time that Mugabe has attempted to destroy one of his rivals by putting them on trial to face trumped-up charges of treason,” Sibanda said.
“First, Dr Joshua Nkomo had to flee in 1983, then Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa, then Ndabaningi Sithole in 1992 and now Morgan Tsvangirai.”
Madhuku said the only way the MDC could benefit from this case was by “raising fundamental issues which Mugabe cannot really address without effectively surrendering power,” he said. “They must demand a total package of reforms by premising their grievances around a constitutional overhaul. It’s good to have electoral reforms but that alone cannot change the political landscape which is what is needed to establish a democratic dispensation.”