The best president Zimbabwe never had

SIMBA Makoni’s decision to join the March 2008 presidential election has undoubtedly generated a lot of political hope both inside and outside Zimbabwe. This is not surprising given that for almost a decade Zimbabweans have increasingly felt trapped not just by the economic crisis and the political deadlock in the country but also the dearth of a visionary leadership.

Under their current leadership, both Zanu PF and the MDC have become politically redundant organisations offering voters very little to choose between them. President Robert Mugabe has become a liability to the country, while the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai has proved to be a weak, indecisive leader who cannot be trusted with the delicate task of leading a nation. He has been making blunderous political decisions and serious errors of judgement since 2000.
In contrast to Mugabe and Tsvangirai who both epitomise leadership bankruptcy, Makoni represents hope and pragmatism. He is intelligent, level-headed and realistic. He has outstanding anti-colonial credentials and thus cannot be dismissed as an upstart.

While in government, Makoni consistently objected to irrational policies in both government and the politburo, and this cost him his position in cabinet. This was not the first time he was booted out of government for speaking his mind and his principled opposition to unsound policies.
But most importantly, Makoni is a simple, honest man of honour and integrity. He is one of the few senior leaders in Zanu PF who have not been implicated in corruption at a time when almost the entire top leadership of the party is absorbed in self-agrandisement projects and out-competing each other to strip the country of its valuable assets.

Makoni’s entry into Zimbabwe’s presidential elections thus promises a different future for Zimbabwean politics. As many observers have noted, his entry presents Zimbabweans with the best prospect for change.

However, Makoni’s success depends on the effectiveness of his campaign in a race that has already started to be dirty, vicious and tight.
Regrettably, his campaign so far seems incapable of rising to the occasion. His inexperienced team has underestimated the hurdles to be cleared in this race and clearly did not adequately prepare for the difficulty of running against a Mugabe team prepared to retain, and even mummify, him in office at all costs.
All the obstacles that Makoni’s team has encountered, such as transport and fuel procurement problems, printing of campaign material and even the difficulty in opening a bank account, could have been anticipated by a better organised outfit. A little consultation with seasoned Zimbabwean opposition campaigners would have helped Makoni’s team to prepare for the wide range of obstacles to be put in their way. Simple consultation would have also helped his team develop effective counter-strategies.

Another major problem with Makoni’s campaign is that it has no known structures on the ground. Those wishing to support his cause don’t even know how to do so.

He also has no visible team around him, save for academic Ibbo Mandaza and the politically inexperienced, retired army major, Kudzai Mbudzi, who have both been appearing with him since his entry into the race.

All the much-talked-about support of senior members of Zanu PF has remained speculative. Only former cabinet minister and politburo member Dumiso Dabengwa and former Speaker of Parliament Cyril Ndebele have dared to express publicly their support for his project.

The rest of Makoni’s backers within Zanu PF have benefited from Zanu PF’s politics of patronage and are afraid to lose their ill-gotten wealth if they back Makoni publicly. They are not going to come out any time soon. They will continue to play the usual sinjonjo (hide and seek) politics of Zanu PF and will come out of their political closets only when they are reassured of Makoni’s victory.

The biggest challenge that Makoni faces is time. Makoni entered the race very late and he needs to make up for lost time. Until his decision to enter the race, many Zimbabweans interested in change had given up hope. Many, having decided not to vote in the 2008 elections, had not even bothered to register. Makoni’s delayed decision to announce his candidacy is thus going to cost him votes from all those potential voters who will not be able to cast their vote simply because they were too frustrated by the choice at their disposal to register.

Against this backdrop, Makoni needs to step up his campaign and reach out to the electorate. Right now, he has little visibility on the ground. Apart from the initial announcement of his candidacy and the two weekend rallies he has had in Bulawayo and Harare, Makoni has not made much effort to reach out to the voters. Many Zimbabweans, especially those in the remote rural villages, are definitely ready for a leadership change but are actually frustrated with the lack of detail about the Makoni project.

His campaign has obviously been ignored by the largely state-controlled media, but he has not made enough use of alternative means to reach out to the millions of Zimbabweans inside and outside the country. Such alternative means include mobile phones, bush telegraphy, independent weekly newspapers and radio stations operating from outside such as SW Radio and Studio 7.

Any effective electoral campaign requires media exposure. The media today has a wide reach and compensates for lack of physical presence in far-flung parts of the country. In the specific case of Zimbabwe with a hostile political and media environment, a sympathetic independent media is a crucial ally for the opposition.
Yet Makoni does not seem to appreciate this point. On the few occasions that he has been interviewed by the media, he has not effectively utilised the power of the media to reach out. He has appeared to be aloof, arrogant and abrupt — a characteristic which is soon going to alienate him from this powerful fourth estate.
Makoni’s campaign in the media has so far been disorganised, to say the least. Even his manifesto-unveiling briefing was chaotic and unprofessionally organised. He ducks and dives in response to direct questions.

In cases where he has been pressured to provide an answer, he has often provided tactless responses. A good example is the BBC interview he had with John Simpson on February 28.

Having initially responded well to Simpson’s question about “international prosecution” for Mugabe, Makoni was literally cornered into making a careless statement about this sensitive issue.

During his recent interview with South Africa’s Radio 702, Makoni was aggressive and abrasive towards both the host and telephone callers. Makoni did not see the need to justify his candidacy. He arrogantly dismissed callers with statements like “if you had read my statement” or “if you know anything about me you wouldn’t ask me or think that about me”.

The same Radio 702 interview betrayed the lack of a coordinated media strategy. Makoni repeatedly inquired if the interview was live — something his aides should have established before handing him the phone. If he did answer the phone directly, then that’s no less worrisome.

Moreover, after being told that the interview was live, he protested about not being given advance notice. It was only when the talk-show host reminded him that he was notified about the interview a week back that he reluctantly agreed to proceed.

There has been an element of overconfidence on Makoni’s part — a factor which might prove to be his greatest undoing. The reluctance to explain his political credentials points to an egoistical leader who sees himself as a messianic figure.

Makoni seems to think it is self-evident that he is the answer to the Zimbabwean stalemate. He may well be that answer, but he needs to do some serious hard work. Without this, as one Zimbabwean lawyer recently noted, Makoni might be the best president Zimbabwe never had.

l Mcebisi Ndletyana and James Muzondidya are senior research specialists, Democracy and Governance Programme of the Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria.

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