DEVOTED Zimbabwe watchers will have noticed a change in events typically preceding any elections in the country, especially during the past decade.
Report by Mthulisi Mathuthu
Usually, President Robert Mugabe sets the ball rolling with either brazen or thinly-veiled threats punctuated with jocular jibes at his rivals.
Then as the political tensions rise, the service chiefs generally intervene, sometimes by issuing statements to heighten pressure and fear before all hell breaks loose. This has been Mugabe and Zanu PF’s standard script.
This time around, with only a few months before the elections, a new pattern is readable, but unlike before, the trend is rather unfamiliar. Instead of Mugabe, Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa has been sabre-rattling followed by Rugare Gumbo, both of whom threatened Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai would not rule Zimbabwe even if he wins elections.
This followed separate but similar threats by three senior army commanders Major-Generals Douglas Nyikayaramba, Martin Chedondo and Trust Mugoba in recent months. Naturally, public opinion was universally agreed these threats pointed towards a coup in the event of Tsvangirai winning the next poll.
In a rare sequel, Tsvangirai issued a riposte to the effect that the threats were nothing but hot air because, as he claimed, he was assured by the disciplined lot within the military hierarchy that they would not back a coup.
That is on the one hand. On the other, Mugabe did not just remain mum on the issue, but instead appeared at last week’s Copac constitutional conference to play a peace-maker as he pleaded for calm.
Tsvangirai’s fearless response was not just a first, but a clever one too. He read through the strategy: Mugabe, who all along has held Tsvangirai in contempt and was belligerent, is now genuinely scared which explains the cataract of threats by his diehards flowing rather awkwardly.
Since Mugabe’s role has all along been to play a civilian camouflaging the quasi-military state, this time around and in keeping with an unannounced deal, the subordinates and the army have to reciprocate by projecting their mutual fear of Tsvangirai.
Clearly, Mugabe and his loyalists fear an election result that might lead them to contemplate an open coup. So they must rattle their sabres now to scare away Tsvangirai.
The fear of staging a coup is real given what happened to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
So, Tsvangirai’s response, for once in a long time, was a stroke of genius. But as smart as it is and perhaps unbeknown to Tsvangirai, Mugabe has more tricks up his sleeves. Rather than simply succumb to his fear or remain belligerent, Mugabe has also opted for “strategic patience” by deploying a “hug the enemy” ploy.
Cognisant of the mutual pathological resentment between Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube — the leader of the other MDC faction — Mugabe is doing everything and may even stoke ethnic tensions to fit his usual divide-and-rule strategy.
He might try to exploit the issue of devolution — Ncube’s trump card. Mugabe’s strategy is to create the false impression that rather than promote decentralisation of power and government functions, devolution is about federalism or secession, a deliberate distortion although there are some ignorant Zanu PF officials who can’t distinguish these systems.
Mugabe is now busy cajoling Tsvangirai to join his alliance with Arthur Mutambara to gang up against Ncube. To his credit, Tsvangirai seems to be resisting amid suspicions of collusion.
If Tsvangirai is to accept Mugabe’s invitation into an alliance with Mutambara to fight Ncube, he would be undermining himself while falling for this divide-and-rule approach.
Tsvangirai must never embrace a leader and a party which pursue such brand of authoritarian politics.
To mask their failed authoritarian project, Mugabe and Zanu PF govern through an aberration: a calibrated mixture of bigotry, repression and a smidgen of democracy.
So when Mugabe passionately denounces violence, while his diehards threaten military intervention if Tsvangirai wins, this must not be seen as a contradiction but a strategy. Tsvangirai had better understand Mugabe’s current gestures in that light. His attempt to rope him into his alliance also falls into that broad strategy.
Astonishingly, Ncube, whom one would expect to be strategic in his thinking, has fallen headlong into Mugabe’s divide-and-rule politics. Fully aware as he is that Mugabe seeks to isolate him, Ncube should have known that by boycotting the constitutional conference last week he was falling into his trap.
Mugabe wanted Ncube to do just that. At least, Tsvangirai sought to distance himself from Mugabe’s strategy through his speech at the conference.
Ncube must have put aside his petty squabbles with Mutambara and presented his views on a national platform, but instead he chose to be part of a sideshow. If anybody was pleased by Ncube’s boycott, it was surely Mugabe.
Clearly, Ncube did not need a stayaway to register his displeasure at Mutambara’s presence at the conference. He should realise Mutambara is no longer his but Mugabe’s burden and move on.
Effectively, Ncube has created a problem for himself for he must now swallow his pride and climb down — one thing a politician must not do during election time — and attend meetings in Mutambara’s presence as he has been doing anyway in cabinet. More lethal for Ncube, Mugabe, crafty as he is, might seize the moment and intensify his plot to commute his temporary boycott into permanent political ex-communication.
However, what is important now is for Tsvangirai and Ncube to keep their eyes on the ball in the midst of seemingly contradictory signals from the politico-military alliance behind Mugabe and not allow this divide-and-rule strategy to prevail ahead of crucial elections.
Mathuthu is a Zimbabwean journalist based in London.