MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s star has faded considerably since the height of his popularity in 2008/09.
By Simukai Tinhu, Political Analyst
Following defeat in the July 2013 general elections, Roy Bennett, the treasurer-general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), made a direct call for Tsvangirai to step down and make way for new blood. Tsvangirai responded by dismissing Bennett’s remarks as “irresponsible“. Troubled by threats of violence against him and racist abuse, Bennett pulled back.
Shortly after Bennett made his remarks, another senior party apparatchik, Elias Mudzuri, implicitly asked Tsvangirai to step down. Mudzuri bears the scars of the MDC-T leader’s power plays. In 2010, he dramatically lost his cabinet post when Tsvangirai, then prime minister in the coalition government, dismissed underperforming government ministers from his party in an apparent purge of alleged rivals. For this reason, Mudzuri’s manoeuvre was dismissed as being driven by vengeance. With sparse support, his leadership ambitions were waved away.
The huddling against Tsvangirai has not only been confined to those at the heart of the MDC’s political establishment, but also officials such as Ian Kay and John Robertson; white politicians who have always felt a special sense of alienation in the non-white-dominated opposition group. This group’s bid to reinvigorate the leadership renewal debate collapsed as their calls for Tsvangirai to step down were either disregarded or dismissed as racist. Establishing their outsider views was always going to be an uphill task.
It looked like the embattled MDC-T leader had survived the tidal wave that followed his heaviest defeat yet, until a couple of weeks ago, when another senior official in the party, Elliot Mangoma, penned a document he argued was offering Tsvangirai an exit strategy.
Frantic to keep control of the party against this latest episode of elite discontentment, in response, Tsvangirai’s allies instituted a series of punitive measures (including banning party officials from discussing the succession issue) that ultimately resulted in the Tsvangirai loyalists resorting to the reproduction of the tried and tested strategy of silencing opponents — violence. Mangoma, together with secretary-general, Tendai Biti, and youth leader, Solomon Madzore, were among senior officials who were either beaten or roughed up outside the party’s headquarters in Harare.
Mangoma, who has since made a complaint to the police, alleges the violence was at the instigation of Tsvangirai.
“He led me to the slaughter. I was beaten straight in his face,” Mangoma explained to the local media. To make matters worse, Tsvangirai did not immediately condemn the violence. Following pressure from advisors and colleagues, he eventually did, but tersely and with little conviction. The party leader insists that his hands are clean and that the violence was the work of overzealous party supporters. Either way, it is a sordid event that has tarnished Tsvangirai’s reputation as a democrat.
Biti is seen as the second most powerful politician in the MDC-T. The popular conception of him is that of a steady intellectual party anchor — the brains behind the brave face of Tsvangirai. It is a public secret that he harbours leadership ambitions of his own.
However, Biti has been determinedly silent on this front — depending on political operatives on the fringes of the party to push for his undeclared leadership interest.
Mangoma is largely viewed as Biti’s consigliere. Besides being a founder member of the party whom Tsvangirai entrusted with the energy ministry following the banishment of Mudzuri, Mangoma has also held other important roles within the MDC-T such as being the party’s chief negotiator and strategist, and deputy treasurer-general who, until recently, controlled the financial levers. Thus, by using Mangoma, a very senior official, Tsvangirai’s allies interpreted this move as a fratricidal ambush by the MDC’s secretary-general.
Violence was employed both as an effective way to deal with it and also a gesture that further disquiet would not be tolerated. Biti has been diplomatic about the incident, condemning violence and avoiding finger-pointing even against attempts to petrol-bomb his house.
Tsvangirai vs Biti
The schism between the co-architects of the MDC-T, Tsvangirai and Biti, has been there since the earliest days. The pair vehemently dislike each other, but they have an implicit agreement that open conflict is to be avoided as it is detrimental to the party. However, the inability of Tsvangirai’s allies to keep the promise, and more importantly, Tsvangirai’s continued reluctance to make way for his rival, means that cosy co-existence might be history.
Tsvangirai’s supporters admit that maintaining Tsvangirai as leader is not necessarily democratic, but is the only hope that the opposition party has.
Realpolitik, according to Tsvangirai’s allies, means that strategic dictatorship is better than quixotically embarking on a crusade to renew leadership at the expense of popular support which the current leader enjoys. These Tsvangirai allies are mostly former students and workers’ union leaders. They are suspicious of technocrats such as Mangoma and Biti whom they view as forces devoid of loyalty.
On the other hand, the constituency pushing for Biti to take over is not content with the current order. This group argues that though he does not yet command the same level of grassroots support as Tsvangirai, Biti has the political instincts required to snatch power from the ruling party.
This political tribe is constituted of corporate managers and professionals such as senior lawyers and engineers and the remnants of the white community. Devoid of the militancy that characterises Tsvangirai’s group, this clan forms an interlocking directorate of power elites that controls much of political life within the MDC-T due to their technical expertise, connections to the outside world and access to donor funds.
Despite his falling stock among the elites, Tsvangirai has indicated that he is not serving his last days as party leader. Instead, he is seeking to consolidate his authority in the face of growing revolt.
Splitting the party?
In 2005, when Welshman Ncube and Trudy Stevenson were assaulted after challenging Tsvangirai, they bolted from the party. Though the violence against Mangoma and Biti has widened the faultlines within the party as rival groups become more self-absorbed, insistent and increasingly radical, threatening to overwhelm what used to be a relatively disciplined outfit, the MDC-T is not about to be sundered into two groups.
Biti’s group has showed little interest in splitting the party. If defeated at the 2016 congress, they might be driven into outer darkness or even defenestrated entirely.
Tsvangirai made democracy a signature issue when he started his political career back in 1999. This message struck a chord with his supporters. But that was then and this is now.
Today, exhausted from several defeats, and paranoid following challenges to his leadership, Tsvangirai has wrapped himself in an authoritarian mantle. Instead of facilitating leadership renewal, he has chosen to tighten his grip on the leadership at a time when doubts about his abilities are increasing.
In an attempt to consolidate his authority, the opposition leader has found himself in an embarrassing position in which he has to resort to undemocratic means to control insurgents.
Threats to suspend or expel rebellious officials have been made, and discussions on the succession issue have been banned, strengthening doubts about the sincerity of his calls for debate on leadership renewal. Dissent is treated as betrayal and those who question his leadership are treated as Zanu PF infiltrators.
Not only is this undemocratic behaviour crystallising deep resentment of Tsvangirai’s leadership, but it is also tarnishing the party image.
Today, what used to be seen as a pro-democracy movement, is now drawing cynicism and criticism, and the story of Tsvangirai as a democrat is increasingly giving way to that of an arrogant leader. Has the democratic project run aground? Tsvangirai doesn’t think so. He still proclaims interest in achieving true democracy in Zimbabwe, but it appears he aims to do so by emptying it from his party.
Since the 2005 assault on some leaders in the party, the use and threat of violence has become something of a habit. What might turn out to be President Robert Mugabe’s greatest achievement against his rival aren’t his electoral victories, but the manner in which it has changed the way the MDC-T does politics and also convinced many Zimbabweans that in spirit, they are the same.
But the strategy of violence has guaranteed throwbacks against Tsvangirai’s leadership. Mangoma and his allies have already indicated that they will not be easily bullied. The violent strategy also risks inviting an uglier fight to topple him. By resorting to violence, he has taken a course that is probably more dangerous to himself than to his rivals.
Undemocratic and violent practices sit badly with the West. By opting for this course, Tsvangirai risks tarnishing the most cherished fruit of his leadership, at least in the eyes of his supporters; an alliance with most Western countries.
To date, the West’s political elite and media have been patient with Tsvangirai’s inability to deliver transition and also his increasingly undemocratic tendencies.
This patience will not last forever.
Indeed, unnoticed, his reservoirs of international support have been slowly drying. For example, the West has allegedly stopped funding Tsvangirai, and has been channelling money to Biti’s group.
Also, the once hagiographic depiction of the MDC-T leader in the international media is quickly being replaced by silence or critical reporting. The West is also distancing itself from the party by a notable discourse towards Zanu PF, especially the lifting of sanctions and promises to provide the first loan to Zimbabwe since the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000. Most worrying, international isolation will give Zanu PF the opportunity to annihilate the MDC-T leadership with impunity.
Not only is Tsvangirai isolating the party from the international community, but also from the local media and civil society. The opposition party has largely benefitted from the strong support of the civil society movement, in particular, human rights groups, and in recent years the two made a coherent pair that shared the same political goal of advancing democracy in Zimbabwe.
This strategic alliance is under threat — the civil society movement recently issued a statement condemning violence within the MDC-T. Also, the informal alliance with the independent local media is a fragile construction. The independent media, which largely accepted him as a democrat, is becoming increasingly critical.
The absolute control that Tsvangirai once had among those considered his political servants is also cracking. For example, behaviours and statements by a triumvirate considered to be in his orbit indicate that this group might be adjusting their loyalty.
Charlton Hwende, the militant loyalist, has been known for long to be privately plotting Tsvangirai’s ouster. Worryingly, Tsvangirai’s apparent protege, Nelson Chamisa, has been cited by Wiki-Leaks describing his boss as “weak and (having) failed to play a co-ordinating role of government ministries”. And Obert Gutu, another militant loyalist, has in the past criticised Tsvangirai for his “tendency to listen to the wrong people”.
It appears the man who not long ago seemed to have many friends, now stands alone.
It is not easy to judge the extent to which Tsvangirai recognises his loneliness. In public he seems to be retreating into denial by embarking on a series of sparsely attended public engagement meetings in an attempt to convince supporters that there is no alternative in the party and also display to his rivals how much he is adored by the grassroots. This move suggests that he, just like his nemesis, Mugabe, has no understanding that there is always an alternative, and also that politicians are generally disliked.
The outcome of the elections shows that the trade unionist has lost significant support and will struggle to regain that same level of support given his personal scandals, party corruption, violence and undemocratic behaviour. Questions about his legitimacy will loom even larger than before if he decides to extend his tenure beyond 2016. In other words, he has less authority and more problems to deal with than at any point in his career.
Time to go?
Tsvangirai is an accomplished opposition politician. Apart from the scars, he has the international accolades and most importantly, the admiration of thousands of men and women in and outside the country to show for it. His leadership of the MDC touched the collective conscience of many people.
But the MDC-T is in bad shape and its leader has moved away from what he told supporters in 1999 when he helped found the opposition group. Most importantly, the growth of the insurgent movement within the party, and the routing in last year’s elections, have severely weakened his authority. Faced with such a scenario, it is crucial to be realistic; a leader who cannot defeat his own party, has a long shot at defeating Zanu PF.
Sooner rather than later, the MDC-T will need a democratic and at the same time strong leader who can stop the chaos and refurbish the party in preparation for the 2018 elections.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.