IT is now a bare-knuckles or hand-to-hand fratricidal combat in the imploding MDC-T as fierce political rivals who for years have been working in the shadows plotting against each other have finally abandoned all pretence to line up according to their factions in a battle likely to have a devastating impact on the country’s biggest opposition party and possibly change dynamics on Zimbabwe’s political landscape.
The Zimbabwe Independent this week set out to further understand the internal dynamics of the MDC-T and causes of the current infighting triggered by suspended deputy treasurer Elton Mangoma’s daring demand that founding party leader Morgan Tsvangirai must now go because of a string of political failures and private life indiscretions which have rendered him a liability, while eroding his legacy.
Party insiders say the MDC-T has been a volcano waiting to erupt for a long time. After years of distrust, tensions and undeclared wars, the magma is finally erupting as the volatile lava spreads across the party and political landscape with potentially disastrous consequences.
The root causes of the problem appear to be ideological, lack of leadership and factionalism, over and above the party’s failures to capture power and last year’s heavy general elections defeat which has left the MDC-T in disarray.
Political analysts and party insiders say the problems in the MDC-T can be traced back to its formation in 1999. The party was formed as a broad church encompassing a wide range of groups and opinions.
It was an eclectic mix of trade unionists, academics, professionals, farmers, students and civil society activists, among others, who all had different interests and expectations other than the common objective of removing President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF from power. In other words, it was largely a protest movement.
Its members had different reasons why Mugabe must be removed.
Constituent interest groups also did not seem to agree ideologically – on what set of beliefs their political and economic system should be based on.
Although the ideological differences were managed at the beginning, they were to later fuel the expulsion of leftists like Munyaradzi Gwisai and others.
This was also partly a factor during the 2005 split even though leadership rivalries, political ambitions and personality clashes were at the centre of it.
While the MDC-T was supposed to be a labour party or a social democratic alternative, over the years it drifted to the centre right due to its funding matrix and association with organisations like the conservative International Republican Institute
Resultantly, over the years the MDC-T began to sound like a proponent of the Washington Consensus – pushing policies oriented towards a strongly market-based economy rather than protecting the interests of the vulnerable in society.
Party officials say the divergent interests resulted in tensions and misunderstandings between those with a labour background and technocrats at the time led by then the secretary-general Professor Welshman Ncube. This eventually led to the split in 2005 after officials clashed on whether to participate in senatorial elections or not.
Although MDC’s national council voted in favour of participation in the election, Tsvangirai defied its decision, leading to a split.
As a result of ideological, political and leadership differences as well as ethnic tensions, two distinct major camps initially emerged, one led by Tsvangirai and the other by Ncube. That fuelled the 2005 split.
After that re-alignments took the form a pro-Tsvangirai and pro-secretary general Tendai Biti factions. Despite years of denial, the factions actually existed. After last year’s general elections in which the MDC-T suffered a heavy yet controversial defeat, the Biti camp pushed for leadership renewal as a means of injecting new blood and impetus into the party to arrest decline. This is being resisted by Tsvangirai’s faction.
Tensions in the party reached new heights after Mangoma in January wrote a letter to Tsvangirai urging him to quit, accusing him of failing to provide effective leadership, abusing party funds and tarnishing the party’s image through his sex scandals, among other things.
Mangoma’s letter angered Tsvangirai’s loyalists who allegedly plotted his assault at the party’s Harvest House headquarters in Harare in February. The MDC-T national executine initially met and decided to close the matter but after the second letter the national council moved to suspend him last Friday. However, Biti rejected the decision, saying it was null and void, adding fuel to a smouldering fire.
In terms of alignments at the top, Tsvangirai has the majority of party officials on his side. He enjoys the support of his deputy Thokozani Khupe, national chairperson Lovemore Moyo, deputy chairperson Morgan Komichi, organising secretary Nelson Chamisa, deputy organising secretary Abednico Bhebhe, party spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora, deputy secretary general Tapuwa Mashakada and Women’s Affairs boss Theresa Makone.
Biti reportedly has the backing of Mangoma, treasurer-general Roy Bennett and youth affairs chairperson Solomon Madzore.
Tsvangirai is also said to be have the majority in the national executive and national council, although Biti has support within party structures nationwide.
MDC-T insiders say the party might bring forward and hold its congress either this year or in March 2015. Already senior members are strategically positioning themselves for the posts. The congress presents an opportunity for the Biti camp to oust Tsvangirai, thereby effectively deciding the course the party will take into the future.
Insiders however say Tsvangirai still has massive grassroots support and will win hands down or in fact unchallenged. “There is now a scramble by officials, including those who have been sympathetic to calls for leadership renewal in the past, to huddle with Tsvangirai in the hope of retaining or getting top positions,” said an official.
If Biti and his faction do not break away, the congress may see Chamisa going head-to-head with Biti for the secretary-general’s position, should Biti decide not to challenge Tsvangirai.
There is however a strong possibility Biti may quit before congress because if he stays he might lose at congress.
As talk of an early congress gathers momentum, a fierce battle for the control the structures has erupted. Besides his internal popularity, Tsvangirai has the advantage of having Chamisa – the organising secretary – in his camp. He will play a crucial role in the party’s restructuring exercise ahead of the congress and already the Biti camp is complaining its people are being purged nationwide.
Matabeleland North provincial chairperson Sengezo Tshabangu, Matabeleland South chairperson Watchy Sibanda and Manicaland provincial chairperson Julius Magarangoma as well as provincial spokesperson Pishai Muchauraya, who are believed to be in Biti’s camp, have been suspended. Tsvangirai has also been holding rallies to drum up support ahead of the congress. The rallies have been used as an opportunity to vilify Biti and his allies.
The Biti faction has also been having closed door meetings and mobilising people in structures behind the scenes, setting up the stage for a cutthroat battle for the heart and soul of the MDC-T.
Donors and allies
Some of Tsvangirai’s former allies and the donor community appear to have dumped him and are in support of leadership renewal which, by design or default, helps Biti’s faction. The spat between Tsvangirai and his erstwhile international benefactors was clearly shown by his outburst a fortnight ago, warning diplomats to stop meddling in the affairs of his party.
“We have our friends out there. We are surprised by people who say we want that one to lead the party. Is that the work of diplomats?” Tsvangirai asked, before asking supporters to contribute towards the party’s survival.
Last week, the European Union delegation issued a statement “in agreement with the EU heads of mission in Zimbabwe” expressing deep concern over violence targeted at “members of political parties” in what was seen as stern disapproval of Mangoma’s attack. The United States, Australian and Canadian embassies also issued similar statements, in the process confirming the fallout with Tsvangirai.
Party officials say Tsvangirai might also have lost the support of his key allies in the Southern African Development Community, including that of Botswana President Ian Khama who gave him sanctuary when he went into self-imposed at the height of electoral violence and brutality in 2008. Donors are said to have more sympathy for the Biti camp, given that Bennett has been the party’s major link with the donor community.
The Tsvangirai brand
Although questions were asked over Tsvangirai’s leadership skills and capacity after the 2005 split, the MDC-T did well in the 2008 polls at the height of hyperinflation and the resultant meltdown, claiming a majority in parliament while Tsvangirai beat President Robert Mugabe in the first round of the presidential election whose results took a month to be announced.
There are allegations that the country’s security forces used the long delay to doctor the results while also gauging the mood in the country.
However, questions were still asked about his leadership. “At the height of the fight with Zanu PF in 2008, we really expected Tsvangirai to take charge and show that he would not allow the results to be stolen. We called for meetings to strategise but the next thing we heard was that he had fled to Botswana. He was supposed to take charge and stand firm for the millions who had voted for him,” one official said.
While Tsvangirai’s brand survived the 2005 split and his 2008 flight at the critical moment, it was later to be damaged by his role in the inclusive government and private life indiscretions after the death of his wife Susan in 2009. Even if his brand may still be strong, some say it is now getting rusty.
Critics say Tsvangirai’s major weaknesses were badly exposed during the inclusive government where he was outfoxed and outmaneuvered by wily Mugabe with whom he ended up having a cosy relationship, which widened his differences with Biti. Prior to that there were problems with how Tsvangirai handled negotiations.
“The first point is that the man appended his signature to the Global Political Agreement before he had agreed with the party and his negotiators. That’s the reason why we had so many outstanding issues,” said a senior MDC-T official.
Another official also said Tsvangirai entered into secret agreements with Mugabe – at a time when the party had pulled out of government and not attending cabinet meetings – resulting in him privately receiving funding to buy the controversial Highlands house. Officials also say Tsvangirai disregarded advice to join forces with Ncube rather than side with Mugabe and Arthur Mutambara who had lost internal party elections in 2011. “Ncube had a good working relationship with (South African President Jacob) Zuma and besides they are also in-laws. Tsvangirai stood to benefit from that if he acted strategically but he sided with Mugabe and blocked Ncube simply because of personal differences, thus sacrificing his and the party’s future,” one official said.
Tsvangirai also failed to push for electoral reforms and disastrously defended the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission secretariat, the appointment of Jacob Mudenda as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission chairperson and bungled a whole lot of other things, including making unhelpful compromises with Mugabe on the new constitution.
The heavy loss in the July 31 elections, which resulted in Biti’s faction laying the blame on Tsvangirai and Chamisa – whom they accused of failing to properly organise the party and manipulating primaries – finally led to an explosion of pent-up emotions and tensions. Although Biti has not said he wanted to oust Tsvangirai, his ambitions are an open secret in the party.
There is also the undeclared war between Biti and Chamisa, which is fuelling the power struggle. This has left the party on the verge of yet another split, a prospect which is increasingly looking likely with each passing day.