HomeAnalysisMillion-man march: Mugabe’s game plan

Million-man march: Mugabe’s game plan

On May 25, Africa Day, thousands of people across the country were bussed to Harare to participate in the Zanu PF Youth League-organised million-man march whose purpose was to “express solidarity with President Robert Mugabe” as Zanu PF’s candidate in the 2018 polls.

President Robert Mugabe and his wife arrive to address party supporters who had gathered for the million-man march on May 25 in the capital.
President Robert Mugabe and his wife arrive to address party supporters who had gathered for the million-man march on May 25 in the capital.

This article critically analyses and decodes Mugabe’s game plan while unpacking the underlying meanings of the march.

Drawing parallels with the 2007 one million-man march, this article answers why the march was held in the first place and the timing of the march within the context of worsening governance and economic problems Zimbabwe is grappling with as well as simmering internal succession intrigues within Mugabe’s party.

The central proposition is that the march was an attempt to address internal succession issues in the context of elite discohension and the possible rupture of Mugabe’s competitive authoritarian regime.

Context of the march

Expressing solidarity with a party and leader at the heart of the current political and socio-economic status in Zimbabwe is arguably oxymoronic.

Solidarity with Mugabe is being expressed in the midst of debilitating socio-economic conditions characterised by dwindling industrial capacity utilisation currently pegged at 33%; mounting levels of poverty and plummeting standards of living; a 95% unemployment rate; biting cash crisis resulting in banks limiting cash withdrawals; imminent introduction of bond notes by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe which has caused panic and chaos in the market; unprecedented levels of corruption in the public sector manifest in the alleged loss of over US$15 billion from the mining sector; a bankrupt government failing to remunerate civil servants with diplomatic missions being hardest hit; a potentially hazardous health situation as private doctors have threatened to decline medical aid.

The 2007 march: Drawing parallels

The Africa Day march is not the first time Zanu PF structures have marched in solidarity with Mugabe. On November 30 2007, war veterans, then led by chairperson Jabulani Sibanda, staged a one million-man march under the same theme, solidarity with Mugabe ahead of the March 2008 elections.

The conditions leading to the 2007 and the 2016 marches are potentially similar, for both Zanu PF and Mugabe.
In 2007, Mugabe was facing internal rebellion in Zanu PF through discernible elite discohesion led by the late General Solomon Mujuru. Those elite differences and power struggles led to the infamous bhora musango (electoral sabotage) campaign during the 2008 general elections in which both Mugabe and Zanu PF lost the polls in March 2008 for the first since Independence in 1980.

Most significantly, in 2007, the economy was in a downward spiral, mirroring the conditions of today’s economic environment. During that period, Mugabe was facing growing discontent in Zanu PF primarily from the Mujuru faction over his continued stay in office. It should be noted that, during the 2006 Zanu PF conference in Goromonzi, Mugabe had shown an appetite to extend his tenure in office to 2010. This position suffered vehement rejection from the Mujuru faction.

Amid this growing dissent, Mugabe had to show that he was a popular figure within Zanu PF. The state of Zanu PF between 2007 and 2008 election can be likened to the attendant situation characterised by fissures in all organs of the party. The youth, Women’s League and main wings of the party are suffering from the same ailment of elite discohesion centred on succession and Mugabe’s unquenchable thirst for power.

Justifying the 2007 march, then vice-president of the war veterans Joseph Chinotimba stated: “President Mugabe is our leader for life. Comrade Mugabe is a father figure to us and have you ever rejected your father because he is old? It is only (former US president George W) Bush, (former British prime minister Tony) Blair and (ex-Australian prime minister John) Howard who leave office, not our president. We are saying Cde Mugabe is not like Howard who lost elections. Our president has no terms, he should rule forever.”

Then Zanu PF youth secretary Absolom Sikhosana also added: “The youth should go in their numbers to demonstrate their unwavering support to our only presidential candidate, the hero of the nation, President Mugabe. We are praying to the Almighty God that he gives President Mugabe good health and more days on earth so that he continues to lead our party and our great nation till death.”

Thus the 2016 march has occurred in almost similar circumstances to that of 2007 where there is growing discontent within Zanu PF and elite discohesion apparent in the succession battle. Akin to the 2007 march, this year’s march is a show of force foremost to those in Zanu PF seeking to torpedo Mugabe from office. The latest march is not about the youth or Zanu PF, it is more about Mugabe himself that those who seek to succeed him should not underestimate his popularity within the party.

It should also be noted that this solidarity is taking place despite provinces having already endorsed Mugabe as Zanu PF’s presidential candidate for the 2018 plebiscite. More than anything, the 2016 march was to seal the succession debate once and for all that Mugabe is not going anywhere, yet. This is cemented by First Lady Grace Mugabe’s utterances at the rally that her husband will rule Zimbabwe from the grave.

However, one notable difference between the 2007 and 2016 marches has been the medium used to organise the march.

In 2007, it was the war veterans yet in 2016 it has been the Youth League. This is solely for the reason that the chemistry that Mugabe used to enjoy with the war veterans and the broader coercive apparatus of the state seems to have waned.

War veterans have always been the shock troopers of Zanu PF and Mugabe yet nowadays the public spats between them and some of his appointees, notably Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko, Zanu PF political commissar Saviour Kasukuwere, ministers Jonathan Moyo and Patrick Zhuwao exhibit a quarrelsome relationship.

At the centre of this querulous relationship has been the war veterans’ repugnance of the First Lady, as a result of her undoubted control on Mugabe, Zanu PF and the state.

Stroking the invincibility ego

Magaloni and Wallace (2008) aptly denote how authoritarian rulers respond when they are faced with multifaceted endogenous and exogenous challenges. To maintain their rule, authoritarian rulers must discourage vicious power struggles within their ruling regimes, the entry of outside rivals and the formation of subversive coalitions.

A typical way authoritarian rulers use to shrug off these threats is by developing an image of invincibility. For example, dictators mobilise crowds to participate in ritualistic ceremonies, have walls and streets painted with their and party’s emblem, obtain huge turnout at the polls and win with crushing margins.

Furthermore, “authoritarian rulers conjure this image of strength to indicate to potential elite opponents that they are immortal and that there is no point in conspiring a palace coup or plotting a rebellion. Authoritarian rulers also want to appear invincible in the eyes of their subjects because few individuals dissenting with impunity can bandwagon into general disobedience if the regime’s unpopularity and weakness becomes common knowledge”.

The same could be said for Mugabe. As argued earlier, the timing of the 2007 and 2016 marches by the war veterans and the Youth League respectively has been to demonstrate to internal factions and individuals harbouring to succeed him that he is immortal.

These marches also serve to show that despite his advanced age, Mugabe is still the only game in town in Zanu PF. It is about Mugabe stamping and cementing his authority in Zanu PF.

Timing of the 2016 march

Thus despite the primary point of exhibiting invincibility, the million-man march also has secondary reasons. These can be decoded from the timing of the march.

Zanu PF is faced with multifaceted challenges internally and externally. The attendant economic regression; missed election promises such as that of creating at least two million jobs; a succession conundrum which has permeated and weakened all organs of the party; and growing opposition from erstwhile comrades such as Joice Mujuru, who has since joined the opposition and formed her own party Zimbabwe People First, exhibit a party in turmoil. In order to insulate the party against these ills, it is always critical to show high magnitudes of force. The Africa Day procession was thus a way to re-energise the party’s base amid unprecedented weakness.

The use of the Youth League to organise the march, a departure from the traditional war veterans, as said earlier, serves to show the war veterans and broader security forces that the youth has the potential to deliver another crushing victory for Mugabe and Zanu PF during the forthcoming polls. It is clear that Zanu PF is already in the 2018 election mode and thus needs to keep its structures, primarily the youth, mobilised.

It should also be noted that in recent months, rising levels of poverty and socio-economic deprivation has led to rising protest politics from the opposition.

Earlier on April 14, the MDC-T organised a protest in Harare which was highly successful. Campaigns such as “#ThisFlag”, fronted by Pastor Evan Mawarire, have been irritants to Zanu PF. In this regard, the party also needed a response to such campaigns as a sense of security and a measure of its own popularity among Zimbabweans. Thus the march comes as fundamentally a reactionary agenda to both internal and external challenges bedevilling the party and its leader.


This march, more than anything else, was all Mugabe’s desire to maintain his hegemony in both party and state. It was about showing rival factions and those entertaining hopes to succeed him that despite his advanced age, he is still very popular in Zanu PF.

As noted that these marches are usually organised amid growing chaos and weakness within the party, this march was a way of stamping and cementing authority. It also sought to react to opposition protests amid a regressing economy being presided over by Zanu PF.

As Zanu PF is already in the 2018 election mode, this march served to show that despite growing discontent between war veterans and Mugabe, the party can do without them and rely on the youth to deliver victory. It then remains to be seen whether or not Mugabe will be able to avoid another bhora musango campaign and another embarrassing defeat in 2018.

Ruhanya is executive director of local think-tank Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

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