2016 — Year of failed uprisings?

Three weeks ago, Zimbabwe’s strongman, President Robert Mugabe, in a state of panic, was forced to convene an emergency meeting with members of his ruling Zanu PF’s highest decision-making body, the politburo. Scheduled to take place later that week, the monthly meeting was brought forward to discuss how the party and government was to respond to what had become known as #zimshutdown2016, a protest that brought the country to a standstill as citizens heeded calls to stay at home in protest against the nonagenarian.

Simukai Tinhu, Political Analyst

Picture Credit: AFP

Picture Credit: AFP

The ruling party rubbished #zimshutdown2016 as a failure. Such an evaluation was predictable. However, many outside government agree that since the 1990s, the stay-away is the most significant protest yet. The protest was also a rare moment of defiance. The Zanu PF government had urged the nation to ignore calls to stay away. But in a spirited act of defiance, what was supposed to be a localised demonstration by unpaid civil servants became a rallying point for a national outcry against the regime.

The shutdown, a series of demonstrations that immediately preceded it and those that came after it, have been depicted as spontaneous and rootless acts by a coterie of warriors leading angry citizens. They also have been seen as new and fresh and having been caused by a series of events such as the banning of the importation of essential household goods and increased corruption by the police.

However, in reality, importation ban through Statutory Instrument 64/2016 and the numerous police roadblocks were just triggers, not causes. In particular, #zimshutdown2016 was a paroxysm in what could be considered a third wave phenomenon in protest politics. In other words, the protests should be seen as part of the continuum of a new kind of politics that is increasingly taking centre-stage on the nation’s political landscape.

Indeed, today’s protests superseded the lone protests that took root two years ago. Ridiculed at the time, the bravery of the lone protests of activist and journalist, Itai Dzamara, could be regarded as the birth of contemporary demonstrations. His one-man demonstrations against Mugabe’s rule were brought to an abrupt end when he was allegedly abducted by state security agents. Instead of silencing Zimbabweans, the disappearance became a launch pad for other lone protests. The journalist’s sibling, Patson Dzamara, took over from where his brother left off and started protesting against his sibling’s abduction.

Emboldened by the actions of the Dzamaras, other individuals started to imitate the lone protests of the brothers.

For example, in March this year, in an unprecedented act, an elderly woman heckled Mugabe at the Harare International Airport. Taken by surprise, the visibly angry Mugabe just about managed to contain himself and told the “unknown” woman to put her demands in writing. Also, when the president announced to the nation that the government had lost US$15 billion, another lone protester demanded his share of US$1 000 in a demonstration at parliament building.

The second phase of the protests took the shape of the social media activism. At the end of 2015, a new group of tech-savvy youths started using the internet as a launch pad for attacks on Mugabe’s regime. The most successful social media protester has been that of the youthful Harare clergyman, Pastor Evan Mawarire who, through his hashtag #ThisFlag accelerated the recruitment of Zimbabweans into this new faith. The clergyman used Facebook and Twitter as decentralised peer networks to reach out to thousands of angry citizens, even earning sympathy for his cause from abroad.

Lately, with the successful #zimshutdown2016 protest and prior to that, street protests at the Beitbridge Border Post against the government’s banning of the importation of essential goods from South Africa, protests outside the Rainbow Towers hotel in Harare against Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko’s continued stay in a top hotel and commuter omnibus operators’ running battles with the police in protest against police corruption, the third phase, characterised by mass demonstrations on the streets seems to have arrived. This third wave has an aggressive element to it as it is characterised by calling protesters to come out on the streets.

The excitement generated by the success of contemporary protests has blinded many to the fact that this is not the first time that Zimbabweans have protested against the Mugabe regime en masse. The honour of holding successful demonstrations belongs to the labour unions. Indeed, in the late 1990s, the country’s main labour union movement, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), led successful mass protests against government’s austerity policies and these protests even went on to give birth to successful political careers such as that of former prime minister and leader of the largest opposition political party, Morgan Tsvangirai .

The fact that there have been successful protests before, brings us to an important question: If the 1990s’ successful protests could not make a dent on Mugabe’s authority, does the nonagenarian has any reasons to worry as a result of today’s growing protest movements? Not really. But this is not to say that the protests do not pose some kind of a threat to Mugabe if they adopt the right approaches and make strategic alliances. They do, but as they stand today, their threat is not enough to dislodge him from power. Nevertheless, they have a better chance than those in the 1990s.

To be sure, today’s protests are different from those of the 1990s in the sense that in terms of composition, they are far broader and diverse. Whereas in the 1990s, the leading participants were civil servants; today’s it is women, commuter omnibus transport operators, small-scale traders, youths, vendors and just fed up ordinary citizens. Also, rather than focusing on narrow interests such as austerity policies or demands for a new constitution, these protests are united by frustrations at Mugabe’s rule and their demands for him to step down.

Today’s protests are also taking place in a different socio-economic context that is characterised by an acute credit crunch, high unemployment and a broke government that cannot even pay its army.

But what makes today’s protest movement more potent than those of the last decade of the last millennium is that protest mentality has even penetrated the ruling party. Indeed much quieter, protests by various Zanu PF constituents are silently shredding the fabric of Zanu PF politics. The group that is at the forefront of protests against Mugabe is the war veterans association, a political tribe made up of war veterans of the liberation war against the British in the 1970s. This group, a political franchise that is rooting for Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to take over, has vowed war against anyone who stops Mnangagwa from taking over.

The other group that is silently protesting against the nonagenarian is the military, the most significant of security sector forces. Recently, the professional head of the army made it clear that Mnangagwa is their preferred candidate ahead of 2018 elections, forcing Mugabe to issue warnings on two occasions against the army’s meddling in succession politics.

The coalition of the military, Mnangagwa and war veterans is the infrastructure that has kept Mugabe in power by crushing dissent since the 1980s. The silent, and times open protests, by this triumvirate against the nonagenarian is not only slowly eating away at Mugabe’s legitimacy and authority, but without its backing, the vicious determination with which the regime has used to retain or recapture control from protesters is likely to be compromised.

What are the threats to the protest movements?

With the economy having imploded, unemployment at over 90%, the biting liquidity crunch and with no solution in sight, the state must learn to live with events that recently took place at Beitbridge, Rainbow Towers hotel and the national shutdown. The long and sterile tenure of Zanu PF and a dispossessed urban poor with high expectations nourished by education in expectation of good jobs that do not exist, is also part of the story that will see the protesters soon making a fresh encounter with the regime.

But these protests are unlikely to succeed at their ultimate mission of unseating the regime unless if they graduate into the fourth phase which should see them embrace or being embraced by the political class. The political class will give the political structure legitimacy and a platform to negotiate with the Zanu PF regime for concessions and international community for material support. For now, it appears that the protest movement is sceptical of politicians. This is based on the erroneous thinking that protests can bring about augenblick or decisive moment for political change.

This erroneous view is borne out of its leaders’ resistance to learn from history or a dangerous misreading of history by those of its leaders who do not qualify as non-readers. A quick standard of reading of what are considered the most successful revolutions of all time: the French Revolution of 1789; Russian revolution of 1917; the revolution that toppled the Shah in Iran 1979; Cuba’s 1959 revolution; and lately, closer to home and more relevant to Zimbabwe’s situation, the revolutions that toppled Tunisia and Egypt’s regimes were only successful because they managed to incorporate a significant chunk of the political class among its ranks or were altogether hijacked by the political class.
In other words, for a protest to bring about successful change in Zimbabwe, history commands that #ThisFlag, Tajamuka/Sesijikile and associated protest movements need not only the MDCs, ZimPF, Dawn/Mavambo/Kusile and PDP, among an array of opposition groups that exist today, but, though unpalatable, also needs the Zanu PF dissidents; that is Mnangagwa and his faction, war veterans and the military, otherwise they will be confronted with failure as in the case of Algerian protests of 1988.

The Algerian protest leaders scuttled politicians in the opposition and those in the establishment’s attempts to aid their revolution. In as much as the leaders of today’s infant revolution who have replaced prayers for realistic approaches, the Algerian revolution slid into the realm of fantasy when they claimed that they wanted to achieve pure and unadulterated revolution that had nothing to do with politicians. Its leaders wanted to make history, not only without the tools to do so, but by defying the clear pattern that history had set for any would-be successful future revolutionaries.

Indeed, Algeria’s history and political system offers excellent parallels to that of Zimbabwe. Not only is the North African country ruled by an entrenched liberation movement, National Liberation Front (NLF), but that liberation movement fought a brutal war that drove the French out of the country. The NLF, has been in power since independence in 1962. It also went on to experiment with post-independence nationalist politics, with disastrous consequences for the economy. Just like Zanu PF, Algeria’s ruling party has an unbridled sense of entitlement and is prepared to do anything to stay in power until eternity. In the 1990s, it waged a bloody war against the opposition and emerged triumphant.

In 1988, humiliated by high unemployment, bad economy and credit crunch, the “hittistes” — the youths as they were referred to (and who can be considered to be an equivalent of the youthful protests of #ThisFlag and Tajamuka/Sesijikila, the two leading lights in today’s protests) — ran riot against the government. The standoff with the police and military lasted not only for months, but was also brutal. Hundreds of hittistes were killed. Such was the resolve of these protesters that despite the deaths, they continued.

But, unbridled hubris, unrealistic expectations and a complete disregard for lessons of history, destroyed this promising protest movement. When politicians made overtures to combine forces with the protest movement, they were shunned and regarded as contaminated. Its leaders wanted a clean break from the past and a fresh start. Politicians were even accused of being opportunistic and trying to steal the movement from its leaders.

However, political realities of the time proved to be too much. On their own, the hittistes could not mount a coherent political challenge to NLF and the failure was spectacular. The protest leaders destroyed the only and best opportunity to topple the socialist state. Its leaders would soon be forgotten and the regime consolidated because they failed to transition the protest movement into the fourth and final phase — strategic alliance with the political class.

Misreading the Egyptian and relying on the romanticised account of the Eyptian revolution in the Economist or Time magazines and others alike, the youthful leaders in Zimbabwe are again erroneous in thinking that the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak belongs to street protestors.

On the contrary, the reality is that the revolution was a politicians’ affair, in particular the abhorrent Muslim Brotherhood, a political organisation with not only unparralled links to the Muslim world’s elite political class, including the Saudi royals, but also excellent organisational skills. Indeed, the consensus among the Muslim world experts is that the Egyptian revolution would not have been successful without the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, the alliance between the protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood had been sealed decades before the revolution. Their combined efforts at charitable causes earned them the support of the masses who were to be crucial during the revolution. The occupation of Tahrir Square by a group of students, youths and middle-class liberals only acted as a trigger of a protest that was inevitable.

In other words, the stark lesson of history is that the protest movement needs to make a choice: either flounder as the hittistes of Algeria or succeed as the pragmatic young liberals, who forged an alliance with the political class in Egypt.

The protest movement will not succeed without the political class.

Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.

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