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Democracy not dead yet

The soul of the Zimbabwean voter

There is a growing belief amongst the political elite that Zimbabwean voters are devoid of a political soul. That they can be shunted from one political deception to the next, exchanged between elites like a cigarette, used during elections and disposed like diapers soon thereafter.

Brian T Kagoro Political analyst

Politicians believe that with a mere t-shirt, a slogan, beer or a few pieces of meat you can secure the mandate to rule Zimbabwe for five years or more. Zimbabweans are not fools. They know that asset declarations and cost-cutting measures are not the same as open accountability for looted diamond revenues. How does a conversation about this treasonous corruption even begin when the then minister of defence is now the president and the army commander is now the vice-president? Who has the courage to begin such a conversation in government or parliament?

Rather, who has the evidence to take such a conversation beyond vague generalisations about culpability?

Folks on social media buoyed by an overdose of public relations have begun to write an epitaph on the grave of the opposition parties in Zimbabwe. I disagree, democracy is not dead yet. Momentary celebrity cannot erase Zimbabweans’ common sense and vivid memories of the last 38 years. For 18 years, middle class folks, workers, peasants and the unemployed have chanted, Chihurumende cheMbavha, Bvisa! For the most part, the thieves are still there.

In their view, “Enough is enough!” and they long for “The Zimbabwe We Want”. They know that the coup did not deliver such a Zimbabwe.
Following the short-lived November 2017 movement, they learnt that dramatic political shifts can happen without the basic structure of power in society and its trajectory changing at all. They got their wish of seeing Mugabe’s back but instead inherited his lethal enforcers for leaders. These Zimbabwean voters have political souls that cannot be bought and sold in the marketplace of politics!

The gun and politics in Zanu PF

Mugabe dramatically bowed off the grand stage of politics in the same manner that he entered it, with the assistance of the military. It made me reminisce of that Shakespearean quote: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets an hour upon the stage and afterwards is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Mugabe’s hour upon the stage of our politics a bit long, 37 years to be exact. His influence is likely to be much longer. He was brought in to replace Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole who had been “impeached” by the military at Mgagao for having abandoned the constitution and values of the revolution.

At Mgagao the military deposed one civilian leader (Ndabaningi Sithole) and singularly decided on his successor (Robert Mugabe). In November 2017, the same Zanu PF military folks deposed Robert Mugabe and singularly decided on his successor (the then self-exiled Mnangagwa). Mugabe was, therefore, wrong in assuming that — in Zanu PF — politics has always determined the trajectory of the guns.

In reality, the guns have always determined the trajectory of politics. These smart military officers would each time engineer a political tectonic shift and thereafter hurriedly ensure that the civilian structures endorse their military decision. This cycle keeps repeating itself.

Constitutionally there is nothing unlawful with any retired military, police or CIO officer standing for public office. In fact, it is their right to so do. However, the reason why it is frowned upon in the current Zimbabwean context is because of the pervasive influence that the military has in our political party system, the national economy and the state as a whole. We have a conflation of securocracy, the economy and politics. Genuine separation of powers is inconceivable given the pervasive conflation of party and government. If not checked, sections of the Zimbabwean military could easily operate above the law and the constitution. If they get a two-thirds majority in the 2018 election they could easily change the constitution to recreate a more intractable monarchical presidency.

Recent appointments of special advisors within government ministries and constitutional commissions mean that the military has now extended and embedded itself within the executive, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. A pervasive military is by its very nature a cauldron for internal power struggles, identity politics and undue politicisation of defence and security. This constitutes a clear and present danger to constitutionalism and the credibility of the 2018 elections.

If this tendency towards securocratic consolidation persists, political power will be won through coercion and national cohesion will be lost for want of genuine inclusion and participation by the citizenry.

I do not know any single government in present-day Africa that does not promise free and fair elections. This is a cliché. Save for a few exceptions, elections across the continent recycle failed lackeys of international finance capital, kleptocrats and xenophobes. They have become a means for consolidating autocracy as opposed to institutionalisation of democracy.

Elections in Zimbabwe have been the cause of conflict, violence and polarisation. Zimbabwe is going through another transition and succession where — if we are not careful — we risk reproducing the historical challenge of lethal divisionism.

Ultra unpleasant politics?

Militarisation, divisive politics and unpleasantness shape our political discourse and practice. Our politics is plain ultra-unpleasant. In it sinister intentions are disguised in negative labels and allegations of treason and disloyalty to the leadership. Emmerson Mnangagwa — like Mugabe — is a creature of the unpleasant Zanu PF politics of the 1960s and 70s. It was a politics that was characterised by rebellions, assassinations and palace coups.

Masipula Sithole describing the “struggles within the struggle” alleges that in 1978 Josiah Tongogara and Edgar Tekere organised the detentions of Rugare Gumbo, Henry Hamadziripi, Cletus Chigowe, and Mukudzei Mudzi, among others. These freedom fighters were accused of plotting against Mugabe. The prisoners were sometimes called the “Gutu-Clique”. This was a crude reference to ugly regionalistic politics that had percolated the liberation movement.

The late Wilfred Mhanda (better known as Dzinashe Machingura), writing in his book titled Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, gives his version of what happened during the adoption of the Mgagao Declaration. Other prominent war veterans have serialised their experiences in the media. What is apparent from these accounts are contested versions of patriotic history and the existence of recurrent episodes of regionalistic/ethnic attrition, political superstition, betrayal, and persecution.

The seniority — and therefore legitimacy — of many individuals is suspect. Most became legends way after the war had ended and through their ability to re-write history or benefit from Mugabe’s patronage. Freedom fighters like Mhanda, Mudzi, Noel Mukono and etcetera that failed to shift course with the ascent of Mugabe to the leadership of Zanu PF were detained, persecuted or simply marginalised into oblivion. Some lived in abject poverty and others died in obscurity. Amongst the critical ones, none made it to the National Heroes’ Acre. This vindictiveness in our politics defines its venomous unpleasantness.

Village and identity politics

In a speech delivered in Harare in 1980, Samora Machel argued characteristically that: “To ensure national unity, there must be no Shonas in Zimbabwe, there must be no Ndebeles in Zimbabwe, there must be Zimbabweans. Some people are proud of their tribalism. But we call tribalists reactionary agents of the enemy.”

Embedded in Zimbabwe’s political worldview, mental, social, economic and legal geography is an unacknowledged affinity for racism, ethnicity, regionalism, patriarchy and violence. These vices define the collective imagination of not only leadership, but the very future of the country. Zimbabwe’s socio-economic and political fragility tends to give rise to and is reinforced by often-precarious social cohesion, policy incoherence and uneven development within the nation state.

The uneven geography of national development super-imposed on a history of suspicion, exclusion, de-humanisation and violence becomes fuel to anti-state and at times anti-national sentiments. Since 1923, the state in Zimbabwe has often been dominated by male elites drawn from one region, race, class or tribe. This elite capture of the state fuels under-currents of divisive politics.

On the one hand, those that feel insufficiently included view their identities as either threatened, marginalised or belittled. On the other hand, those who are the prime beneficiaries flaunt their privileged identities.

The management of diversity in the governance of Zimbabwe leaves a lot to be desired. We must note, though, that tribalism is the bastard child of poor economic and political governance characterised by weak state accountability and lack of leadership alternation. In such a context civil society is polarised and political parties tend to lack both policy and programmatic solutions and competencies. The only thing that seems to function, rather the most preferred default position, is this resort to either “old boys clubs” or crus regionalism/ethnicity.

Our former president had his own version of elite inclusion based on regional or ethnic origin. In picking cabinet he handpicked three to four elites that were then super-imposed on regions as the official representatives. Mugabe was skilled at escaping from all kinds of bonds, confinements, and seemingly impossible political situations. He was Zimbabwe’s political Houdini when it came to managing ethnic/regional representation.

Where is Houdini?

Until November 2017, Mugabe had for 40 years repeatedly outwitted friend and foe alike. His method was predictable, but brutally efficient. He would entice highly ambitious henchmen with seemingly limitless power, elevate them, allow them leeway to straddle the political terrain like a colossus, unleash them to liquidate or silence his enemies and thereafter dispense with them.

His mode of operation in eliminating powerful allies had two steps to it: first he would raise some lumpen elements or johnny come lately to target the affected senior cadre for embarrassment and then spurious charges of insubordination or treason would be preferred against them. Read Eddison Zvogbo, Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa here. A friend of mine once explained to me that: “The nightmare of a cannibal is the poetic justice of discovering that you are next on the menu.” These words are apt and must be remembered by all the members of the current regime over the next couple of months.

Some on social media believe that Mugabe has been deprived of basic freedoms such as were accorded Ian Douglas Smith to air his views about a variety of national issues. In reality his silence could simply be that the man is tired after 63 years of talking. Whether this is voluntary or imposed silence, we are not hearing him.

We want Mugabe to answer questions about the missing diamond revenue, Gukurahundi, the 2008 and 2013 stolen elections as well as his alleged multiple farm ownership and the much touted profligacy of his family. It seems strange that a man as verbose and erudite should be unable to defend himself or at least proffer an apology to Zimbabweans for the misery that he inflicted on us. I suspect that Mugabe’s silence may — in the near future — become the loudest political noise Zimbabwe has ever heard. But what will be louder is the implosion of the people’s energy in defence of their right to genuine political transformation. Trust me, democracy isn’t dead yet!

Kagoro is a lawyer and political commentator.

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