As the day ended on February 18, MDC-T acting president Nelson Chamisa, who had arrived from the late Morgan Tsvangirai’s home, jumped out of his car. He was eased, by a group of youths, through a sea of red hats, red T-shirts and red scarfs that had engulfed the surroundings of the party’s headquarters. Some countable stray ruling party supporters were there too. An excited cult of youthful supporters — which seem to have decided to cede its independent thinking to him — chanted his name:
Chamisa! Chamisa! Chamisa!
Simukai Tinhu,Political analyst
With a bounce reminiscent of vintage Tony Blair, athletically, the youthful politician landed onto a makeshift stage that had been hastily assembled on Nelson Mandela Avenue — the street that shelters the MDC-T Harvest House headquarters.
“Tshisa Mpama, Tshisa! (party slogan)”, Chamisa acknowledged the crowd’s adulation. In a clear and concrete manner, the young leader then briefly addressed mourners who were waiting for the arrival of the late Tsvangirai’s body. As he addressed MDC-T supporters, energised youths continued to interrupt him with chants of his name: it was a sign that he was the whirlwind at the centre of action, and a message by youths to his opponents both in the MDC-T and in the ruling Zanu PF party that both Chamisa’s age and that of the voters were on his side.
A young leader in a hurry?
Outside the country, many might ask who Chamisa is, which is understandable since many international observers have turned their backs on Zimbabwe’s seemingly pointless opposition politics: following independence from British rule in 1980, countless opposition party leaders and independents too, have run against Zanu PF in presidential elections. All have lost.
Even today, the state of the leading opposition figures remains discouraging; most are undignified, ungifted, uninspiring and unimaginative.
So, why should Zimbabwean voters care about the mainstream MDCs’ new leader, Nelson Chamisa?
There are various reasons to believe that Chamisa might survive, or even thrive in the drab environs of Zimbabwean politics.
At 40, Chamisa is the youngest official presidential candidate of a major opposition party, ever. Those condescending might have dismissed him because of his age, but in today’s Zimbabwe, his youth matters. Whilst youth unemployment hovers around 90%, Zimbabwe is a country that has devolved into a gerontocracy. Young people’s prospects continue to be dim partly because power in business and politics remains firmly in the hands of mostly males — increasingly with a military background — who are in their sixties, seventies and eighties. The combined age of those who occupy the presidium, which is 204 years, is illustrative of the problem that confronts the nation. To these youngsters, Chamisa is not only a gale of fresh air, but the hope whom they think should be leading Zimbabwe into the future. However, it is not only Chamisa’s youth which is stirring up his party — and by extension, Zimbabwean politics. With several university degrees under his belt, Chamisa has the appeal of a young Blair or Bill Clinton — he has the political smarts, is quick on his feet and adept at public speeches. His brashness is that of someone who does not intend to wait in line; he always expresses the urgency of the many young Zimbabweans who fear that their generation’s hopes are being wasted.
Having said that, it goes without saying that his ascendancy was bound to invite sharp criticism from some quarters. Moralists seem to be preoccupied with the way he took over the party’s leadership. These commentators contend that as a politician who hails from a political party that has built its politics on the rejection of the ruling Zanu PF’s politics of brutality, Chamisa manoeuvred himself into MDC’s pole position with skills that could have been plucked out straight from Robert Mugabe’s rule book; a lust for power with a lack of scruples. His brutal power play, according to his opponents, has stained his hands.
That may be so. Chamisa’s move might have alienated some senior party officials, leaving popularity with the youth and party membership as his main lever of power in the MDC-T. But, attempts at scandalising the young politician’s deft move as evil, demonstrates convenient forgetting of how politics work. In politics, Chamisa’s behaviour is well within the threshold of normality.
As Damien McBride, former British prime minister Gordon Brown’s chief aide reminds us: “… politics is a car crash of power and ambition and pride and bravery and cowardice and triumph and failure.”
Rather than worry about latter-day moralists’ completely unreal calls for godly acts in politics, opposition voters are likely to care more about Chamisa’s capacity to torpedo the Zanu PF regime. In other words, the moralising claptrap — ironically, the most outrageous of it is coming from Mnangagwa’s supporters — must be ignored.
As a political party that has on previous occasions generally shown an excessive preoccupation with procedure, allowing itself to be outmanoeuvred and outmuscled by Zanu PF’s deep realism, maybe, just maybe, Chamisa’s political blitzkrieg against his opponents demonstrates the Machiavellian toughness that has evaded the MDC for years. And can we not say, by taking such an ultimate risk, Chamisa has also demonstrated that he is prepared to risk it all against the Zanu PF government?
Misunderstanding Zim politics
On social media, a photo of a younger and good-looking Chamisa, juxtaposed to a severe President Emmerson Mnangagwa — unsurprisingly, the picture has been a source of much mirth, probably as intended by its makers — is being widely circulated. One of the leaders is the future, the comparison implies, and the other represents the past.
The other presupposition is that the two will be contestants in this year’s elections. This understanding has been buttressed by Mnangagwa’s Facebook congratulatory message to Chamisa on his ascendancy to the MDC-T leadership. Such a depiction is inaccurate, and demonstrates a blatant disregard of Zimbabwe’s electoral history. Yes, in principle, Chamisa’s opponent in this year’s presidential elections will be President Mnangagwa. But, the reality is that the youthful politician will be running against what blogger and academic Alex Magaisa calls the system. The departure of Mugabe does not necessarily mean that the political landscape has changed; the system is fully intact if not stronger.
Let me explain: When Mugabe’s administration was toppled by the military in November 2017, the coup leaders, particularly, now retired General Constantino Chiwenga, needed a legitimiser — and some say a placeholder. This materialised in the form of the military and security sector’s closest civilian ally, Mnangagwa. According to this theory, this scenario makes the president a textbook or classic example of a puppet leader. Mnangagwa will most likely hand over power to the former general in 2023.
In other words, though nominally Mnangagwa is senior to Chiwenga, the reality is that the military through the vice-president as their proxy are now the dark beating heart of Zimbabwe’s political system. Retired military elements are slowly being moved into key positions in Zanu PF’s central committee and politburo, in the state as judges and permanent secretaries and in government as cabinet members and the presidium.
The military’s designs are clear; to replace Mugabe’s political philosophy that politics should lead the gun, with the gun shall lead politics. Indeed, part of the army’s motivation in removing Mugabe was not only to protect its interests, but also to ensure that, in the future, there will be no civilian actor of consequence in Zimbabwe’s political life. For all his faults, what Mugabe ensured under his rulership was a balance of strong politics and strong military interests. Today, what we now have is weaker politics with militarism standing triumphant.
It was this same duo (Mnangagwa as cabinet minister and Chiwenga as army chief), who prevented the late Tsvangirai from taking power following what is widely believed to have been victory for the opposition MDC in 2008. In 2017, it is the same military that toppled Mugabe from power and installed Mnangagwa when, in the contest for dominance in Zanu PF, it became evident that they were facing defeat at the hands of G40 and former first lady Grace Mugabe. It is these same elements (Mnangagwa and Chiwenga) that will be tightly controlling this year’s elections.
Sorting out these various developments, what we can safely say is that Zimbabwe has since passed the point where genuine free and fair elections can be an instrument of political transition. Mnangagwa’s much-touted process of reform is top-down and skin-deep, with the president and the military not doing anything that threatens their complete control over the system.
In any case, there isn’t much time for any meaningful reforms; the state media is still to accurately and extensively cover MDC activities, villages continue to be no-go areas for the opposition, repressive legislative instruments such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and Public Order and Security Act are still in place … indeed, the list of areas that need to be changed for a free and fair elections to take place in a few months’ time is endless. Such an environment not only make Chamisa’s job immensely difficult, but also potentially dangerous. No wonder why, according to this week’s NewsDay, he has threatened to boycott the elections.
What should Chamisa do?
Despite these obvious challenges, it is advisable that Chamisa participates in the elections. As Matthew Frankel, a fellow at a United States-based think-tank, the Brookings Institution counsels, boycotting is a bad idea because it hardly succeeds. If he does participate in this year’s election, Chamisa should aim to win resoundingly, giving the system a violent shock that is meant to disorient the ruling elite in a feat reminiscent of the 2008 election outcome. Such disorientation usually causes, amongst the ruling elite, disagreements on how to handle the resultant crisis.
For example, hardliners might possibly refuse to cede power as in 2008. On the other hand, moderates might seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Such a scenario creates an opportunity structure for the MDC to ally with the moderates; elite fracture is an indispensable ingredient to defeating electoral authoritarianism.
Is a resounding victory possible?
The military’s representative, Mnangagwa, is no stranger to electoral defeats. When he contested for Kwekwe central, its urbanites dealt him a bloody nose when they voted into parliament, at the time, a little-known MDC quantity, Blessing Chebundo. Indeed, Mnangagwa’s routing was beyond defeat – he was not left in the dust once, but twice (2000 and 2005).
But can the Mnangagwa-Chebundo polls give Chamisa a blessing that he needs in this year’s elections? They can, but he will need to be strategic with voting maths. A new post-1990 generation has, for the first time, attained voting age. With Zanu PF and its aged presidium increasingly looking like an old people’s home, Chamisa might be the most popular politician amongst Zimbabwe’s youths.
According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s latest statistics, those between the ages of 18-40 make up 60% of the 5,3 million voters who have since registered. This is a significant shift from less than 10% of the youths who registered in the last election. To attain a “resounding victory” threshold of 85% of the vote, Chamisa will need all this demographic block’s votes.
In Zimbabwe’s electoral politics, the route to power is incomplete without rural voters. Traditionally, Zanu PF has enjoyed a structural edge, with most rural voters balloting for the ruling party. But when most rural voters were voting straight ticket Zanu PF, it is incontestable to suggest that they were voting for Mugabe’s Zanu PF. Without Mugabe as head of the party, the electoral landscape in the villages might change particularly with rumours that President Mugabe is rooting for the opposition National Patriotic Front (NPF) — a repackaged G40 outfit fronted by former senior army commander Brigadier-General Ambrose Mutinhiri who is attempting to capitalise on “Anyone but Mnangagwa” Zanu PF voters.
The departure of Mugabe was a significant development that could have an impact on rural voters’ calculus, especially those in Mashonaland provinces. Mugabe had intense support in theses provinces — including “Never Mnangagwa” supporters who are likely to vote along ethnic lines. The departure of the nonagenarian might have freed up a river of his once intense supporters. With the way Mnangagwa and the military removed Mugabe, and coupled with attempts to vilify, to use Toren Beasily’s language, in this year’s election, some Zanu PF supporters might vote “mindlessly and mechanically” to punish Mnangagwa’s government.
In the southern part of the country, ethnic Ndebeles and other minority groups in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions have always been traditionally terrified at the idea of Mnangagwa as president due to his reported role in the Gukurahundi atrocities. Chamisa should be able to make significant gains from this electoral group. Also, as a Karanga, Chamisa might be able to snatch a strong vote from Masvingo, which Mnangagwa is hoping to capitalise on because of his ethnic background.
Only resounding victory
In 2009, Chamisa was one of the few youngest cabinet ministers in a post-colonial government. To set another record, and become the youngest president, he will need a resounding victory. If he attains a mild one, there is little doubt that he will be in for the same treatment that his mentor received in 2008 at the hands of Mnangagwa, Chiwenga and the military: robbed of his victory and attendant glory.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political scientist.