I arrived at Oslo International Airport one late afternoon in October 2005 en route to Oslo University where I had been invited as guest professor.
By Geoffrey Nyarota.
By some coincidence, the then secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Welshman Ncube, had caught a flight out of the same airport earlier that day on his return to Zimbabwe. He had just been awarded with an honorary degree in Oslo University’s Department of Law.
That evening, as a few of my hosts from the Department of Media and Communication treated me to dinner, discussion focussed late into the night on Zimbabwe, in general, and the just departed MDC secretary general, in particular. Arriving from Boston in the United States, where I was based, I found the knowledge of my Norwegian hosts not only fathomable, but also somewhat superior to my own, especially on aspects of recent political developments in my country.
I discovered, for instance, that my hosts were unanimous that Ncube was destined to be the next president of Zimbabwe, while his then party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was destined to be cast in the dustbin of Zimbabwe’s political history. I was flabbergasted, given that Tsvangirai had given former president Robert Mugabe a good run for his money in the 2002 presidential election and was, by all accounts, still commanding nationwide popularity.
Tsvangirai had shocked all by garnering a surprising 42% in polls held in March 2002 to Mugabe’s 56%. It took me the best part of the evening to convince my new friends that, while I was situated thousands of kilometres away from Harare, I was knowledgeable enough about political events in my home country to disabuse them of their erroneous, if not preposterous notion that Ncube was destined to win the next presidential election, then scheduled for 2008.
When they finally conceded, albeit grudgingly, that they were perhaps misinformed and Ncube was, in all probability, not going to be the next president of Zimbabwe, they immediately brewed another shocker, to quote a popular expression from the parlance of Harare’s newspapers. If Ncube could not be president, they now surmised, then the next most likely candidate for the position was none other than the MDC official spokesperson, Paul Themba Nyathi. By the time we parted for the night, I had gathered the general drift of my Norwegian friends’ thinking — Zimbabwe’s next head of state had, for reasons that have remained obscure to me to date, would emerge from Matabeleland.
By December 2005, two months after that auspicious dinner in Oslo, the MDC had split into two factions. The new faction led by Ncube retained the name MDC, while the mainstream party led by founding president Tsvangirai became MDC-T.
On parting ways, Ncube accused Tsvangirai variously of poor leadership qualities, of violating the MDC party’s constitution, of using party youths to attack perceived opponents and of sowing division in the party’s structures. While Ncube’s departure weakened Tsvangirai position and the strength of the MDC-T, especially in the areas of funding, including from the Parliament of Zimbabwe, which granted the opposition party’s allocation to the Ncube faction, the breakaway party struggled to survive and has never made any meaningful impact on the Zimbabwean political landscape.
Fast forward nine years to 2014, and Ncube’s successor as secretary-general in the renamed MDC-T, Tendai Biti, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor to break away from Tsvangirai and set up his own political formation. Biti cited virtually the same alleged failings on the part of Tsvangirai, poor leadership qualities, in particular. The new charge sheet against Tsvangirai had been extended to include alleged financial impropriety and a taste for a lifestyle of luxury at the expense of an impoverished party. But like Ncube’s MDC, Biti’s PDP has not been a run-away success either.
By the beginning of 2017, stories started to appear in the press, especially the privately-owned newspapers about the emergence of a new political initiative designed to bring together the MDC-T, the MDC and the PDP in what newspaper headline writers fondly referred to as a “Grand Coalition”. Anyone arguing or questioning the wisdom of such strategy was instantly dismissed by the coalition analysts and protagonists at best as unpatriotic and at worst as a Zanu-PF agent. The unpatriotic so-called prophets of doom included journalists who dared to point out that the proposed MDC Alliance, as it subsequently came to be known, was nothing more than a strategy by the failed Ncube and Biti to worm their way back into the MDC-T, a party which had retained its viability and strength despite the problems created by the departure of its successive secretaries general.
The major challenge of the coalition was that the returning secretaries general expected to recover their senior positions at the expense of senior leaders who had remained loyal to Tsvangirai. In due course, Biti and Ncube, along with the leaders of the other minor parties that had been roped into the alliance, negotiated constituencies for their own followers ahead of the forthcoming primary elections, this at the expense of Tsvangirai loyalists.
Meanwhile, Tsvangirai, his position weakened by deteriorating health, made two cardinal errors — he embraced the Alliance and appointed two vice-presidents, Elias Mudzuri and Nelson Chamisa, in addition to the incumbent Thokozani Khupe, who immediately demonstrated her disgruntlement to the undoing of the party.
“The alliance was shoved down Morgan Tsvangirai’s throat by donors as a precondition for the release of funds last year,” says Harare-based journalist, Barnabas Thondhlana. “They thought it would not happen. When it did they still did not release the money.”
Thondhlana says he personally dealt with the middle-man, who was the runner between the opposition parties and the Harare-based donor agencies. He says he cannot identify the middle-man by name, however, but says the foreign countries involved were Britain and Australia.
In mid-2017 Biti went on record as complaining bitterly that the British Embassy in Harare, in particular, had abandoned Zimbabwe’s opposition parties to support President Emmerson Mnangagwa. While beleaguered, Mnangagwa was at the material time still President Robert Mugabe’s Vice-President, there was a public perception that the French Embassy also backed Mnangagwa. It is patently clear the quest for funding and personal glory, not a bid to secure an opportunity to serve the people, has been the motivating factor both in the departure of Tsvangirai’s secretaries general from the MDC, as well as in the reverse process, their bid to rejoin the party under the umbrella of the MDC Alliance. The process of creating the alliance has come at a cost, however. Creation of the alliance and attendant incorporation or accommodation of the leaders of the smaller parties has dislocated and weakened MDC-T structures.
Far from strengthening the Zimbabwean opposition’s challenge to the hegemony of the ruling Zanu PF, the alliance has generated a new set of problems, culminating in the in-fighting pitting the mainstream MDC-T faction of Chamisa against the various smaller factions, which now accuse him of deceiving them in the just-ended primary elections. It is an undeniable fact, however, that the only viable faction in the MDC alliance is the Chamisa-led MDC-T. Biti has ambitions and personal political aspirations, but no political organisation worthy of the name. His quest for association with Chamisa is clearly for personal benefit. The same applies to Ncube. As for the four remaining partners in the alliance, many observers are amazed that Chamisa or Tsvangirai before him, have taken them seriously as viable or serious stakeholders on the Zimbabwean opposition political landscape.
“I would go as far as to suggest that the likes of Biti are, in fact, a serious liability to Chamisa,” says a former diplomat with business interests in Harare. “For some reason, Chamisa does not seem to appreciate that. Ncube is also seeking political relevance on the back of his naiveté, and Tsvangirai’s before his sad departure.
“Ncube has not been able to demonstrate the numbers behind him and will not because he simply has none. With regard to Ibbo Mandaza’s prognosis or predictable clairvoyance, they are both predicated on his well-known hostility towards the ruling party after he changed allegiance.”
Various observers have proposed that if Biti and Ncube are motivated by genuine national interest or fervent patriotism, they should swallow their misplaced pride and return back to the MDC-T without the baggage of their own so-called parties. What the opposition needs is, not an alliance of one strong party surrounded by half-a-dozen ego trips masquerading as political parties. The MDC should be one strong and united party in which Ncube, Biti, Elton Mangoma, who also broke away, are members. They took a calculated risk when they departed from the MDC. Now they expect a risk-free return.
As for former vice-president Joice Mujuru, the writing is now clearly written on the wall. It is now being demonstrated by the increasingly and embarrassingly dwindling number of supporters attending her rallies that she is not heading anywhere. She too should engage in self-introspection while desisting from self-delusion. She has two options — either attach herself to the MDC or go back to Zanu PF. There is still time to re-invigorate the MDC. Biti and Ncube should give Zimbabweans an early Christmas present — the opportunity to vote between two real parties on 30 July. I am convinced that Chamisa will not deny them ministerial posts in the event of an MDC victory.
Meanwhile, Mandaza’s facetious predictions of an easy MDC victory appear to be motivated more by his own wishful expectations than by a genuine and honest assessment of the present day political landscape. The opposition is well-advised not to be lulled into a false sense of security.
Victory for either Zanu PF or the MDC will only come on the back of an election campaign characterised by hard work, sound political strategy as well as enterprise. The MDC would do well minimise its hostile confrontation with Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. It is arguable that the party can win the forthcoming polls without raising a further futile finger against the electoral body.