On a warm February evening a fortnight ago, in Harare’s leafy diplomatic district of Belgravia, African Independent bore witness to the makings of an opposition political coalition whose mission is to end four decades of controversial Zanu-PF rule.
After years of fatigue and malaise, the Zimbabwean opposition is now stirring to life, 18 months before a major election, but the political dynamics at play are utterly intriguing and nothing can be taken for granted.
The stellar cast on that balmy night was a pot-pourri of some of the most flamboyant characters in Zimbabwean politics.
Sharing notes on Zimbabwe’s past, present and future were the following personalities: Tough-talking politician and former finance minister Tendai Biti; prominent academic and former top bureaucrat Ibbo Mandaza; former Zanu-PF spokesperson and one of only two surviving members of the party’s liberation war council Rugare Gumbo; former establishment sympathiser-turned-opposition-activist Jealousy Mawarire.
Colourful quotes, memorable anecdotes and captivating insights were flowing freely on that night. The discussions were electrifying.
Gumbo, 76, who was booted out of Zanu-PF under a cloud of controversy in December 2014 after being accused by President Robert Mugabe of plotting a coup d’état, is now the spokesperson of People First, a new party formed by former vice-president Joice Mujuru, 61, who was also kicked out of Zanu-PF on similar accusations. Interestingly, the People First constitution says nobody above the age of 70 can hold a post in the party.
Biti, a leading attorney who recently won a Constitutional Court ruling against child marriage, formed the People’s Democratic Party last year after breaking away from Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
Mawarire is a trained journalist and political backroom operator who hit the headlines in 2013 when he won a Supreme Court judgment forcing Mugabe to set a general election date after so-called “electoral cowards” within Zanu-PF sought a poll postponement.
Mandaza, who runs a regional think-tank on political economy and has dabbled in opposition politics for decades, brought all these faces together for an intimate discussion which has now given impetus to calls for a formidable coalition.
Biti set the ball rolling with an incisive critique of the size and scope of Zimbabwe’s long-running economic and political crisis.
In an interesting revelation, he complained bitterly about unnamed Western governments which he accused of betraying democracy by warming up to the idea of embracing a post-Mugabe dispensation.
Instead of backing the opposition, some “stupid” ambassadors were now jumping into bed with Zanu-PF factions which are locked in a fierce contest to succeed Mugabe. The Western powers appeared resigned to the belief that in African politics only a “strongman” could thrive.
“There are some embassies that have stuck out their necks on a candidate in Zanu-PF and sought to redefine Zimbabwean politics. They say Zimbabwe needs a strong man. Never mind about the democracy, they say we can have authoritarian democracy, authoritarian electoral change suits Africa,” Biti said.
“You get seduced by this argument that ‘democracy can’t exist in Africa, we need these big men’. There are some embassies that have been running with that. Very unfortunate, very unwise, very stupid, for lack of a better word,” Biti added.
Biti argued it was foolhardy for Western governments to entertain the idea that Zanu-PF could ever reform.
Gumbo, the public face of People First since the reclusive former vice-president Mujuru is yet to address campaign rallies, said he profoundly regretted the role he played in campaigning for Mugabe to gain acceptance from sceptical guerrillas who were initially opposed to his rise to the helm of Zanu in 1977.
“Our mistake was that we chose Mugabe against the advice of [former Mozambican president] Samora Machel. I had stayed with him [Mugabe] at the then Salisbury Maximum Security Prison. I pretended to know Mugabe more than the others and I argued he was the right man for the job. I must apologise for this. We wrote letters that the guerrillas must support him and that was brilliant,” Gumbo said.
After Gumbo realised the blunder of giving Mugabe power, he wrote a statement in 1980 to warn Zanu members “but nobody listened because a lot of us were consumed by the euphoria of independence”.
“Mugabe wanted power and we did not realise it. Yes, we have contributed to some of the things but we are ready to correct that.”
Gumbo said Mugabe has built a dictatorship within Zanu-PF with his so-called “one centre of power” mantra.
“What is one centre of power? It’s nonsense. That is diactatorship! It means every decision is made by one person and that is what has made investment difficult. We said he is 91 years old and there is a need to discuss the succession issue,” Gumbo added.
Political analysts say Biti’s PDP and Mujuru’s People First are already forming the nucleus of what promises to be a strong opposition coalition.
Tsvangirai’s MDC has not warmed up to the idea of a grand coalition but commentators say he is using his significant but waning clout as a gambit to eventually bargain for powerful posts in the envisaged coalition.
Sources within Biti’s PDP and Mujuru’s People First told African Independent that Tsvangirai will be swept aside if he continues employing delaying tactics.
Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the prevailing sentiment among large segments of the electorate attests to the public’s growing disillusionment with opposition politics.
Ever since 2008, when MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai won an election but failed to occupy the presidential palace, voters have lost hope in the opposition’s ability to topple President Robert Mugabe. When the MDC formed a “government of national unity” with Zanu-PF following the disputed 2008 election, the electorate expected Tsvangirai to prove himself as a president-in-the-making, but by all accounts he disappointed.
Every poll shows that Mugabe would comfortably romp to victory if a snap election were to be called any day. This speaks volumes of the opposition’s breathtaking failure to take advantage of Mugabe’s economic mismanagement which has left 80 percent of the population in extreme poverty.
Predictably, Mugabe has been emboldened. On Saturday, he treated himself to a lavish 92nd birthday party costing $800 000.
Malaba is African Independent correspondent and former editor of The Sunday Mail, Zimbabwe’s biggest newspaper.