Those who have walked through a wetland or swamp on a dark night may well remember seeing spots of light, in some cases resembling small fires in the distance. For many of us, these glowing lights were a source of mystery. We invariably interpreted them to be ghosts and they were a source of fear. The instinct upon sight of the mysterious lights was to run away as fast and as far as the legs could carry us.
Later, with more reading and a better understanding of the phenomena, I learnt that scientists have an explanation for it. They call it ignis fatuus, which literally translates to foolish fire. It is also referred to as a will o’ the wisp. Others call it a friar’s lantern. While many myths associate these lights with ghosts, scientists explain them as result of a chemical reaction involving a combination of gases produced by decaying organic matter found in swamps and other wetlands. It is these reactions that produce the glowing lights, which appear during the dark of the night. They are fake fires, hence the name “foolish fire”..
As a metaphor, an ignis fatuus refers to something deceptive or misleading. There appears to be a fire, but there is, in reality, no fire. It’s like a mirage that one sees in the desert. Sometimes, power resembles an ignis fatuus. It appears to be there, but actually there is none. It might appear to be big, when in fact it is small. All that is needed is for people to believe that power exists.
The epic television drama , Game of Thrones has similar echoes. “Power resides where men believe it resides,” says the sly Lord Varys. “It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” The advice is directed at Tyrion, the dwarf who has recently become the Hand of the King during a period of great turbulence and uncertainty in the kingdom. He is telling the dwarf that his diminutive nature is not an encumbrance, that despite his physical limitations, he could still play a significant role in the rule of Westeros, one of the kingdoms. All he needs is to cast a very large shadow.
The idea carried in these metaphors reflects the trickery of power. Oft-times, power is a perception. Lord Varys calls it “a shadow on the wall” so that a small man can actually appear big. It all depends on how he sees himself and how he presents himself to the public and how in turn the public perceives him. He must believe he has power and people must also share that belief. Zimbabwe’s succession race is awash with small men and women who cast very large shadows on the wall. To employ the other metaphor, there are too many foolish fires on the political landscape. While the succession race is demystifying some of these perceptions, some men and women are also casting very large shadows on the wall.
When life gives you lemons …
A lot of lessons can be drawn from the succession race. One that stands out is how it has played out in the media and the battle between traditional and social media. Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Information and Publicity is a throwback to the old days when ZANU PF had a dalliance with socialist ideology. For a long time located in the leader’s office, it was designed as the propaganda arm of the government. Government had a monopoly on both print and electronic media, all of which fell under the Ministry. The role of the Minister was to ensure tight control over the information structure – a key pillar in the architecture of power. The purpose was to control and define what qualified as news, when and how it was packaged and delivered to the public. In this way, ZANU PF managed to exert its influence on the media and what information was presented to and consumed by the public.
Of those who have held office at the Ministry, few have executed the task as effectively and notoriously as Professor Jonathan Moyo, who was appointed to the post in 2000. It was a hectic period during which government undertook the controversial Fast Track Land Reform Programme, while at the same time fighting off a stiff challenge presented by the MDC. Further afield, ZANU PF had to fend off an avalanche of negative publicity in Western media. Moyo was undaunted by the challenge but his brutal execution of his role gained him many enemies. His principal arena was the public media. When he returned to Cabinet in 2013, Mugabe deployed him to his former turf. Upon his return, Moyo sought to present a different image – one of a reformist prepared to cultivate a better relationship with private media. But as it happened, this was a mere cover for what was to come.
It did not take long before Moyo deployed the public media against political opponents only that this time the enemy was within ZANU PF, not outside. The media onslaught against the then Vice President Joice Mujuru and her allies was without precedent as far as ZANU PF was concerned. Attacks through state media had always been reserved for opposition elements with Morgan Tsvangirai as a principal target. While Grace Mugabe led the political assault through her provincial rallies, Moyo commandeered state media to ensure Mujuru and her allies were politically dead before the ZANU PF Congress had even arrived in December 2014.
Nevertheless, when mid-2015 arrived, Moyo lost his principal home. He was shunted to the Ministry of Higher Education. Priscilla Mupfumira acted for a while before Christopher Mushowe was given the role. The removal of Moyo from the propaganda machinery was widely seen as a master-stroke by Lacoste, the faction backing Mnangagwa. They were uncomfortable with Moyo in control of state media as he was increasingly becoming critical of Mnangagwa’s bid to succeed Mugabe. They knew of his capabilities and did not want him controlling the media. When Moyo left, his nemesis George Charamba, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry took charge of public media.
Strategically, this was a blow to Moyo and his faction’s ambitions. For the first time during his career in government, Moyo had no control of state media. Some of the editorial staff appointed during his time were moved. Mduduzi Mathuthu, then editor of The Chronicle was probably the most high profile casualty as he was shunted to the less influential Southern Times located in Windhoek. This was part of the effort to dismantle the structure that Moyo had built. Anything that might grant him favour was unwelcome.. But true to the common adage, Moyo took his lemons and set out to make lemonade. A few months before his sacking as propaganda chief, probably anticipating and preparing for what was to come, Moyo had made a grand entrance into social media, announcing his arrival both on Facebook and Twitter. He eventually settled on Twitter which suited his style. On Twitter, Moyo quickly gained a vast audience. He went into scraps – Twars, as they are called on the platform - with different characters both at home and abroad.
On Twitter, Moyo has built up a vast army of followers – admirers and critics alike, giving as much as he takes. His most important achievement, however, is that despite having been thrown out of the propaganda machinery, for better or worse, he has continued to set and shape the media agenda. Whether as the attacker or the victim, he has continued to hog the media limelight. Over the past year, state media has led an assault on Moyo and his allies but its handlers are not favoured with the same gift of manipulation. Instead, Moyo has used social media to generate headlines both in the state and private media. His opponents on the other hand lack a similar character. Despite controlling the powerful state media, they have been followers rather than architects of the media agenda.
ZANU PF has issued numerous orders for its members to stop “abusing” social media. Moyo has blatantly refused to heed the call. Instead the intensity of his attacks have increased, the principal target being Mnangagwa. People have watched in shock as Moyo has relentlessly criticised a man who is feared by many on account of a notoriously fearsome reputation built over the years. How is it that Moyo can openly attack an untouchable man in that manner, people have asked. This is because an impression has been created over the years that Mnangagwa is powerful, untouchable and even dangerous. Could it be that it was merely a big shadow projected on the wall? Was it an ignis fatuus, a foolish fire? The jury is still out on that one as the succession drama is far from finished.
Most assessments mid 2015 when Moyo was deposed from the leadership of the propaganda machinery suggested the demise of his influence. Few could have imagined that social media would eclipse traditional media in the way that it has happened. With all the state media and its surrogates in its hands, so far Lacoste has come second best to Moyo in the propaganda war. The public humiliation of George Charamba, the presidential spokesperson and Permanent Secretary of the Information Ministry by First Lady Grace Mugabe last weekend was the icing on the cake. Charamba had berated Moyo for resorting to Twitter in the succession battles. State media under his control had relentlessly targeted Moyo and his allies. And yet it was Charamba who suffered a great reversal in Chinhoyi, getting a severe telling off for abusing the media against Grace Mugabe’s allies. Optimists on the Lacoste side will say it was a temporary reversal; that a battle was lost but the war is still in motion. They will hold on to the hope that Grace Mugabe, Moyo and their allies will eventually get their comeuppance.
But there are important lessons here for the opposition politicians who have long been shut out of state media. With just a few exceptions, opposition politicians have largely been social media-shy. The potential that social media provides, which Moyo has demonstrated is hardly recognised. There is no appetite to make more effective use of social media. Over the years, the opposition has not done enough to shape and set the media agenda. Moyo did not sit idly when he was ejected from control of traditional media. He found space in social media and made use of it to further his political agenda. He has done his shift on social media, ensuring his voice remained relevant and influential.
Going after the tokoloshe
The public humiliation of George Charamba by his boss’ wife, Grace Mugabe was one of the major highlights of the Chinhoyi rally. It was a public court at which she was the prosecutor, judge and executioner. Charamba was belittled like a school kid before a school assembly. It wasn’t the first time that Grace Mugabe had publicly berated a senior official. Back in 2014, she did the same thing to Ray Kaukonde, then a senior ZANU PF official in Mashonaland East Province. Kaukonde preserved his dignity by refusing to obey her order for him to stand up and shake hands with her. But was Charamba the real target of Grace Mugabe’s tirade?
Politicians in Zimbabwe like to use the anecdote that if you want to identify the witch among the villagers all you have to do is to beat up the witch’s tokoloshe. After a thorough hiding, the tokoloshe will start to cry in pain and the witch will also feel the pain. When the witch can’t take it anymore, he/she will rise to the tokoloshe’s defence. At that point the villagers will know who among their number is the witch. Politicians say if you want to identify the head of the faction, you have to target his or her allies – the tokoloshes. The strategy is that at some point the faction’s godfather will come to their defence. In some ways, Grace Mugabe coming out to defend Moyo and Kasukuwere is indicative of this strategy. It might be said Lacoste has successfully drawn her out to defend her allies. It is now clear that Grace Mugabe is firmly with G40 and all signs show that her husband, Mugabe is also with them.
Likewise, Mnangagwa’s allies have been targeted. Some have been sacked or demoted, others suspended and more expelled from the party. The strategy is to draw out their godfather. At some point he must claim them. He must defend them. In this case, the godfather knows the game. He knows he is the target and that the strategy is to draw him out. Once he does that, his fate is sealed. It’s a tight situation: on the one hand, he defends his tokoloshes and he stands accused of treachery, yet on the other hand he sacrifices his tokoloshes and he looks weak and incapable of defending allies. This might cause allies to jump ship and leave him isolated. So far, he has gambled and chosen to maintain silence or disown the tokoloshes.
When Charamba received the tongue-lashing at the Chinhoyi rally, Grace Mugabe was merely going after a tokoloshe. The real target was sitting behind her alongside her husband, the President. The aim is to drawn him out to defend his allies. The attacks will continue –there’s five more rallies to go and more of the same can be expected to come.
The owl does not have horns
An African legend has it that for many years the owl was king of the birds because it claimed to have horns and the rest of the birds believed the tufts of feathers on either side of its head where indeed horns. It took one small bird to debunk the myth when it challenged the owl to a fight. That is when it emerged that the big shadow the owl had projected on the wall was actually a misrepresentation of reality. The owl was not as powerful as everyone had believed all along. The demystification of the owl caused it to fly away and hide in embarrassment. That is why it appears in the dark of the night, when the rest of the birds are asleep, so the legend goes.
It is not unusual for people to ascribe super powers to others. This is not because they have power but because they believe them to be powerful. There is a tendency to transform beliefs into realities – what may be called imagined realities. They are fictions. As Yuval Noah Harari reminds us in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, the power of imagination is one of the most important gifts given to humankind. The ability to imagine has given us the ability to create powerful myths that we believe in. The strength of a myth depends on its ability to draw in significant numbers of people to believe in it. Politics runs on the fuel of myths. Strong political parties are those that create myths that are believed by significant numbers of people. Strong political figures also thrive on the myths that are generated around their names and personalities. But these myths might also not survive scrutiny.
One of the enduring myths, reaffirmed by the media is that Mnangagwa’s succession bid is backed by the generals and that the generals have a large amount of power. But is this power real or is it merely a large shadow on the wall? It is preposterous to believe that the generals constitute a homogenous entity and that they have a single voice when it comes to the ZANU PF succession race. The nuances associated with the generals and their role in politics and ZANU PF are missed by generalisations that are common in the media. When it is said that the generals back Mnangagwa, does it mean all or merely some of the generals? While some generals might back Mnangagwa, it is by no means obvious that all generals are in his camp.
Exactly how much power vests in the military, separate from Mugabe as their Commander-in-Chief remains a moot point. Mugabe has benefited from the generals’ support over the years, but there is no reason to believe that there is another political leader who commands the universal support that Mugabe has been able to amass among the generals. The view that Mugabe is threatened by his generals or anyone within ZANU PF is highly misplaced. If anything, all evidence points to a man who is very comfortable in his seat of power. Most leaders in crisis situations prefer to stay at home and travel less. Two weeks ago was the first time in two years that the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunzinza travelled out of the country. He survived a coup in May 2015 and since then he has never travelled abroad preferring to stay at home. In Angola, a relatively stable country after the civil war that ended nearly 20 years ago, President Eduardo Dos Santos is known to be travel shy. He is one head of state who often skips SADC Summits, preferring to send subordinates.
By contrast, Mugabe is probably one of the most travelled leaders. Zimbabweans now joke that he “visits” Zimbabwe from time to time, because of his penchant for foreign travel. That is not the behaviour of a man who feels troubled by his generals or rival politicians. He has no fear that his generals might decide to disobey him. Even after telling them off recently, Mugabe has been comfortable enough to fly away to Tehran for the inauguration of an ally. In short, the power given to the security establishment over Mugabe is exaggerated.
No middle ground
“When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” These chilling words of Cersei in the Game of Thrones are instructive. The ageing Mugabe has not managed his succession well. The two factions vying to provide a successor are locked in a vicious game of thrones. The intensity of the succession race has increased in the past few weeks and has gone a notch higher in the past week. First, Grace Mugabe used the public platform of the Women’s League meeting to implore her husband to nominate a successor. It was the first time she had made that move, signalling that circumstances had driven her to play the card. All along she had resisted calls for Mugabe to name a successor. Second, just two days later, Grace Mugabe went into overdrive, hitting at G40 opponents and publicly lambasting Charamba, perceived to be backing the Lacoste faction. The attack upon Lacoste and its godfather, Mnangagwa was very clear.
It was not the first time that Mnangagwa and Lacoste have been attacked. The Chiweshe rally in early 2016 was another frontal attack on Lacoste. Then Sarah Mahoka and Mandi Chimene also publicly attacked Mnangagwa, the latter’s attack prompting him to make a public statement re-affirming his loyalty to Mugabe. Over the past two years, Moyo has been regularly sniping at Mnangagwa on social media, especially Twitter. This was summed up by Moyo’s tweet criticising what he referred to as Mnangagwa’s “ugly culture” – a play at the Command Agriculture scheme which was closely associated with Mnangagwa.
This time, however, Grace Mugabe has acted in person, not through a representative. She has made the great leap from working in the shadows to the frontline. There is no going back. No doubt, her public position and abrasive tactics have generated enemies within ZANU PF. Charamba is likely to carry his grievance for life. He and others similarly aggrieved must hope that one day she will get her comeuppance. It would be preposterous for Grace Mugabe to imagine that she can work with Mnangagwa and any of his team again. The line has been crossed and any opportunities for accommodation have been exhausted. In this regard, Grace Mugabe will do well to learn from the experience of Jiang Qing, the young wife of Chairman Mao, father of the Chinese Revolution.
Lessons from the East
Jiang Qing became very powerful during Mao’s Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Her accumulation of power had the support of three key allies and together they were known as the Gang of Four. This group’s power was rented from Chairman Mao. They persecuted rivals and manipulated the media to their advantage. Chairman Mao was faced with a fierce power struggle between rival groups in the Communist Party. On the one hand there was the Gang of Four led by his young wife and on the other hand there were the pragmatists and moderates. The Gang of Four prevailed, presenting themselves as the most loyal and faithful defenders of Chairman Mao. The aggressive Jiang Qing often humiliated her opponents at political rallies. Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four became more powerful and dominant as Chairman Mao became frail in his twilight years.
Chairman Mao eventually succumbed to old age and ill-health and that became the turning point both for China and for Jiang Qing and her fellow Gang of Four members. Shortly after Chairman Mao died, a coalition of political and military leaders purged the Gang of Four. Once Chairman Mao died, their power had vanished too. Ironically, Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged by the Gang of Four, returned to his powerful roles in 1977, later creating the architecture for China’s present-day success-story. Jiang Qing and her gang were captured and jailed. They were tried for crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing was given a suspended death sentence, which was later reduced to life imprisonment. Her fellow Gang of Four members were also jailed.
Years later, in 1991, Jiang Qing committed suicide in prison. In an obituary, the New York Times noted, “Few people have been so hated in modern Chinese history, and after her fall she became a symbol of the excesses and brutality of the Cultural Revolution. When her trial was televised each night at the end of 1980, most of the nation was delighted and riveted by the spectacle of Ms. Jiang in the dock …”
The story of Jiang Qing must be familiar to Grace Mugabe’s learned allies. They know that history has an uncanny habit of repeating itself. They have already gone too far to retreat. They know that they must avoid the fate that befell Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four. If they do not work on preventive measures, they will either have to flee the country or go down the same path. This makes the succession race a dog-eat-dog affair. As Cersei warned, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground for either faction. Both G40 and Lacoste now know that they must go the full distance as whatever trust there was has been exhausted. To pretend they can still work together in the long term would be delusional. One must win and the other must lose – there is no middle ground.
Opportunities for the opposition
Back in 2013, after the July 31 elections, there was so much despondency and hopelessness that few gave the opposition a chance 5 years later. 2018 looked like a lost cause. The situation was not helped by the implosion that followed in the MDC-T, the biggest opposition party. It resulted in a bitter split which left the opposition in disarray. As I wrote at the time, the only hope for political change was if something seismic happened within ZANU PF. The turmoil in ZANU PF which resulted in the great purge of Mujuru and her allies was an important moment which the opposition could have exploited. But they were still too embroiled in their own squabbles to take advantage of it. Instead, ZANU PF managed the purge in relative comfort, knowing there was no threat from the opposition.
Nevertheless, the current conflicts within ZANU PF present yet another opportunity for the opposition. They come at a time when the opposition parties are closing rank and finding some accommodation after years of acrimony. Furthermore, the current conflicts present more tensions and challenges for ZANU PF than the purge of the Mujuru faction. The Mujuru faction left without as much as a whimper, even though many observers had expected great ramifications from the purge. It turned out that the power and influence that Mujuru had in ZANU PF was more imagined than real. Could that be the same with Mnangagwa and Lacoste? Could they depart from the party without a fight? This is highly unlikely. They would have learnt nothing from the purge of the Mujuru faction. The greater likelihood is that they will fight for their political lives.
Alternatively, should they stay, they will use the Bhora musango strategy - play the ball in the long grass – the strategy that led to Mugabe’s defeat to Tsvangirai in the March 2008 elections. They simply won’t campaign for Mugabe or his nominee for succession and may even actively de-campaign them. It is already clear that the war veterans have abandoned the Mugabe ship and won’t be campaigning for him or his nominee.
Whoever wins between G40 and Lacoste, both are aware of the risks posed by disgruntled parties within the party. They know the risks of Bhora Musango which would be used by the disgruntled parties. The best way to avoid it would be to go the full distance and completely purge the losing faction. There is no middle ground. Before the 2013 elections, Mugabe kept the Mujuru faction within the party with the promise of higher glory. Mugabe already had a plan to purge them but they were oblivious of the fate that awaited them. Mugabe knew that he had suffered from the Bhora Musango strategy in 2008 and he was keen to avoid it in 2013. He went into that election with everybody on board for the cause. He only struck a year later, after he had secured the presidency and at a time Mujuru and her allies least expected it. He is unlikely to go into the 2018 elections with a disgruntled faction, which makes it more likely that the purge will happen before the elections. If that does happen, the purged group might seek alliances with the opposition, which is yet another opportunity they can exploit.
Power and morality
People say Grace Mugabe’s approach is crass and immoral and it probably is. “Those with the most power often have the least grace,” Littlefinger reminds us in Game of Thrones. The public chastisement of Charamba and others before Mugabe was humiliating and embarrassing. But it also showed the extent to which she is prepared to go in order to achieve her goals. It was also not the first time that she has acted in that fashion. Over the years, she has demonstrated an aggressive and ruthless streak which some might regard as cruel and insensitive. However, this should not come as a surprise. Grace Mugabe’s allies are familiar with the Machiavellian theory of power, in which morality is considered irrelevant. Machiavelli advocated for a theory of power that is separate from morality. For him, morality has no place in political affairs. Sometimes, he argues, it is necessary to be cruel. It is better to be cruel and feared than to be loved if that conduct preserves one’s power.
This idea of separating power from morality did not appeal to the Christian community. But Machiavelli was more interested in how things were and not what they ought to be. His view was that society was sinful and that there were many evil people. He argued that if one does not understand that people are evil and tries to be good among evil people, he will be ruined. "For the manner in which men live is so far removed from the way in which men ought to live, that he who leaves the common course for that which he ought to follow will find that it leads him to ruin rather than to safety …” writes Machiavelli in The Prince. One must therefore deal with people according to their nature, not what he wants them to be.
This means one must be harsh and cruel sometimes. “A prince therefore who desires to maintain himself must learn not always to be good..." he writes in The Prince, before adding, "...he (the leader of the state) must stick to the good so long as he can, but, being compelled by necessity, he must be ready to take the way of the evil." At another point, Machiavelli writes, “If a ruler who wants to always act honourably is surrounded by many unscrupulous men his downfall is inevitable. Therefore, a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.” According to Machiavelli, there is no need to be troubled by acquiring a reputation for notoriety if one is doing things that help to preserve one’s power. He writes, “if one considers everything carefully, doing some things that seem virtuous may result in one’s ruin, whereas doing other things that seem vicious may strengthen one’s position and cause one to flourish”.
Grace Mugabe’s conduct is consistent with Machiavellian prescriptions on the path to power and its preservation. While everybody else is concerned with the morality of her conduct, this is not a primary consideration for her. The primary goal is the acquisition and preservation of power and if it means being harsh, heartless and cruel sometimes, so be it. Against this background, it is not surprising that she is taking the path of ruthlessness. She is hitting hard and below the belt because she believes it is necessary in dealing with enemies in the succession race. It’s the all or nothing stage of the race, where the winner takes all and the loser gets nothing. She and her allies are literally throwing the kitchen sink at their opponents, who must now begin to appreciate that there is no longer any room for the middle ground. They too must fight for their political lives.
Events of the past week have demonstrated that the succession race has potential to turn ugly. No amount of pretense can hide the fact that the battle between G40 and Lacoste is intensifying. It is impossible for the two factions to find accommodation and co-existence in the long term. They have both gone too far that there is no turning back. Mugabe has shown his hand. He is unimpressed by Lacoste and prefers G40. Lacoste know this, hence the robust response and counter-attack by the war veterans. Mugabe will be lining up his allies in the region and abroad to back his call when he makes his nomination of a successor. Chance of a military-backed response are remote given that there is no appetite for military uprisings or regimes in the region. Legitimacy is important to whoever comes after Mugabe and any military maneuvers will likely receive short shrift in the region. At the moment G40 is on the offensive and Lacoste is under severe pressure. It has to respond firmly or it will disappear the same way the Mujuru faction was dispatched in 2014. They went without a whimper and much as some believe that Lacoste is different, unless they devise robust strategies, they too could go the same way. They must come to terms with the fact that Mugabe does not favour their bid. For their part, G40 cannot afford to allow recent successes to get to their heads. It’s far from finished. It takes just a single turn of events and the whole game to change completely. As they say, it’s not over until the fat lady sings. And so far, she hasn’t appeared on the stage.