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Big Saturday Read: Going to America

Washington DC

The MDC Alliance and civil society presented themselves at Capitol Hill this week and gave testimony on the situation in Zimbabwe to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, one of the oldest and most powerful standing committees of the US Congress, which has an influential role in the development of US foreign policy. The attendance was at the invitation of the Committee, itself an important mark of recognition of the MDC Alliance and civil society as key players in the affairs of Zimbabwe. It was part of the opposition and civil society’s global advocacy campaign for electoral reforms as Zimbabwe prepares for an important national election next year.

The Washington trip has drawn widespread attention and comments among Zimbabweans both at home and abroad. Opinion is divided, with a lot of criticism but also some fervent support from the MDC faithful. It has also presented a gift to the state propaganda machinery which for the first time since the new government assumed office found an opportunity to lambast the MDC. I am not surprised that things have turned out this way. From the moment news of the trip emerged it was plain that something like this would happen. It would have been a BIG surprise if it hadn’t played out this way.

Representation and accountability

Some have questioned the MDC Alliance’s moral and political authority to speak on behalf of Zimbabweans before a US Congressional Committee. As indicated, this was an invitation and in any event, the MDC-T, a core member of the MDC Alliance is the official opposition and is therefore, an important stakeholder in Zimbabwe. It has a legitimate right to represent its members and all those who align themselves with its purpose. Nevertheless, it is also important to appreciate that the pleasure of representing others comes with the responsibility of accountability. The critical scrutiny to which the MDC Alliance and civil society have been subjected in recent days therefore comes with their position as entities that sought to make representations on behalf of Zimbabweans. It is not only legitimate but necessary to hold political and civil society leaders to account.

There has been a lot of criticism towards members of the delegation from Zimbabwe, in particular Nelson Chamisa, Tendai Biti, and Dewa Mavhinga. The fourth member, Peter Godwin is a renowned author and journalist. While no person is immune from criticism, some of it has been too personal, unnecessarily vitriolic and unwarranted. I know all three men, and it is unfortunate it was an all-male delegation in a country where there has been much clamour for gender equality. They are all genuine and hard-working cadres in the long-drawn struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe. They have, in their various capacities, played important roles in the struggle and continue to do so, despite numerous odds. They were in Washington not in their personal capacities but as representatives of a legitimate political organisation (in the case of Dewa, a human rights group) and its members and whatever criticism there is must not be personalised but directed at their organisations. If they are accused of any errors of judgment, I’m certain that it is not because of any malice on their part as individuals. Nevertheless, as already indicated it is important to hold the MDC Alliance and civil society to account and this critique is a contribution to that effort.

A question of timing

In politics, as in many fields, timing is everything. As Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist reminds us in The Art of War, “When the ferocious strike of an eagle breaks the body of its prey, it is because of the timing of the strike”. A good idea can easily become a nightmare because of poor timing. Likewise, an otherwise good strategy can collapse simply on the basis of bad timing. It is therefore important, when executing a strategy, to take into account the contextual circumstances which help to define the timing. One context may be amenable to a particular strategy, while changed circumstances may require delaying or bringing forward a particular action.

The Washington trip by the opposition and civil society came within the context of major political developments which saw seismic changes in Zimbabwean politics. Mugabe had just lost a job he had held for 37 years. Mnangagwa had assumed the presidency following an unprecedented military action. However, despite concerns, the new administration had generally been embraced and accepted, even by the opposition and the international community. It meant if the trip had been organised prior to these major developments, it was now taking place against a new and changed political background. There is debate over the qualitative aspects of these changes, but it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge their existence.

The Washington trip naturally attracted more attention because of these political developments. It is not the first time that Zimbabweans have made representations before a US Congressional committee. Over the years, much of it has passed without much notice or with very little noise. Indeed, had this trip happened while Mugabe was still in charge, it might not have generated as much notice, interest or controversy. The organisers, opposition and civil society should have anticipated this in their plans. I would be surprised if they did not foresee the wave of reaction seen this week. A basic risk assessment of the trip would have shown the numerous costs and benefits. If they did, they probably made a rational choice, believing that the benefits outweighed the costs. However, it seems to me that they may have underestimated the scale of the costs.

In particular, there was a misreading of the public mood and sentiment and how the trip would be perceived. One of the palpable features in the wake of the political changes is, at least anecdotally, an abundance of hope and expectation among large sections of Zimbabwean society. While there is a body of opinion that is sceptical of the quality of the political changes, there is also a large body of opinion that believes that there is indeed a new dispensation which must be given a chance. For this reason, anything that appears to stand in the way of this newfound hope is generally frowned upon. It might seem to be misplaced in the eyes of critics, but the existence of this national mood of hopefulness ought to have been taken into account. This is not surprising after 37 years under the rule of one man. Zimbabweans were tired and wanted a new start.

Some of the harsh reaction to the Washington visit by the opposition must therefore be seen against this background of hopefulness for change. It has come at a time when many people are clinging on to hope that after Mugabe, perhaps there is a chance for a better future. That the opposition has gone to the US, a country which since 2001 has a law on its statute books, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA), which imposes a sanctions regime against Zimbabwe has naturally raised eyebrows. This has been exacerbated by the lack of information from the opposition, which gave room to genuine questions, wild speculation, conspiracy theories and disinformation. The risk attached to the sanctions argument is discussed below.

It may be argued in its defence that the opposition delegation had no control over the timing of the visit. They were, after all, invited. They saw it as an opportunity that comes once in a long while to make representations to an influential body of the world’s most powerful nation. Such opportunities are rare and must be grabbed when they come. It would probably have taken some time and great manoeuvres to organise. International diplomacy is fundamental especially given the tough operating terrain of Zimbabwe. ZANU PF itself used similar strategies during the war, when it was fighting the war of liberation. It is a perfectly legitimate form of engagement by political parties. Maybe they considered the risk and decided the opportunity was too important to let go. Nevertheless, in life even the most important plans can succumb to unforeseen developments. The major political developments that had taken place in Zimbabwe should also have influenced and guided the timing of the visit. These circumstances had resulted in significant shifts on the political landscape, which required a different and more nuanced response by the opposition. The script has changed and it needs more careful consideration and preparation. Surely the hosts would have understood.

Consequently, it did not seem that the delegation was fully prepared given the political developments that had just occurred at home. It was evident during the hearing that members of the Senate Committee were almost desperate to know if there was anything new that the US could do beyond what was already in place. They were in need of new input and direction. However, apart from Peter Godwin’s response which suggested a temporary lifting of sanctions and a Lancaster House style package of incentives for reform, there were no new ideas offered. This was probably because there was a fear of being seen back home as advocating for more punitive measures. Or quite simply that not enough preparation had been done to reflect the new circumstances. Ironically, even this reluctance to recommend bold additional actions did not save the delegation from the accusation that they had called for more sanctions. The hesitation, unsureness and a lack of preparedness, must have left the hosts none the wiser.

Toxicity of the sanctions narrative

For years, ZANU PF has profited from the notion that the opposition is responsible for the sanctions regime imposed by Western countries. It has cemented the legend that the opposition are no more than Western puppets. Under the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which formed the basis of the Inclusive Government between 2009 and 2013, the parties acknowledged the existence of sanctions and pledged to get them removed. However, the efforts were in vain largely because they did not have the power to change laws in the countries that imposed them. For the opposition to send a delegation to the US to bear testimony before a Congressional committee so soon after major political developments in Zimbabwe, it fell into the ZANU PF narrative that the opposition takes instructions from the West. It doesn’t matter that this is a false misrepresentation, it is easy to sell. Since the toxic narrative exists, measures should have been taken to pre-empt it with clear and adequate information of the motives and objectives of the trip to Washington DC. They chose silence before the trip, which left huge space for the propaganda machine to define the agenda of the trip. This was a gross error of judgment. The propaganda machine accepted the gift and set the narrative that they had gone to ask for more sanctions. The timing was poor but so was the lack of communication.

While the European Union has progressively removed the targeted sanctions against most individuals and companies, the US sanctions regime is etched in federal legislation (ZIDERA). A number of companies have been heavily fined for breaching these sanctions, the latest being CBZ, whose multi-million dollar fine for breaching sanctions could easily bankrupt it. Since it is federal legislation, changing it is no easy task. These measures have been renewed every year under the previous Bush and Obama administrations. The Trump administration will soon have to face this question and it is important because it will be the first time in the post-Mugabe era. This is why in part the opposition’s representations were closely watched by many people. If the Trump administration renews the sanctions, it is certain that it will be blamed on the opposition on account of the Washington trip, even though this renewal was likely even without the trip.

The overall message that emerged from the presentations was that the current US policy (which, of course, includes ZIDERA) must remain in place until after the elections. In other words, for the opposition and civil society, the sanctions regime remains a carrot and stick instrument to promote democratic reforms. However, the opposition parties seem to be reluctant to take responsibility for this position. This hesitation does not help. By going to Capitol Hill, they should have been prepared to go the full distance or they might as well have stayed at home. The hesitation is because the opposition is caught between two poles – on the one hand, they want punitive measures from the big powers to force electoral reforms, but on the other hand, they are fearful of alienating voters by being seen to be advocating for sanctions. The result is a lack of boldness in their position, which, as indicated in this article must have left the Senate Committee underwhelmed.

The sanctions narrative has always been toxic for the opposition. As far back as 2005, and despite my criticism of ZANU PF, I was critical of sanctions and sceptical of their utility. This was because first, I did not believe the sanctions would have any fundamental effect upon the targeted individuals but that they would affect the generality of the innocent population. Second, I feared that ZANU PF would turn the sanctions argument against the opposition, finding them to be a convenient tool to blame for the country’s economic woes and thereby blame the opposition for it. As it happened, both of these risks were realised. ZANU PF has consistently blamed the opposition for allegedly calling for sanctions. While the targeted individuals and their families suffered some inconveniences, such as not being able to travel, study or live in Western countries, they have made much of the sanctions as the primary cause of Zimbabwe’s economic woes and people’s suffering. All this was heaped on the shoulders of the opposition. This has helped it to shield its own failures in the eyes of the voting public.

The mischievous interpretations given to the Washington trip might not make sense to the thinking and more critical sections of society, but it will sell very well among the generality of the population which relies on state and social media snippets. People are being told that the opposition went to call for more sanctions. Many who have not watched the proceedings or read the transcripts to make their own judgment rely on what they are told.

All this was foreseeable and should have been considered during the risk assessment of the project. The sanctions issue was always going to be read into the trip. However, since they were not going to call for the lifting of sanctions, this left them carrying the burden of either supporting the maintenance of the current sanctions regime or calling for more sanctions. Either way, the sanctions burden had to be carried. This has placed the delegation and the opposition parties at loggerheads with a hopeful population. Not surprisingly, the government has already taken the moral high ground on this issue, saying it is disappointed by the delegation because sanctions do not hurt the elite, they only hurt the ordinary people. They will make much political capital from it, but own goals count in all matches.


However, the sanctions issue also had an impact on the opposition’s standing in the eyes of African peers. The notion that the opposition had called for sanctions alienated it from many African countries. I know from experience of working with the MDC that this alienation was very hard to fight off. The relationship between the opposition and African diplomats in Harare was not as harmonious and regular as that with the Western ambassadors, something that still needs some work. Whatever their weaknesses and the unpopularity of their approach among some Zimbabweans, the African countries and SADC in particular remain a key arena for the resolution of our political challenges. Strategically, the opposition cannot afford to be seen to be disrespecting or alienating SADC in preference for the West. In any event, the West generally will have to work through and with the SADC countries to have any serious impact. It is not clear whether the Washington trip was preceded by any engagements with the SADC countries after the new administration took office in Harare. If it wasn’t, this needs to be rectified. The ordinary people can nonchalantly dismiss SADC and the AU in casual debates, but serious opposition politicians and strategists know that they cannot afford that petulant attitude.

Exhaustion of local routes

One of the charges against the opposition is that they jumped the gun by rushing to the US before exhausting or even trying local channels of engagement under the new administration. According to this view, the Mugabe dispensation is gone and there is a new Mnangagwa administration in place which must be judged on its own merits. Yes, the Mugabe regime was intransigent and stubborn, this view concedes. Yes, the same people now in charge served Mugabe, the views also concedes. However, according to this view, Mnangagwa is the new sheriff in town. This view, based more on hope that he probably has a different way of doing things. This view is not shared by those who believe nothing has changed. This counter-view argues that Mnangagwa and Mugabe are two sides of the same coin, so the opposition was right to continue with international engagements regardless of the political changes. Nevertheless, the weight of public opinion appears to be in favour of giving the new man and his administration a chance.

The opposition should have read this message and sought engagement with the new administration on the set of issues relating to reforms that they have been raising under Mugabe’s leadership. It is not because there is so much faith that the new administration will do better than Mugabe, but that it is important to put them to the test and confirm that they aren’t interested. If the new administration demonstrated the same arrogance and intransigence, the opposition could have engaged regional countries, via SADC copying in the AU. They would have argued that while they believed the change of government would open a new chapter, their hopes had been dashed and they would have demonstrated the evidence. If SADC did not pay attention, it would then be appropriate to raise the matter to a new level, bringing in the international community and arguing that there is no joy both at home and in the region. No one would accuse the opposition of not having tried local solutions with the new establishment. They would have demonstrated that the new administration is just as bad as the old one.

This, in my opinion, would have been the ideal path. However, with the Wasington trip, the opposition has started the other way round - with the international. They have succumbed to the stereotype that they have little faith in the local and regional and that they prefer the West. This is not good for its standing. ZANU PF will capitalise on it both among voters and in the region.

Lack of communication

In politics, a communications strategy is fundamental. Politicians sell preferred imagined orders to the rest of the people. They must persuade and explain to them why their imagined order is better than their rivals’. To that end, they must be excellent communicators. But communication is also about accountability. When you represent people, you must account to them through communication. Part of this debacle is down to a serious deficit in communication. A good strategy that is not accompanied by effective communication can become a disaster. There is nothing wrong with global diplomacy. However, given the sensitivities around the Washington trip, it needed a strong communications strategy. Politicians in other countries write op-eds and use social media to communicate effectively. They explain their moves so that people have information upfront. This trip could easily have been explained as part of the international engagement in the wake of the changed and new political circumstances. That way, people would have been prepared for the trip. They might even have shared their thoughts on what they expected them to say at Capitol Hill. This communication would not only have made people part of the process, but it would have pre-empted any speculation, gossip and misinformation which has now soiled the trip. It would have allowed the opposition to set the narrative. The opposition would have set the agenda. But now they have allowed ZANU PF to set the agenda and they have been reduced once again to a fire-fighting role.

Is it a new administration?

There is an important question that has arisen in the course of this debate. It is whether the Mnangagwa administration deserves to be regarded as a “new administration”. A popular argument among those supporting the Washingtontrip is that it was necessary since there is no difference between the Mnangagwa administration and its predecessor under Mugabe. According to this view, there is nothing new in the current administration. This is to be expected in casual conversations. It is based on the notion of equalisation – that one is equal to or the same as the other. There is no room for critical analysis or nuance. It is an attractive argument but only at a superficial level. However, one expects serious political parties and civil society organisations to carry out more in-depth and nuanced analysis, which identifies aspects that evade the ordinary eye.

This kind of analysis is important in order to identify opportunities and gaps in the new administration that may not have been present in the old. It is easy to take a dismissive attitude and say it’s all the same. However, I fear that if opposition parties approach Mnangagwa as they approached Mugabe, they could be making serious errors of judgment. Far better, in my opinion, is for the opposition parties to adopt a new line of thinking which accepts that there is a new administration; that looks for differences rather than merely confirms similarities with the Mugabe administration. Do not fight the last war, Sun Tzu reminds us. In other words, electoral battles of the past belong to the past. You cannot say this is how we fought before, the enemy is still the same, and therefore we will fight the same way. Electoral battles against Mnangagwa may well be very different from battles against Mugabe. It is therefore important to ditch the idea of equalisation and to deal with Mnangagwa as a new opponent requiring a new set of strategies and tactics. That way, the opposition will be better prepared for the new challenge compared to riding on the belief that there is no difference between Mugabe and Mnangagwa. They are facing a different opponent in 2018 and it would be foolhardy to work on the basis that they are still fighting Mugabe.

This same approach must be adopted in relation to engagement on electoral reforms. The honest politicians in the opposition will remember that it was Mnangagwa who agreed to one of the final demands made before the 2013 elections, which opened the way to the adoption of the amendment of the Electoral Act by Cabinet. I would urge the opposition to seek engagement with the Mnanangwa administration and see if they will be rebuffed as was the case under Mugabe’s stewardship. They might be surprised. Mnangagwa wants to restore relations with the West and it might be harder in that context to maintain a hard-line stance against broader election observation.

Diminished moral authority

A big problem from the opposition is that by actively participating in the processes that led to the ouster of Mugabe and the ascendancy of Mnangagwa, they lost the moral authority to question the legality and legitimacy of the new administration. Further, by appearing to have been keen to join the Mnangagwa administration after Mugabe lost power, they also lost the moral authority to question their past misdeeds. It now seems vacuous and opportunistic to raise these issues after the disappointment of not being included in the post-Mugabe administration. The opposition would have had a far more convincing narrative before the Senate Committee if they were challenging the legality and legitimacy of the new administration. But they knew that would be inconsistent with their previous position as demonstrated by their words and conduct in November. They took part in the big march on 18 November. They enthusiastically participated in the removal (impeachment) process and celebrated Mugabe’s resignation if it were their own victory. They attended Mnangagwa’s inauguration. They made soundings towards a coalition government. Consequently, critics now see the opposition’s position and apparent antagonism towards the new administration as sour grapes. It is interesting to consider whether the trip to Washington would have gone ahead if the opposition had been part of the new administration. Indeed, whether the position on US policy would have been to maintain or change it? It is because of these ambiguities that some people are questioning the opposition and the motives of the Washington trip.


The Washington trip has generated a great deal of debate. On a positive note, it shows that the opposition still attracts some attention and what it does matters. However, in this case, it has been the wrong kind of attention. Perhaps not much thought was invested in planning this trip, taking into account the risks and opportunities. From a strategic perspective, it is always important to treat such trips as a project. Every project has clear aims, objectives and goals but that not enough. The goals may not be achieved if the project is poorly timed and executed. This is why it is important to plan strategically, taking into account the timing and context. The costs and benefits must be set out and weighed against each other. In this case, everything that has happened so far was foreseeable. Pre-emptive measures to mitigate the damage could have been taken. No-one can reasonably question the need for electoral reforms in Zimbabwe and that the opposition is well within its rights to demand them and lobby the international community to that end. However, a good set of aims, objectives and goals is not by itself enough for a project. The timing and context can easily make a good project look suspect.

Nevertheless, to every dark cloud, there is always a silver lining. It is that in the midst of all this controversy, the issue of electoral reforms has received more coverage and prominence than at any time during the course of the year. Opposition spin-doctors might want to claim that this was always the plan – that even so-called bad publicity has its dividends. However, this would be no more than a desperate salvage operation. An honest assessment of events means that the opposition must accept it now has a big job on its hands to minimise the damage that has been caused to its brand. The sanctions song has just received a new lease of life and it will be played over and over again for the next few months. For its part, however, I hope the new administration will seize the moment to demonstrate that it is different from its predecessor. There is no need to be vindictive against members of the delegation. In fact, they can earn themselves more points if they invite the opposition and civil society to the table to discuss electoral reforms.


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