On Monday 8th January 2017, the leader of the official opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai issued a statement to his supporters and the nation at large. Formally, it was presented as a delayed New Year’s message, but its tone and content suggested it was the beginning of a long goodbye.
“I am looking at the imminent prospects of us as the older generation leaving the levers of leadership to allow the younger generation to take forward this huge task that we started together so many years ago with our full blessing and support,” said Tsvangirai in his long statement which contained reflections on his eventful and illustrious career as a trade unionist and politician.
Tucked in the middle of the lengthy statement, the line barely disguised the intentions of the man who has earned the title among his supporters as the “face of the struggle”. He was preparing to go and also readying his loyal supporters that the day was not too far off into the distance.
“Asante Sana moment”
It was a de javu moment for those who were following events closely. Some called it another “Asante Sana moment”, in reference to the rambling speech made by former President Robert Mugabe on 19 November 2017, when the whole world expected him to announce his resignation but he didn’t. In Tsvangirai’s case, expectations had been built up when, a few moments before the statement, was released, Tsvangirai’s spokesperson posted a message on social media inviting people to look out for his bosses’ message. “MT’s upcoming statement in the next few minutes is a must-read for all Zimbabweans,” wrote Luke Tamborinyoka on Facebook before ending with the dramatic words, “That’s how it’s done Save”.
It was this invitation that whetted the appetite of most observers. What had Tsvangirai done that had received such high approval from his spokesperson? Was Tsvangirai resigning? These questions commanded attention as people waited for the statement. It is common knowledge that Tsvangirai is encumbered by poor health. Just three days before, there was a flood of empathy from all quarters as the nation watched images of Tsvangirai meeting President Mnangagwa and his Vice President, Rtd Gen Chiwenga who had paid him a courtesy visit at his home. Since then, there has been much speculation that Tsvangirai might call time on his illustrious political career in order to focus on his health.
What’s really going on?
Although Tsvangirai did not resign, the statement contained much that signalled an intention to leave in the near future. This is certainly how it was interpreted by most people. It was reported as such by most media houses. Indeed, many people began to voice out their opinions on who should take over from Tsvangirai. However, a day after this statement, MDC-T spokesperson, Obert Gutu issued a second statement, dismissing reports that Tsvangirai is considering stepping down. He reaffirmed the position that Tsvangirai is the party’s presidential candidate for this year’s elections. The statement carries a completely different message from what was communicated by Tsvangirai’s statement the previous day. So there are two conflicting statements – one from the president of the party, issued through his spokesperson and another from the party, issued through the party spokesperson.
These apparent contradictions raise serious questions about the state of the party and its communications. They confuse the public and give the impression of a dysfunctional organisation. At worst, they cause questions to be asked whether Tsvangirai is in full control or if people are using his absence to speak on his behalf without his authority. There is no reason why he would have spoken of the “imminent prospects” of the older generation “leaving the levers of leadership” to a younger generation in his statement if, at the same time, he intends to run in the 2018 election which if he wins would give him a 5 year mandate. Or is it the party that is refusing to accept Tsvangirai’s desire to leave? There are some who believe it would be suicidal if the party were to lose Tsvangirai before the next elections. They are willing to carry him though the campaign if need be.
A more likely reason is that the party is merely trying to calm things down after the floodgates of campaigning were opened by Tsvangirai’s statement the previous day. However, it’s too late and this is unlikely to slow things down. Twitter handles have already been created and people are already campaigning for their preferred candidates.
Focus on health
I was fortunate to work with Tsvangirai 5 years ago. I know that he is a man of great courage. I last saw him in July when I visited Zimbabwe, after he had undergone a chemotherapy session in South Africa. He was brave, as always, and still full of confidence. He refused to let the cancer weigh him down. At the time, there was a bit of trouble with some of his senior officials in the party, including one of his deputies, who were unhappy with the agreement towards the MDC Alliance. But he was still upbeat.
Now, however, it is clear that the hand of fate continues to be unfair on Tsvangirai. It stands between him and another shot at the presidency. If the statement is anything to go by, Tsvangirai himself appreciates the gravity of the situation and realises that it’s a shift that he might not be able to carry. I speak from experience when I say his health must be his number one priority at the moment. Five years ago, it was a health scare that caused me to leave my role as Tsvangirai's adviser. When the diagnosis was done, the doctors thought it was a miracle that I had made the long haul flight from Zimbabwe the previous day. I was not even aware of the extent of my condition. Later, as I lay in my hospital bed in London, I agonised over the future. If I decided to leave my role, what would people think of me? Would they not say I had run away after defeat? Would they not say I was a coward? It was very difficult to leave a position of influence where I had the ear of one of the most revered figures in the country.
I realised that the decision to leave and focus on recovery was not cowardice. It was one that required courage. I have had to live with cheap shots coming from people who have no clue whatsoever about my situation. But that is fine. I have lived and in the past 5 years I have made some modest contributions to my country. It is for the same reason that I have said in recent days that if I were advising Tsvangirai at this moment, it would be that he needn’t worry about what people may think or say of him but to do what is best for his health. The country, Africa and even the world, will benefit immensely from him in the future, but only when he is healthy, fit and strong.
Fear of losing “the brand”
If he does walk away, this means his party must find a successor or at least, a presidential candidate. After leading the MDC since its formation in 1999, the party has become used to Tsvangirai, perhaps too used to him as leader. The party is so connected to him that the T in its name is derived from his surname. For many who oppose his departure, they fear it will leave a void so huge that no other person can fill it. They claim that Tsvangirai is a brand, if not indeed THE brand. But this is precisely the source of the problem: they are looking at the brand and not the human behind that brand. They forget that for the brand to survive, the human behind it has to be there as well. They can’t face the reality that the human behind the brand is suffering at the moment and needs some respite. The more they burden him, the more the brand suffers in the long run. They forget too that Tsvangirai will not be there forever. At some point, they must build new brands.
Fear of life without the leader
The other problem is the fear of dealing with succession. It is a problem that their rivals, ZANU PF struggled with for many years and now, ironically, it is the MDC-T’s turn. For years, ZANU PF was struck by a fear of life without Mugabe, who had led the party since the late seventies. The MDC-T is also encumbered by a similar fear of life without Tsvangirai. Like their ZANU PF counterparts, they fear that no one is big enough to fill his boots. They also fear that there will be serious divisions and the party might break up.
These similarities are partly a reflection of chronic weaknesses in Zimbabwean political organisations, which are almost always tied to the personality of the leader and lack institutional independence. They also reflect how the problem is creating a personality cult afflict most political organisations. Political parties must have perpetual succession, a quality which means as organisations, they must be able to survive their founders and successors. ZANU PF appears to have conquered this fear. Last November, with the aid of the military, they summoned the courage to get rid of Mugabe and their party has survived albeit minus members of the defeated faction It used to be said that Mugabe was the glue that held the party together and ZANU PF would crumble without him. That myth has since been busted.
The MDC-T has to muster the courage to face life without Tsvangirai. It is a reality that the party must confront one way or another or a harsher reality will confront them when they are not prepared. Some argue that Tsvangirai must stay because any leadership change at present will jeopardise the party just a few months before the elections. They have probably not considered the scenario where due to illness, Tsvangirai might not be able to participate actively in the election. They have not considered a scenario where the illness will count against him and the party in the campaign. This is why I have previously urged to the party to do scenario-planning, if they have not done so already. If they have done so, they surely have these scenarios of what would happen if their leader were to become unavailable shortly before the election. I know that leaders fear raising these questions lest they be labelled as too ambitious and disloyal. But they must have the courage to place all these scenarios before their supporters so that they understand the challenges that must be confronted. There must, at the very least be a contingency plan for a scenario where their candidate becomes unavailable.
The question, of course, is how does the party deal with the question of succession? Does Tsvangirai appoint a successor? Does the party’s National Council have the power to appoint a successor? Or does the party have to call an Extraordinary Congress? This depends on the interpretation of the party’s constitution. At present, the official version of the constitution has been hard to come by despite numerous requests. The party should at least upload the latest authorised version to its website.
Nevertheless, these questions as to how and who has the authority to select the successor are likely to be contentious and might even spill into the courts if they are not carefully handled. This is because some candidates might feel comfortable with a Congress while others may not be keen on it. Some may be comfortable with the National Council making a decision while others may not be happy with that. This is because some forums offer better prospects to specific candidates than others. This means there will be a lot of forum-shopping as candidates seek a forum that gives them better prospects of success.
What about the coalition?
Naturally, other parties will take an interest in the race and may wish to influence it. For obvious reasons, ZANU PF will be interested in the outcome of the race and will try to influence it. Infiltration and sponsoring candidates are typical methods used to influence the race. State media and social media could also be used to spread propaganda in favour of or against certain candidates. It could also extend to sponsoring violence where elements are hired to cause trouble. The more chaos and divisions the race causes in the MDC, therefore weakening their rival, the better and divide and rule is a strategy they have typically used in the past.
In the event that a vacancy arises, the MDC Alliance partners will also be watching the succession race very closely. This is because they had also chosen Tsvangirai as their presidential candidate. If Tsvangirai were to bow out of the race, the Alliance would need a new candidate. Would Tsvangirai’s replacement in the MDC-T automatically replace him as the Alliance candidate? There is no guarantee that the replacement will be agreeable to the alliance partners and this may spell doom for the coalition. This alone would be a favourable outcome for ZANU PF, which would rather face the opposition parties as separate entities than as a single unit.
One way to resolve the conundrum is for the MDC-T to frame it as a primary election to select a presidential candidate. The party is already preparing for its candidate selection process, which presumably, will involve primary elections where there is contestation. The party can, using similar processes, select its presidential candidate. In fact, as the party that preaches change, it can transform the way presidential candidates are selected by conducting the process in an open and public manner, including radio and television debates between aspiring candidates. Candidates must be able to sell their vision and demonstrate their leadership credentials as they seek selection. They must submit themselves to public scrutiny. The party would have led the way in a progressive manner. This process will also raise the profile of the candidates, all of which will be part of the election campaign. Mechanisms to reduce fall-outs can be devised, such as guaranteeing that candidates in the presidential primary that achieve a certain threshold of the vote will be guaranteed a role in the next government should the winning candidate go on to win the presidential election.
It would be surprising if Tsvangirai’s New Year’s statement was anything other than preparation for his departure. “We must recognize the imperative that new hands, with the full blessing of the people, must take this struggle and this country forward …” he said. These are words of a democrat who fully appreciates that whoever takes over cannot be imposed, but must have “the full blessing of the people”. He envisages a process where party members will have an active role in the selection of his successor who will take the struggle and the country forward. That is as it ought to be.
There will come a time when tributes will be written to Tsvangirai, to acknowledge and honour his stellar role in the struggle for democratisation in Zimbabwe. He has truly been a colossal figure in Zimbabwean politics. In his statement, he listed some of the things that were achieved under his leadership. What he did not mention is that by his courage against several odds, he gave people hope and reason to believe, why indeed many people respect and revere him. His opponents have mocked him no end. They have beaten him up, tortured him, and treated him appallingly over the years. Some of his most trusted allies have betrayed and mocked him mercilessly. But he never wavered and even they eventually found grudging respect for him. That is not to say he was without fault. No person is without fault.
Last week, President Mnangagwa paid him a visit and VP Chiwenga, a retired army chief was there with him, embracing a man they once said they would never salute. The President promised to settle his long overdue pension benefits. State media, which has been extremely harsh and vitriolic over the years has been unusually conciliatory in recent days. The sceptics will probably say the generosity is because Tsvangirai is no longer a threat. The more hopeful will want to see it as the advent of new politics. What is certain is that the man deserves a lot of credit for his contribution.
Now though, he has a very personal battle, perhaps the biggest he has ever faced in his eventful life, which he can win. But he does not need the burden of politics as he fights this war. No one should begrudge him if he decides to walk away from the political maelstrom. It takes courage to do so. He is a fighter and we must all wish him well.