It was supposed to be an opportunity to construct an alternative and persuasive narrative explaining the events of November which led to the departure of former President, Robert Mugabe after 37 years in power. However, the usually confident and opinionated Professor Jonathan Moyo looked nervous and emotional. The former Minister cut an uncharacteristically vulnerable figure on the BBC HardTalk interview this morning.
Professor Moyo has been on the HardTalk programme before, delivering assured performances complete with a flourish of arrogance. On this occasion, however, Moyo started appeared anxious and highly strung. By the end of the interview he had become visibly agitated and irascible. It was not the composed performance of old.But then in the past, he was a powerful man and with power comes a certain level of confidence and haughtiness.
It was Moyo’s first interview since he fled Zimbabwe during the tempestuous period in November last year when the military took over and Mugabe lost power. Since then, there has been a cloud of mystery over his whereabouts, which have remained closely guarded secret. Even after this interview, his location remains undisclosed.
Saved by "angels"
If Moyo were to seek political asylum, he would probably be a perfect candidate and the BBC interview would be an important part of his evidence pack. During the interview, Moyo maintained his strong oppositional stance towards the new administration in Harare, describing it as illegal and unconstitutional. Moyo said he still fears for his life and gave a description of the military assault on his home on the eve of the military intervention. He disclosed that he was warned by “a very close friend” not to stay at his home on that fateful evening. Instead, he went to a political friend’s home, where they were also attacked before they escaped thanks to “angels” who assisted him. It is clear that Mugabe had an important role in his escape from the clutches of the military although Moyo was not ready to disclose more details of this escape.
The points he made regarding the alleged illegalities that happened in November are not new. A number of observers described the events at the time and afterwards as a military coup, notwithstanding the fact that the authors tried to conceal it. The trouble is that it remains a political argument as no one has approached the courts to challenge the legality of what happened. There is even a High Court judgment which confirms that the military action was not unconstitutional and it has not been challenged. Moyo’s argument is therefore political and the problem is that it can be answered politically leading to a stalemate. Politically, his rivals argue that the G40 faction, through former Mugabe's wife Grace had already carried out its own coup as it had taken control of government.
In any event, while a number of people agree that it was a coup, there is an overwhelming view that the end – the removal of Mugabe - was necessary and justified the means. This is probably why there was no appetite, even within the traditional opposition, to challenge it or to condemn it with the regional and international community. Many, it seems, have moved on but Moyo and others have not. Where Moyo and other seem to be out of touch is that most people are satisfied that Mugabe is gone and the methods by which he left power are of little consequence to them. In trying to defend the Mugabe regime, Moyo and his allies are fighting a losing cause and only a handful of people will give them attention.
The second problem is that many people have problems with the messenger. In Moyo, they see a sore loser in the succession race who is bitter merely because his preferred faction lost to its rival. The interview did carry a distinct tone of bitterness. They argue that if Moyo had been on Mnangagwa’s side, as he was at some point in the mid-2000, he would be vehemently defending the events of November. He would have pointed to the unprecedented march of 18 November and argued that the events of November had the full support of the people and were therefore legitimate. This is because Moyo’s eventful career has seen him turn from being a fierce critic of government to one of its most zealous defenders before morphing again into a tough critic when he was out in the cold. Later he returned to defend it again when he became a Minister for the second time. Now he wants to appear as a critic of the government again. He has not been shy to defend his changing position. He might feel justified, but people find it hard to take him seriously. People regard this behaviour as flip-flopping and they are tired of duplicitous politicians who say one thing one day and say or do the complete opposite the next day. This is why, even if he and his supporters think he has legitimate points, they are all drowned in the perception that he cannot be trusted.
Defending the Mugabes
Another problem which also makes it hard to take Moyo seriously is his continued defence of the Mugabes, which is evident in the interview. He even had the audacity to claim that only a minority may have had issues with Grace Mugabe. Many find this to be delusional. Grace Mugabe’s conduct alienated large numbers of people, not only around the country but within ZANU PF itself. Moyo does not seem to get the extent to which Grace Mugabe became a reviled figure in the country, because of her arrogance and unseemly conduct. The march of 18 November when large numbers of Zimbabweans and the celebrations on 21 November when Mugabe resigned seem to have missed his attention. The fact of the matter is that no one, except those who benefited from their proximity is seriously mourning the departure of Mugabe.
Moyo became visibly worked up and snapped when anchor Zeinab Badawi asked him about Mugabe’s legacy, after listing a number of challenges that Zimbabwe is facing in the aftermath of his rule. An agitated Moyo accused Badawi of creating a “strange definition of legacy” by focusing on the challenges. Moyo may well have legitimate reasons to defend his old boss’ legacy, but he has to appreciate that for many people, their experience is negative and they have nothing to celebrate. For many Zimbabweans, Mugabe’s departure was the most welcome news in recent memory. He is history and anyone trying to defend him will not be taken seriously. He will have a hard time trying to win Zimbabweans if he insists of defending Mugabe’s legacy.
Moyo also appeared to accuse Zimbabweans of not being grateful enough to defend and protect Mugabe. “President Mugabe is Zimbabwe’s Castro” he said, referring to the late revolutionary leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro. “Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is not Cuba and Zimbabweans are not Cubans” he added. What did he mean by that? The suggestion is that Moyo wishes Zimbabweans were more like Cubans in their relationship with Castro. Castro was the symbol of revolutionary Cuba and the impression he creates is that Castro’s people stood by him till the end despite the challenges they faced. It looks like he's unhappy with Zimbabweans attitude towards Mugabe.
Yet the irony of this example is that thousands of Cubans endured the treacherous trip across the Atlantic to the United States as they fled Castro’s rule. And even then at some point, Castro realised that he could not carry on for much longer and handed over power a few years before his death. Millions fled from Mugabe’s rule but unlike Castro, Mugabe failed to hand over power when he should have realised it was long overdue. He had to be forced to do so.
Panic in government corridors?
Nevertheless, the response of the government also betrays its own fears and elevates Moyo into the new opposition. Within hours of the BBC interview, Presidential spokesperson George Charamba was on Harare’s talk radio station, CapitalkFM, responding to Moyo. State media editors were also commenting against Moyo on social media and the papers tommorow will probably carry stories castigating the former Minister. The strategy is obviously to counter and dilute whatever Moyo said in his interview.
However, while this strategy might have made sense before the interview, it became unnecessary and should have changed after Moyo’s tepid performance. The swift response suggests that the government is taking Moyo seriously, and perhaps too seriously for some observers who believe it did not warrant a response. For his part, Moyo will love the fact that the government has responded. It took the bait. He will believe that he still has enough sting to provoke a response from the government. He would have been hurt if government had ignored his interview. By responding so quickly, the government has played right into his hands. He’s creating fires and they are forced into fire-fighting mode. It gives him a sense of control.
For its part, the government’s swift reaction exposes it to charges of paranoia and insecurity. Does Moyo pose such a threat to the government that it has to make a rash response? Observers will compare the government’s reaction to Moyo against its attitude to the traditional opposition. Gone are the days of aggression and vitriol towards the traditional opposition, replaced by a newfound and welcome tolerance. However, the rapid response to Moyo suggests that old habits die hard and that the approach to dissenting voices has probably not changed.
The best response for the government is not a set of words. It is in its deeds. If government wants to silence skeptics and critics, it must deliver on its promises. At present government is enjoying a honeymoon period with the people. People are willing to give it a chance. But this will not last very long. The economy continues to slide. Sooner or later, people will start raising voices as the pleasure of the honeymoon is exhausted. There are many repressive laws, such as AIPPA and POSA, which can be amended or repealed without much effort. The state media should open up to the opposition. Other electoral reforms must be carried out too. These are the responses that are needed, not to jump whenever Moyo coughs.
Many bridges were burnt during the ZANU PF succession race. Moyo himself was particularly scathing in his attacks against Mnangagwa. The attempts on his life during the events of November showed that the situation had escalated to unhealthy levels. Yet with this interview, the likelihood of rebuilding bridges has become extremely remote. Moyo accused the army of being unprofessional and reducing the country to a banana republic. He accused Mnangagwa of being a puppet of the military with Chiwenga is the de facto man in charge. He said he would not take immunity from the “illegal regime” saying “When the devil offers you immunity, you would be a fool to enter into … a Faustian bargain”. A Faustian bargain is a deal with the devil – it can’t be relied upon. Clearly, Moyo does not trust his old comrades and faces the likelihood of a lengthy stay in exile.
Over the years, whether writing as an academic, or speaking as an independent Mp or as a Minister, Moyo always exuded confidence and had control of the situation. He carried himself with an arrogant swagger and made his presence felt. This BBC HardTalk interview was different. Perhaps it was too soon for the professor after the grief of November. Moyo was nervous at the beginning and tetchy by the time it ended. Badawi sat back and allowed him to rant.
However, if he wants people to take him seriously he has to acknowledge and deal with reality and not appear delusional. When people see Moyo attacking the new administration for atrocities and injustices such as Gukurahundi and Murambatsvina, yet simultaneously defending Mugabe, the man who presided over them as Commander-in-Chief, they see double standards and struggle to take him seriously.
But perhaps the most glaring irony was seeing Moyo, in his moment of great vulnerability, using the BBC platform to tell his story. During his first stint as Mugabe's propaganda chief in the early 2000s, Moyo made life extremely difficult for foreign journalists and broadcasters, including the BBC, which were banned from Zimbabwe. How out in the cold, he has joined the ranks of the opposition who are shunned by Zimbabwe’s state media except when they are being criticised. He has found sanctuary in the foreign media which he once attacked and banned. Life and its book of ironies …