BSR: the New Patriotic Front and its petition: a critique
A new political formation which goes by the name, New Patriotic Front (NPF) has emerged in Zimbabwe in the last few days. Although current documents do not reveal the identity of its leadership, their content and tone suggest that it is fronted by some of the former ZANU PF members who constituted the G40 faction in last year's race to succeed former leader, President Robert Mugabe. Indeed, one of the G40 leaders, Patrick Zhuwao, who is former President Mugabe’s nephew has written to explain and welcome it. It would seem, therefore, that the faction is morphing into a political party.
Significantly, one of the first steps of the NPF has been to dispatch a strongly-worded petition to the African Union and SADC, the continental and regional bodies respectively. The 79-page petition is a long and detailed protest against the change of government in Zimbabwe last November which led to the departure of Mugabe. The NPF is clear and unequivocal in its characterisation of the events last November as a “military coup” and it is plain that the removal of Mugabe remains a sore point. The NPF is making several demands of the regional and continental bodies, including, among others, a declaration that Mugabe was unlawfully removed by an illegal military coup and the installation of a transitional authority to oversee a process towards free and fair elections.
Without going into the merits of their arguments, it is important to recognise the right of the NPF to establish itself as a political party and to participate in the country’s political affairs. The Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees political rights, freedom of association, and free speech. These rights include the right to form a political party. While some may find the conduct and politics of its members repulsive, they are as entitled as any other citizen to form a political party and to take part in political affairs. Whether or not they can persuade other citizens to follow their cause is a completely different matter but that is their business.
But politically, is there room for a new political formation in Zimbabwean politics? Some in the opposition are concerned that the proliferation of new political parties will only add to the confusion and division that already exists on the political landscape. The fear is that this will only serve to divide the vote and benefit ZANU PF, which they consider to be their main adversary. This is why calls for unity in the opposition have been loud and compelling over the past few years. Still, however, room for political parties is not finite especially when it comes to issues and ideology. Likewise, if existing opposition parties find some characters from ZANU PF to be toxic and vice-versa, they have no choice but to form their own outfits. This is where the NPF fits into the political maelstrom.
Analysis of the tone and content of the NPF's documents indicates that it is essentially an anti-coup movement. It is motivated primarily by a desire to challenge the legality and legitimacy of the post-Mugabe administration led by President Mnangagwa. In this regard, the NPF is filling a yawning gap in opposition politics which resulted from the traditional opposition’s complicit role in the events that led to Mugabe’s ouster last year. Last November, the opposition found itself in an invidious position. On the one hand, they knew that the military intervention was in violation of the national constitution, something they had opposed for many years. But on the other hand, they knew that this intervention was not only popular but that it also helped to remove the one man whose continued rule was their raison d’tere. Opposing it would have amounted to political suicide, given that citizens across the political divide were keen to seize the opportunity to get rid of Mugabe. The opposition, therefore, marched with the people and the military, actively demanding Mugabe's ouster and in the process giving a decent face to the military operation.
Nevertheless, this came at a price: the traditional opposition lost the moral authority to challenge the legality and legitimacy of the post-Mugabe administration, which became problematic when they were left out of the resulting government, against their expectations. Challenging the legality and legitimacy of the post-Mugabe administration has always been a low-hanging fruit for any opposition, but the traditional opposition was already compromised. It is this gap that the NPF is exploiting. It may sound like a nuisance to some or indeed, to use a fashionable metaphor, that they are barking at a train that has left the station, but democracy allows multiple narratives. Democracy contemplates the existence of nuisance.
Interestingly, in advancing its petition against the removal of Mugabe, the NPF finds itself entangled in its own argument. While it accuses the military of having orchestrated a coup against Mugabe in November 2017, they also implicate the same military of having engineered a “silent coup” in 2008 through the use of “election violence”. This stunning admission that there was a coup in 2008 weakens the case of the man they are defending and undermines their moral authority as defenders of constitutionalism. They never challenged what they are now calling the "silent coup" of 2008 and if anything, some of them may have actively participated in it. This begs the question of them: is a coup objectionable simply because it is a coup or it’s only objectionable when it goes against them? It is this apparent double-standard over the two coup situations that make it hard for people to take them seriously. Credibility is critical and the suspected leaders of the NPF carry a serious credibility deficit in the court of public opinion. They have to accept very tough inquisition from the electorate.
Perhaps the biggest moral charge the NPF founders will face is that their conduct is down to sour grapes having lost the succession race to their bitter rivals, the Lacoste faction. The inadvertent admission that there was a coup in 2008, which they accepted and defended for a decade contrasted with their furious protests after the 2017 coup makes them look like a gang of robbers who, after losing their share in the latest heist, go on to confess all previous robberies in order to spite their former gang members. It does not make them innocent nor does it cleanse them in the eyes of the public. Rather, it suggests that they are merely a coalition of the disgruntled whose political formation is based on bitterness rather than anchored on firm points of principle. They are singing from the hymn book of constitutionalism and human rights but it is hard to see how former ZANU PF members who were part of a constitution- and human rights-violating machine can actually accuse their former allies of violating the constitution and human rights and expect to be taken seriously, especially without even attempting to confess their own sins.
But just how new is the New Patriotic Front? The choice of name is characteristic of offshoots of the disgruntled after leaving or being forced out of the mother party. Thus when the MDC split in 2005, there was a tussle over the party's name, with each formation seeking to identify with the original. When another group of the disgruntled left the MDC-T in 2014, they too initially identified themselves as MDC Renewal. When the Joice Mujuru-led Gamatox faction was expelled from ZANU PF in 2014, they called themselves ZimPF, harking back to the tone and identity of the mother party. In this case, the NPF has echoes of ZANU PF, another sign that it is hard for off-shoots to let go of the past.
The idea of “patriotic front” itself is not new. The formation of the Patriotic Front was encouraged by Frontline States leaders like Julius Nyerere during the 1970s as they believed the liberation parties were stronger fighting and negotiating together against the colonial regime. Indeed, when ZANU and ZAPU negotiated at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in London in 1979, they did so under the banner of the Patriotic Front. The idea and understanding were that they would contest the first democratic elections together in 1980, but Mugabe is widely accused of having reneged on that understanding. This left Nkomo to contest the 1980 elections under the banner of the Patriotic Front.
It is therefore ironic that throughout its consultative document, the NPF extols Mugabe as "the founding father of Zimbabwe", a revisionist narrative which relegates the likes of Joshua Nkomo, Herbert Chitepo and other founding fathers to the status of “other inspirational leaders and heroes”. This, of course, it not new, as ZANU PF has, for a long time, perpetuated a narrative that made Mugabe look like the sole founding father of the nation, when in fact he was one of many. He is certainly "a founding father" but not "the founding father" as both the ZANU PF and NPF narrative suggests. This is important because it suggests that the differences between the two may not be that wide.
The NPF is completely out of sync with the public mood and sentiment over Mugabe’s removal. It is fair to say that most Zimbabweans are aware that he was removed by the military but only a few regret his departure. The NPF says Zimbabwean youths are “agitated and also unhappy over the humiliating removal of [former] President Mugabe …” With respect, this could be described as delusional, particularly considering the popular reaction to Mugabe’s predicament on 18 November and his resignation on 21 November last year. NPF seems to be in the G40 mode during the succession race when they believed that Mugabe was still popular.
By anchoring themselves on Mugabe, the NPF are simply courting derision and ridicule and scepticism by those who might have given them the benefit of the doubt. Mugabe is yesterday's man and no-one wants to be reminded of his era. If it is to be taken seriously, the NPF has to extricate itself from this apparent obsession with Mugabe and anchor itself in a broader cause beyond the anti-coup and defence of Mugabe narrative.
Nevertheless, it would be unwise for political strategists and other stakeholders to dismiss entirely the issues raised in the NPF petition to the AU and SADC. Apart from the main issues around the legality and legitimacy of the new administration, the document detailing events during the heady days of the military intervention is as revealing as it is intriguing. The value of former ZANU PF politicians to the opposition has always been the extent to which they can provide information on the ways by which ZANU PF manipulates and steals elections. In this regard, this document contributes to the body of knowledge on politics and elections, assuming, of course, that it is authentic.
We learn, for example, that there were, at the time of the intervention, some 2000 so-called “Commissars comprising retired senior officers from the Army already embedded in communities across the country …” This is not an insignificant revelation in the context of elections, where ZANU PF’s post-Mugabe commissar is a retired General. Election observers, including the AU and SADC, will do well to take note of this. This is not new information, but its novelty lies in the source. When such details emerge from the horse's mouth they have more weight and credibility.
We also learn that the establishment was aware of concerns over the economy and the non-fulfilment of election promises. In addition to the admission of election violence in 2008, there are admissions that political rallies were “manipulated and stage-managed to create a veneer of normalcy and Party popularity on the ground” and that people were “bused to different venues” and “ordinary citizens [were] force-marched to these meetings against their will”. This confirms perennial charges made by the opposition. If international observers are really going to play a credible role in the elections’ process, the multiple issues raised in that document are worth taking seriously and investigating. Indeed, scholars and students of politics and public law will find the document useful in their analysis of motivations for the ouster of Mugabe.
Beyond this, the NPF will struggle to have traction before the next general election. Their role could be that of disrupters, exploiting the ethnic fault-lines which seem to be an understated but nonetheless significant issue. It is an area that the new administration ought to address more seriously to prevent the impression that it is promoting the interests of one ethnic group over others. There are murmurs, for example, that the pattern of senior public appointments is not a fair reflection of regional and ethnic balance. This, of course, could be entirely inaccurate, but such an impression has to be diluted, not ignored or it can foment unnecessary conflicts.
It’s early days yet, hence all views at this stage must be treated as preliminary observations. However, it is clear that some (and perhaps not all) of the G40 faction leaders are behind the NPF. It is also clear that the main agenda of the NPF is to challenge the legality and legitimacy of the Mnangagwa administration. Given the scope of issues covered in the NPF's documents, one cannot help but conclude that the ZANU PF v NPF contestation is, in many ways, a sequel of the post-November succession politics.
The effectiveness of the NPF will be encumbered by the fact that its leaders are likely to remain in exile for a long time. This is apart from other weaknesses associated with the political outfit, not least the reputational baggage that comes with its authors. It is not clear the extent to which Mugabe or his wife are actively involved in the NPF, and on this issue, time, the magician, will tell.
The petition is unlikely to have much impact upon the AU and SADC policy on Zimbabwe in the immediate term. However, the authors probably understand this and have only sent the petition as a matter of record. If in future, issues arise over the Zimbabwean election, neither SADC nor the AU will be able to say they were not aware. In addition, details of ZANU PF’s election-related strategies within the documents provide useful material both to the traditional opposition and to election observers.
Some might say it is the new kid on the block. Others will hesitate, wondering whether it is, in fact, an old man in a teenager's outfit.