Ever since he took power from his old boss, Robert Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa has embarked on an accelerated charm offensive both at home and abroad. He wants to distance himself from Mugabe; to say that he is a different and more progressive leader, despite the many years they spent together in the corridors of power. He also wants to put behind him the image of an unforgiving hardliner with which he was associated during his time with Mugabe.
More importantly, Mnangagwa knows that he faces two battles in the next elections: first, to defeat his political rivals and second, to beat the charge of illegitimacy. These battles are located on two fronts, the domestic and international. He must win a free and fair election on the domestic front but judgment on whether the election was free and fair, and therefore the legitimacy question, is partly located on the international front. He seems confident enough of winning the domestic battle probably because it is within his sphere of control. But he has no leverage over the international actors, which is why he wants to win them over before the election. This is why so far, Mnangagwa has spent more time on the international front, trying to win the legitimacy battle ahead of the elections.
Mnangagwa in the NYT
The latest Mnangagwa effort in his charm offensive is an op-ed this week in the New York Times, one of the most influential media platforms in the US market. The article serves a number of purposes. It introduces Mnangagwa to the American audience after establishing himself in the European market since he took over. He knows the US is a difficult and more sceptical market. It is unlike the Europeans, particularly the British, who have openly embraced his administration with much enthusiasm. It has the strongest set of sanctions, which have only recently been renewed.
Mnangagwa has been in government long enough to know that the US is a critical actor which he needs onside and not on the other side. If the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) is ever invoked, it could scupper the kind of support and debt relief which the Mnangagwa administration is desperate to get from the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in which the US has an important voice. It is not surprising that Mnangagwa has now taken the charm offensive across the Atlantic with the New York Times as an important conveyor of his message to the US audience. Whether or not this audience believes the sugar-coated words which promise a new dawn is a different matter but that seems to be the plan.
Burying bad news
Secondly, coming hard on the heels of a disastrous appearance in The Economist, the New York Times op-ed is also an attempt to bury bad news and open a new chapter. Mnangagwa’s interview with The Economist, the influential British weekly, was a PR calamity. He denied that there was violence in the 2008 elections, which he also described as “very free and fair”. It was shocking denialism. His team must have noted the trail of damage left by that interview and decided to embark on a damage limitation exercise. If, however, the New York Times article was already in the works, then its appearance soon after the Economist interview has been very timely and convenient. It has helped to shift attention from that disastrous interview. But he is still struggling to deal with the burden of the past. The best way is to address the past, not to bury it.
Some may wonder why Mnangagwa is spending so much time and attention on Western platforms. It is part of his election campaign. As already suggested, Mnangagwa’s election campaign is on two fronts: domestic and international. He was in charge of Mugabe’s election campaigns for many years and he is well aware of the critical significance of the legitimacy battle. He knows Mugabe’s victories were ultimately futile because they did not get the endorsement of the influential Western countries. When they held back, so did most businesses in those countries and others associated with them. Mnangagwa knows even if he wins by a landslide, he will go nowhere unless the election gets the endorsement of the powerful Western countries.
To his advantage, some of the Western powers have already fallen for the crocodile’s charms. Led by Britain, most European countries seem to have accepted him as a man with whom they can do business. They have lowered their previously high expectations regarding Zimbabwe. The only thing that stands in the way is the election. They are almost desperate for Mnangagwa to deliver an election that can be certified as free and fair. To facilitate this, they are likely to set a very low threshold of what constitutes free and fair elections. If he does the bare minimum and ticks the boxes, they will provide the certification. But Mnangagwa is aware that the US is still sceptical and unsure as signified by its renewal of renewal of targeted sanctions. In his New York Times op-ed, Mnangagwa pleads for the removal of targeted sanctions. He knows this is unlikely to happen before the elections and that much will depend on how the next election is judged.
Chamisa to the world
While Mnangagwa has been hogging the limelight on the regional and international circuit, his rivals have been pre-occupied with intra-party disputes and have been less visible. The death of Morgan Tsvangirai was a major blow for the MDC. Politically, Tsvangirai’s stock had over the years risen to become a global brand. He was one of only two Zimbabwean figures, along with Mugabe, whose names were instantly recognisable around the world. Mnangagwa has had to work hard to build his international band since he took power from the more recognisable Mugabe. The MDC does not have a politician of Tsvangirai’s stature and the new leader, Nelson Chamisa, has to build his international stock from the ground. There is no guarantee that traditional allies will take to Chamisa the same way they did to Tsvangirai.
Mnangagwa has had a head-start in the race for international recognition and confidence. Chamisa has to hit the ground running to catch up. He does not have the time. It won’t be easy because the MDC has lost a number of old friends over the last few years. From before the 2013 elections, some Western countries had already started to shift their weight from the MDC in preference for one or more of the factions in ZANU PF, which they believed had a better chance of winning power. The leadership wrangles following the death of Tsvangirai do not bode well for stability, which at the moment is probably the single most important priority for the regional and international community, well ahead of democracy.
As they go around the country introducing him to the electorate, it is also important to prepare a parallel process of introducing him to the regional and international community. This means a huge diplomatic offensive within the SADC region and the Western powers. This is where his newfound allies, Professor Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti can help Chamisa because they have, over the years, managed to build important relationships with key actors on the regional and international scene. The idea of them as a team, rather than focusing on an individual, will probably sell better on these platforms.
Secondly, Chamisa’s communications team must step up their game. It’s important for Chamisa to occupy critical platforms which have recently been monopolised by Mnangagwa. They must challenge the narrative which is being propagated by Mnangagwa. The MDC’s response to Mnangagwa’s denial of violence in 2008 was shockingly weak. It remains to be seen how they will respond to the sugar-coated op-ed in the New York Times. If they do not counter such narratives, they will take hold in the minds of the readers and key decision-makers in the markets in which they are disseminated.
But a communications strategy doesn’t always have to be reactive. The MDC must also use media space to set the agenda. When he writes an op-ed in the New York Times, Mnangagwa is selling a dream and setting the agenda, which is what an aspiring leader must do. The MDC must also articulate and sell their dream in a clear and coherent manner. Chamisa’s team must occupy these media spaces to demonstrate, as Mnangagwa is doing, why the international community should trust him.
Chamisa can also give public lectures on key platforms. The most popular that has been used by most Zimbabwean politicians in the past is Chatham House in the UK but there are similar platforms, especially within the region. These are great platforms to showcase the new leader to a broader audience and demonstrate that he is ready and capable.
Does it matter?
Some will ask why this matters since none of those who attend these platforms or read the New York Times and The Economist will be voting in the general elections. They would argue that Chamisa must focus on the domestic audience, where the electorate is located. Understandable though it is, this is ultimately a short-sighted view which shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of international politics and how they influence the local. An election has both domestic and international dimensions. The domestic is obviously important because that’s where the voters are but the international actors have an important role in the certification of elections.
This has been evident in previous elections where, despite winning elections, Mugabe’s administration never made progress because the legitimacy of the victories was always questioned by the international community. The next election will largely be a battle for legitimacy. Mnangagwa knows this, which is why he has spent vast amounts of time trying to soften up and reassure the international community. He has made more headway in Europe than in the US. The MDC must appreciate the importance of this international dimension and join the race. Mnangagwa's words to the international audience have been sweet but do they reflect the reality? Is the electoral environment reflective of the free and fair election that he is promising? If they don't tell their story, Mnangagwa's narrative will be accepted as the truth.