Big Saturday Read: Mnangagwa - political reformer or master of tokenism?
The lion or the crocodile
A business executive with whom I had breakfast in Harare earlier this year told me that during his days as Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa kept a portrait of Deng Xiaoping in one of his offices. Deng Xiaoping was the Chinese leader who ushered fundamental political and economic reforms that set China on a path to modernisation and its current economic might.
The Harare executive thought Mnangagwa saw himself as the Deng of Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa had always considered himself as Robert Mugabe’s natural successor, although as the years went by and rivals pushed, that possibility seemed to be slipping away. In the end, he had to take the “nuclear option” and grabbed power by means of a military coup.
“It matters not whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, Deng is famously quoted as having said, words that encapsulated his pragmatism regarding China’s direction after Chairman Mao’s long reign. It is that pragmatism that Mnangagwa would like to emulate, the Harare executive thought.
Another colleague was more sceptical. “He’s not known as the crocodile for nothing,” he told me at another meeting. He pointed out that Mnangagwa kept a miniature wooden crocodile in one of his offices, a gift he had received at some point. “The Crocodile” is a sobriquet which Mnangagwa earned during his liberation war days. It has stuck ever since and he doesn’t mind it. In fact, he seems to accept it as a badge of honour.
His contemporaries could not have been desperate for a more fitting symbol with which to identify Mnangagwa’s qualities. After all, his totem is Shumba (the lion), the folklore’s King of the jungle. It would have worked, too. But the crocodile is far more stealthy, calculating and unpredictable -a species that has survived where contemporaries now exist only in the pages of history – clearly a more befitting symbol.
“When you see it baring its teeth, it doesn’t mean it is smiling,” my colleague warned, at the same time capturing the deceptiveness of the crocodile and marvelling at how Mnangagwa had survived what seemed to be certain political death last November before he returned in dramatic fashion to take power from his old mentor.
Caution over Leader of the Opposition proposition
This latter view is one of caution. It explains why a significant number of people still hesitate when Mnangagwa makes proposals for reform or extends a kind gesture to a political rival. While some see a man who is genuinely keen to make changes and leave a legacy, others see a man who is adept at calculating every move well in advance in order to gain maximum advantage over a rival. They see a chess master who sacrifices an important piece knowing very well that it will soon lead to checkmate. To be fair, most people calculate their moves too, the difference is Mnangagwa’s critics see far more sinister intentions behind every move.
This is why his latest proposition to establish an Office of the Leader of the Opposition in Zimbabwe has had a mixed reception. Although it has come to the fore in recent days following his interview with Bloomberg during his US trip to the UN, he first voiced his plans in the British Guardian newspaper where he said he wanted to create a “healthy opposition”. It is interesting that on both occasions he has announced his proposition through Western media and so far away from home. It is these communication avenues that lead critics to argue that he’s pandering to an international audience after an election which went wrong. Maybe his public relations advisers think it's a good idea to address the international community first but he really needs to engage citizens through local channels.
Naturally, there have been questions: What’s in it for him? Is it because he genuinely wants political reform or he is merely targeting a personal return? After all, his party, ZANU PF, has two-thirds majority in Parliament, which gives him the power to lead constitutional changes which the opposition cannot stop. He really doesn’t need the opposition. Also, the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, has so far refused to concede defeat. Why would he be so benign towards him? Besides, most Zimbabweans remember former Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo’s words to the effect that ZANU PF could not be expected to reform itself out of power. That is why there is scepticism over the notion of genuine political reform.
Instead, some see the incentive for the latest move being to placate Chamisa in return for recognition of the presidency. As we have argued before, Mnangagwa has the legal presidency but the democratic legitimacy is still weak. The loser’s consent is still coveted to confirm the democratic legitimacy of his administration. They also see a man trying hard to build an image as a progressive leader in order to win the hearts of the international community, from whom he is keen to get acceptance and economic support.
The arguments in a nutshell
Nevertheless, it is important, at this juncture in our political history, to examine the Mnangagwa proposition of establishing an Office of Leader of the Opposition. I argue that, in principle, the establishment of an Office of the Opposition could help as a step, but only a step, in the institutionalisation of the opposition and establishing a more civil relationship between the government and the opposition within our political system. However, I also caution that since it is a transplant, it will not work if conditions in the host environment do not match conditions in the home environment in which the notion of Leader of the Opposition was developed.
I further argue that a long-term approach rather than a short-term view focussed on the present political situation would be more useful in guiding the reform process. Limiting the debate to the current political dynamics will obfuscate the strategic need for political reform in our politics. It is difficult to imagine ZANU PF carrying out reforms that could cause it to lose power but there is no better time to work on political reforms than when the next general election is still years away and there is a crisis of democratic legitimacy after the last election.
Finally, I argue that instead of taking a piecemeal approach through this single proposition of Leader of the Opposition, it must be part of a broader and more comprehensive package of political reforms. That way it stands a better chance not to be seen as an elite pact designed to placate and silence a disgruntled rival.
To do this, I take a historical trip into British politics, from where the notion of the Leader of the Opposition originates and also examine the history of the opposition politics in Zimbabwe since 1980. I then complete with recommendations of political reforms that must accompany the proposition of the Leader of the Opposition if it is to be more successful. There must be real reforms, not tokenism.
The Leader of the Opposition in Britain
The office of the Leader of the Opposition is steeped in British political and constitutional history. According to historian Allen Porter, the legitimacy of opposition is implicitly recognised in the British constitution. Nevil Johnson describes it as “a crucial element in the constitutional practices of modern Britain”.
There is a reason why it is referred to as “Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition”. The origins have been traced to a comment by Sir Jon Cam Hobhouse in parliament in 1826. The political significance of this is that the opposition’s loyalty to the state is not in question. It is as much a part of the political order as Her Majesty’s Government. Its opposition is to the government of the day, not the state. The government respects the opposition and the opposition likewise respects the government. This is a product of British political history, not an imposition.
The key feature of this system is that the opposition in Britain, which Allen Potter aptly describes as “Opposition with a capital O”, is institutionalised as the alternative government. Under the British political system, the Queen as Head of State acts on the advice of Government Ministers. The opposition presents is institutionalised as an alternative government which may one day be at the service Her Majesty. This constitutional settlement in which the Government and Opposition co-exist peacefully and respectfully is regarded by some as a great contribution to the art of government.
While the role of the opposition had long been recognised, the constitutional status of the Leader of the Opposition was formally recognised in 1937, when the Westminster parliament passed the Ministers of the Crown Act, 1937. This law made the Leader of the Opposition a salaried office paid from public funds. Later it became the Ministers and Others Salaries Act in 1975. As to who occupies the office of Leader of the Opposition is a question that is usually settled by the electorate – it is held by the leader of the party with the second highest number of seats in the House of Commons. Where there is doubt, the question is settled by the Speaker.
It can be said that the rights, privileges and status of the Opposition in Britain form an essential part of the British constitutional system of conventions and understandings of how government works. It represents a progressive effort in the course of their history to prevent political extremes just as there had been efforts at promoting religious tolerance in light of the known costs of religious intolerance. Allen Potter reminds us that the conception of the Opposition had also evolved from “opposition to particular men or measures to an opposition offering an alternative government”.
This latter point is a reflection of the age-old tension between so-called “destructive criticism” and “constructive criticism”. It is not enough for the opposition to say the government is failing or that a leader is a bad person. The conception of opposition in Britain is that the opposing party must be ready to govern. Hence the institutionalisation of the opposition entails that the office of the Leader of the Opposition is a paid office, parliamentary conventions which mean the Leader of the Opposition has priority to present questions to the Prime Minister at Question Time each Wednesday.
In addition, the Official Opposition receives an allocation of public funds to support its parliamentary work, including the Shadow Cabinet. By convention, the Official Opposition also gets a reasonable share of chairpersonships of parliamentary portfolio committees. The Opposition also has days of the parliamentary calendar which are specifically allocated so that it can set the topics for debate. This means reform is not merely establishing an Office of Leader of the Opposition but having a whole infrastructure that supports the work of the Opposition as an alternative government.
Since there is a history of alternation of parties in what is essentially a two-party system in Britain, it is not in the interests of the governing party at any given time to upset the delicate constitutional balance which recognises the rights and privileges of the opposition. Alternation means the ruling party can be the opposition in the next term. The possibility that this can happen and the fact that it has actually happened in the course of British history is an important incentive for the ruling party at any given time to behave and respect the rules of the game. This could be more difficult to achieve where a single party is perennially in power and its members have a “stockholder” mentality of entitlement to hold power in perpetuity.
In addition, there are also associated features of the British political system that support the arrangement they have in respect of the Leader of the Opposition. Perhaps by far the most influential is the media. Also referred to as the Fourth Estate, the media’s role in holding the government to account has long been recognised across the world. The principle of political neutrality is essential in maintaining the delicate balance between the Government and the Opposition. Where the media is biased towards the Government, it is likely to upset that balance.
The British political system is supported by an electronic media which, although not always successful, shows a substantial level of commitment to political neutrality between the Government and the Opposition. Print media is known to pick sides depending on their ideological leanings, but at least public media is enjoined to maintain political neutrality. This ensures that both the ruling party and the opposition receive more or less equal treatment on radio and television and there is balanced representation on panels.
Handling legal transplants
I have gone to some considerable lengths to describe the position of the Leader of the Opposition in the British political system in order to provide a historical, constitutional and social context to its situation which helps to show why it works there. However, the fact that it works in Britain does not mean it works when it is exported elsewhere.
The theory of legal transplants reminds us that we have to be careful when we transplant concepts and ideas from one system into another. The underlying idea is that just as we must be careful when we transplant biological matter from one environment to another, we must also be cautious when we transplant legal concepts. The fact that they have worked well in one context does not mean that success will be replicated in another context. I’m mindful of the fact that the same argument might be deployed against the transplantation of the whole notion of democracy – but that is a matter for another day.
For present purposes, it suffices that, while the notion of Leader of the Opposition has worked well in Britain, there is no guarantee that it will work well in Zimbabwe unless conditions are created to support it. One way to mitigate failure, as is the case with biological transplants is to ensure compatibility and this might mean taking active measures to engineer the host environment in such a way that the transplant has conducive conditions. In this regard, it is important to examine the historical context in which the opposition has developed and survived in Zimbabwe. If the institutionalisation of the Leader of the Opposition is to succeed, it will have to be sensitive to this history and circumstances of the opposition-ruling party relations.
Opposition in Zimbabwe: a brief history of marginalisation
Like most African states previously under British colonial rule, when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, it inherited the Westminster model of government. It was based on a winner-take-all electoral system where the political party with the majority of seats in Parliament had the right to form the government. However, unlike Britain, Zimbabwe did not have a monarchy. In place of the monarchy, Zimbabwe got a ceremonial presidency.
It was on the basis of this constitutional arrangement that Robert Mugabe became the first Prime Minister of newly independent Zimbabwe after his party, ZANU PF, won the majority of seats and Canaan Banana was installed as the President. The ceremonial presidency was first offered to Joshua Nkomo but he declined the role which he believed would have made him redundant at a time when he was still an active politician.
Nevertheless, the first government did not give room for the development of an opposition in the British sense, because Mugabe opted for a coalition arrangement which included the main opposition, which was Nkomo’s PF ZAPU. That government also included David Smith who had been a Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Ian Smith’s government. The Rhodesian Front had won all the 20 seats on the “white roll” which was reserved for the white minority in the 1980 election and was, therefore, part of the opposition. The coalition arrangement did not last for long. It collapsed when Nkomo was sacked from government in 1982.
The fallout between ZANU PF and PF ZAPU was extremely bitter, resulting in the dark period of Gukurahundi. During that hideous chapter, the ZANU PF government unleashed a reign of terror in ZAPU’s strongholds in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces where an estimated 20,000 civilians were massacred by a crack military unit, the Fifth Brigade.
The treatment of ZAPU and its supporters marked the tone of ruling party-opposition relations for the future. The government’s approach was heavy-handed and violent. In any event, ZANU PF’s plan was to establish a one-party state, which was confirmed at its historic 1984 Party Congress. This would have closed off space for the opposition.
The elections in 1985 were also violent, with retribution targeted at supporters of ZAPU and other opposition parties such as Bishop Muzorewa’s UANC. ZAPU was eventually swallowed by ZANU PF in 1987 when the two parties signed a Unity Accord. Instead of institutionalising opposition as the British had done under their model, Zimbabwe had institutionalised violence against the opposition.
At the same time, in 1987, parliament passed a major constitutional amendment which replaced the Westminster model of government with the presidential system. President Banana retired and Mugabe became the Executive President. This role combined the executive power of the prime minister and ceremonial roles which Banana had been exercising since 1980. With ZAPU out of the way, and Matabeleland now controlled by the united ZANU PF, the party established unrivalled dominance in Zimbabwean politics for more than a decade. The opposition was generally sporadic, divided and weak.
However, ZANU PF’s long-held plans to establish a one-party state fell apart in the face of local resistance and the end of the Cold War. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the winds of change that swept away the Soviet Union, the rest of Africa had to come to terms with the ramifications of the end of the Cold War. Establishing a one-party state in Zimbabwe was no longer tenable.
Prior to that, when most African states had gained independence in the 1960s, they had quickly discarded the Westminster model in favour of the one-party system. Opposition politics and parties were banned. A common justification for the one-party system was that it promoted national unity and cohesion in the new nation-states. Multi-party democratic systems were viewed as unAfrican and divisive. This view is summed up by Adebayo Adedeji, who in his article An Alternative for Africa in The Journal of Democracy, wrote, “Our traditions abhor exclusion. There is no need for sanctioned or institutionalised opposition in our traditional system of governance. Traditionally, politics for us has never been a zero-sum game …” This encapsulates the general view and antipathy towards institutionalised opposition.
While Zimbabwe did not have a legal ban against opposition parties, the conditions were extremely hostile since independence and they intensified after the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999. The MDC arrived as a great force on the back of a popular movement backed by trade unions, civil society groups, including students and women’s movements. Facing an existential threat after a lull in opposition activity in the 1990s when it virtually strolled through elections, ZANU PF’s response to the MDC was vicious and unforgiving. The record of violence after 2000, particularly during election periods has been well-documented. Probably the worst of it came after the first round of elections in 2008 as Zimbabwe prepared for a presidential run-off election.
The harsh treatment of the opposition and violation of human rights are some of the chief reasons that led to Zimbabwe’s ostracisation and a perennial crisis of democratic legitimacy which it has struggled to shake off. It is fair to say there was no room for institutionalising the opposition within that political system. Michael Bratton and Eldred Masunungure have described Zimbabwe as an “electoral authoritarian regime” - elections are held religiously but state is run on an authoritarian basis.
Political party funding
One redeeming feature of the political system relates to political party funding. It is here that the most benign interpretation might hold that the political system provides some support for the opposition. Political party funding is limited to political parties which meet a minimum level of parliamentary representation. The Political Parties (Finance) Act provides that a party that has at least 5% of the total votes in a general election are entitled to funding from public funds. The funds are allocated in proportion to the level of votes obtained by each party.
In recent years, only two parties – ZANU PF and the MDC - have been able to get this funding from the State. Just before the election, they shared $9 million with ZANU PF taking the lion’s share on account of its superior majority in the 2013 elections. The same pattern will continue given that ZANU PF won another two-thirds majority in the 2018 elections with the MDC getting the remainder. A legal challenge by smaller opposition parties to get funding from the state was dismissed by the Constitutional Court this year. The system promotes a two-party system and shuts out the smaller opposition parties.
However, the political party funding laws actually disproportionately favour the ruling party ahead of the opposition. This is because the funding it gets under the law is additional to the benefits it already gets as the party in government. A comparison with the British system where Mnangagwa wants to borrow the notion of Leader of the Opposition shows that the official opposition gets public funding for its parliamentary work and the shadow cabinet, the party in government does not get similar funding on the ground that its ministers already benefit from the civil service. If Mnangagwa wants fairness in the political system, he has to reconsider the issue of political party funding as part of the reforms.
The distinctive feature in all this is that the political system in Zimbabwe has, in general, been institutionally hostile towards the opposition. An uneasy balance was struck between the ruling party and the opposition after 2009 when the two parties got into an externally-sponsored coalition arrangement. Levels of violence diminished, but did not end, after the dark period of 2008. After the coup in November 2017, there has been some opening up of political space compared to the period prior to that. The new administration made peace with Morgan Tsvangirai a month before he died. The opposition was able to campaign across the country without undue interference.
However, the positive strides were diluted by the controversial handling of the electoral process. International election observers have stated that the playing field was uneven and that the election did not meet the mark. In particular, they cited the abuse of state resources and the persistent bias of the public media. The overall effect is that the political system has remained hostile to the opposition.
Genuine reforms or Political tokenism?
It is against this background that the critical question arising in respect of Mnangagwa’s proposition to establish an Office of the Leader of the Opposition is whether this is motivated by genuine agenda for political reform or a tokenistic response to solve the post-election crisis of legitimacy. Is this Mnangagwa the great political reformer trying to set Zimbabwe on a new path or is this a man playing a con-trick to solve the post-election crisis of legitimacy? To what extent is he really prepared to go with the reform agenda?
His supporters will argue that he is genuinely trying to reform, while his sceptics are suspicious that ZANU PF cannot reform itself out of power and all he wants it to pacify a disgruntled opposition and a dissatisfied international community. His backers will point to the opening up of political space since he took over last November and his efforts to re-engage the international community. But on the other hand, sceptics will point to the poorly handled election which they believe was far from free and fair. If he was a great reformist, he would have ensured that the elections were conducted and concluded freely and fairly. He also tends to send mixed signals - while he recently appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the murder of civilians on August 1, he contaminated the commission by appointing local members who are compromised.
There is another important question: is the idea of establishing a Leader of the Opposition internally generated or is he being hand-held as part of the conditions for receiving funding and other support from the international community? That the notion of the Leader of the Opposition which he is promoting has distinct origins from Britain, with which he has had a friendly relationship, has led some to believe he is pandering to old colonial master. If it is not an internally generated proposition, parallels may be drawn with how multi-party democracy was introduced in most African states in the early 1990s.
It was introduced not because the old dictators who had run one party tyrannies had suddenly discovered the greatness of multi-party democracy but because its adoption came with prospects of economic support to failing economies. At the end of the Cold War, most of the dictatorships were bankrupt and wallowing in poverty. Without Soviet support, most had to look to the West for support. Development aid and promises of investment came with conditions to open up political space and adopt multi-party democracy and promote human rights. However, since they were not organic, these political reforms did not have much effect. In some states, the old dictators retained power, while where there was political turnover, the new governments tended to mimic the regimes they had just replaced. Many have turned into electoral authoritarian regimes – where elections are held religiously but there is no respect for democratic values.
If, therefore, the proposition of Leader of the Opposition is not Mnangagwa’s own idea, but is one that is coming from outsiders as part of conditions to support his administration, the risk is that it might suffer a similar fate to that suffered by multi-party democracy in most African states after 1990. However, if Mnangagwa is genuine about a political reform agenda that creates a “healthy opposition” as he claimed in the British Guardian newspaper, he can back that up with a more comprehensive package of political reforms, rather than a piecemeal approach represented by his current proposition of creating an Office of the Leader of the Opposition with its assortments of perks.
A comprehensive package of political reforms
The comprehensive package of political reforms would be aimed at transforming the political system as a whole as opposed to a piecemeal approach driven by political convenience. It should be a reform of the political system rather than a personal deal between political elites. A wide range of political reforms would allay concerns that Mnangagwa is merely trying to bribe his rival into conceding defeat and legitimising his rule. It is important to debunk the suspicion that the offer is designed to placate Chamisa and that can be achieved by laying out a more comprehensive reform package that does not involve an offer of positions and perks.
If Mnangagwa’s offer remains narrow, focusing only on positions and perks for his opposite number, it will face resistance because Chamisa knows the damage it can do to his political career if he is projected as having taken the bait and accepted a “political bribe”. Certainly, his rivals within the party will seize the opportunity to cast him as greedy and interested only in his personal welfare. The opposition leaders will also be mindful of charges of elitism, suggesting that any deal arranged at the top would be an instance of elite convergence. The opposition leaders are still mindful of the negative impact on their party of the elite deal which formed the basis of GNU between 2009 and 2013. It seemed to rescue ZANU PF while condemning the MDC despite their best efforts during the GNU. They are wary of being used.
Therefore, the resistance to the offer would not be because the idea of institutionalising opposition is bad. On the contrary, it can be an important and useful reform, since, if used well, it can help to prepare the opposition to govern. It can also reduce tensions between parties and supporters and set the parameters and procedures of engagement through the political institutions established by the political system – parliament, media, etc. However, as argued, for it to work successfully it has to be part of a broader package. We have already seen that it works in Britain because of its unique constitutional history and the existence of conditions which support it. It cannot be transplanted on its own and succeed in an alien environment.
This leaves us with the question as to the type of political reforms that would form that comprehensive package. There is not enough space but the following sketches out the type of political reforms that are needed:
The first arena of reform has to be parliament, including its procedures and the role of the opposition. We have seen how in Britain a set of rules, conventions and practices ensures that the Official Opposition is funded to promote the work of the Leader of the Opposition and his/her Shadow Cabinet and allows them a fair share of chairpersonships of portfolio committees, etc. Furthermore, the President has to be required to attend parliament at least once a week to square off with the Leader of the Opposition. The system works in the Westminster model because both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition attend parliament and have a chance to debate each Wednesday. These debates are televised which enhances transparency and public accountability of the leaders. There is much more that can be done to reform parliament, including reducing its size significantly to cut costs and improve efficiency. This is the chance to make these parliamentary reforms.
The second and critical arena of reforms in the electoral system. The very system that creates the government and the opposition must work to the satisfaction of all parties. Rules of the game must be accepted. It is because of a weak and compromised electoral system that Zimbabwe remains in a political cul-de-sac. In Britain, the system works and the Leader of the Opposition accepts his role because he would have conceded defeat and this is very easy because everyone generally has faith in the electoral system. It is not perfect but it delivers outcomes that are generally credible. They also have a long history of alternation of parties in government, which means a party in power today might be in opposition tomorrow, and this means both parties have an incentive to play fair to each other.
The same cannot be said of the Zimbabwean political system where there has been no alternation of parties in government since independence. Since it has never been in opposition, ZANU PF has never had no incentive to create fair rules. During the constitution-making process, when it was hard to convince ZANU PF members to adopt fair rules we sometimes asked them to imagine if they were in opposition and that they would find those rules useful. They found it hard to contemplate that scenario because they have always seen themselves as the party in power and there is no real need to worry about the opposition.
A package of political reforms has to be based on an acknowledgement that the electoral system is weak and needs to be fixed. At the heart of the electoral reforms is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). It does not inspire confidence and the arrogance and poor handling of the 2018 elections are some of the chief reasons why the opposition has withheld consent, leading to a crisis of democratic legitimacy for Mnangagwa’s government. There can’t be a genuine agenda for political reform without serious reforms at ZEC. The Office of Leader of the Opposition will not work as long as the political system is unable to conduct a free and fair election.
We have seen that the system works in Britain because of a robust, vibrant and generally independent and balanced media. The public electronic and even private commercial media generally strives to uphold the principle of political neutrality in its treatment of political parties and their leaders. The same principle is enshrined in the constitution and the electoral laws but it has been given short shrift by the sole public broadcaster, the ZBC which is openly and blatantly partisan. The public press is no better either, with The Herald and The Sunday Mail leading the pack of hounds which relentlessly and unashamedly pursue and attack the opposition while praising the government.
For the notion of Leader of the Opposition to work, the principles and rules already embedded in our constitution have to be upheld and implemented. The notion of the Leader of the Opposition recognises the political and constitutional legitimacy of the opposition but this will be undermined by a partisan, biased and vitriolic public media. These reforms do not require any change in the law. They simply need the political will of the leader. If the old dogs at public media cannot implement Mnangagwa’s vision, and it is true that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, then reforms may necessitate a complete shift in the human factor at these organisations – bring in a new set of people who can implement the vision of a fair, balanced and professional media.
The system works in Britain because the opposition is supported in its parliamentary work through the allocation of public funds. The ruling party does not have an unfair advantage because it does not get political party funding for its parliamentary work since it is already in government. The current system of political funding in Zimbabwe is heavily tilted in favour of the ruling party, which places the opposition at a serious disadvantage. Since the minimum threshold excludes smaller opposition parties, the system does augur well for promoting multi-party democracy. A broader package of political reforms to could also expand support for smaller opposition parties.
Administrative and Judicial reforms
The system works well in Britain because they have an independent civil service and a world-class and trusted judicial system. Indeed, businesses around the world often choose Britain as a preferred jurisdiction for resolution of disputes and the delivery of justice is regarded as one of the country’s “invisible” exports. The Government and Opposition co-exist because if there are any challenges, matters can be resolved by the courts, which are independent. Likewise, the independent civil service enjoys perpetual succession in that parties may come and go, but the civil service remains at the service of the government of the day.
The same cannot be said of our judicial system and our civil service, particularly in matters relating to politics. There is an institutional bias towards ZANU PF which has also afflicted other agencies of the State, including ZEC and law enforcement agencies. Even the decision of the Constitutional Court in the presidential election dispute, which should have resolved the legitimacy issue failed to do so because there is no confidence in the courts’ impartiality. These issues extend to law enforcement agencies, such as the police, which has been partisan and biased. A comprehensive package of political reforms has to include the judiciary and law enforcement arena.
Finally, the system works in Britain because it was organically developed and nurtured through the course of history. It responds to the challenges that the British have encountered and the lessons they have learnt along the way. The notion of fair play is an essential part of the British way of life. It is an important value that influences the conduct of politics and elections. There is also respect between political protagonists, notwithstanding their political differences. More importantly, they have an institution and landmarks that bind them. The monarchy is at the centre – hence there is Her Majesty’s Government and also Her Majesty’s Opposition. It reinforces the idea of loyalty to the state. Commemoration of events such as Armistice Day are of themselves national institutions which bring together the Government and the Opposition.
Finally, the media plays a key role in enforcing accountability and responsibility among politicians. In Zimbabwe, arrogant Ministers and opposition politicians get away with so much compared to their British counterpart who is also watched and vigorously brought to account by a vibrant media. It is difficult to transfer a value system from one society to another, but it has to be nurtured through strong and visionary leadership. If Mnangagwa truly believes in the idea of a healthy and institutionalised opposition, then he has to set out his vision to the people of Zimbabwe. So far he has addressed readers of the British Guardian and audience of Bloomberg – mostly a Western audience. He has to set out his agenda for political reform to his fellow Zimbabweans and with it the value system that will make it work.
If Mnangagwa really sees himself as the great reformer of the competitive authoritarian system established by ZANU PF in the first four decades of independence, he won’t be the first figure in history from such a system to try such ambitious reformist project. When the old Soviet Union was facing serious political, economic and social challenges in the 1980s, its new leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s tried to change course by reforming the system which had been established by the Communist party for generations.
Mnangagwa may find some uncanny parallels. Gorbachev was keen to rebuild a severely distressed Soviet economy while also re-engaging the West, with which the country had been estranged for decades. “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” were his flagship policies, the core idea of which was to reform the political and economic system. This would be done by democratising the Communist Party and a limited opening up the economy to the free market. Through Glasnost (openness), he wanted to promote political and social reforms which conferred more rights and freedoms to citizens and improve relations with the West. He encouraged free speech and his ministers to accept criticism while also fighting corruption, which was rife.
These policies brought fundamental changes to the life of a people who, for generations, had lived under a totalitarian system. The opening up and reduction of governmental control and more free speech encouraged people around the old Soviet empire to reassert themselves and demand autonomy. Within a decade, the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union finally crumbled in 1991, spawning new nations that had hitherto been subsumed under it.
Mnangagwa might recognise some similarities with what he is trying to do. It was said before the elections that some of his compatriots in ZANU PF were not amused by his apparent preparedness to open up political space to the opposition, which was able to campaign without much interference compared to previous elections. But, if what the Harare business executive said is true, then Mnangagwa sees himself as a Deng than a Gorbachev – perhaps it’s because the Chinese have gone on to be far more successful economically than the Russians. Whichever way, he has to understand that the reforms that both men fronted were not piecemeal. If he is serious, Mnangagwa has to set out a solid political and economic vision in which these political reforms are an integral part.