It has been a week of intriguing political events, which started with speculation and drama around the health of Vice President Constantino Chiwenga and ended with President Emmerson Mnangagwa on another hired luxury jet to Ethiopia for the African Union Summit.
In between, much happened on the political scene, with the two major political leaders seemingly playing hide and seek, one missing the first meeting and the other missing the second, thus seemingly avoiding each other. Chiwenga was paraded on national television ostensibly to reassure the nation that he was in good health. But the retired general may as well have been reassuring himself. He is obviously in need of rest.
The more worrying news for the Mnangagwa Government came from the Palace of Westminster, on the banks of the River Thames in London, where a country that could have been an unlikely ally expressed its displeasure in a public and telling fashion.
There, the International Development Committee of the British House of Commons held a hearing on the crisis in Zimbabwe.
The message was clear. The British signalled that they could no longer support Zimbabwe’s re-entry to the Commonwealth. “As of today, the UK would not be able to support this application because we don’t believe that the kinds of human rights violations that we are seeing from security forces in Zimbabwe are the kind of behaviour that you would expect to see from a Commonwealth country,” said Harriet Baldwin, Britain’s Minister for Africa.
This is significant because the British government had over the recent past appeared to have taken a hand-holding role towards the Mnangagwa regime, hoping to guide it back into good books with the international community. The hope was that this goodwill and support would incentivize the Mnangagwa regime to promote good governance. It was significant because re-entry into the Commonwealth was one of the Mnangagwa regime's topmost wishes since he grabbed power from Mugabe in 2017.
For some reason, Mnangagwa had been cast and seen as a reformer. Others hailed him as a pragmatic leader. He was a man the West could do business with. He enjoyed acres of space in international media which had shunned Mugabe. He spoke the right words for the exotic audience but he failed to practice his word at home.
Zimbabweans and others who knew and understood Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s enforcer for many years tried to warn the hopefuls that this was a fraud; a facade designed to hoodwink them. But few took notice.
There was an uproar when the former British ambassador to Zimbabwe was pictured at No. 10 Downing Street, wearing the scarf that is strongly associated with Mnangagwa. Just before the 2018 elections the private entity of the British development support system, CDC, offered a $100 million financing facility to the private sector. The British government denied that this was support for the Mnangagwa regime, but it was hard not to see that this support which had dried up during the Mugabe years was a sign of confidence in the new regime, perhaps a carrot, to incentivise reform.
This optimism was obviously misplaced. It glossed over the history of the man who all along had been a lynchpin of the Mugabe regime. How could he have changed into a reformist? But they gambled anyway and it backfired spectacularly when the regime soon showed its true colours.
The British have since come to the realisation that the regime is not what it promised. "We have been aware that the president has said that heads will roll. We haven’t seen any specific heads rolling," said Baldwin, revealing frustration at the fact that Mnangagwa had failed to act upon his words.
All efforts to hand-hold the regime have failed. You can hand-hold a child and help them walk and find independence. It is harder to change the ways of an older person who has been used to one style all his life. The old adage rings true: you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. This one clearly has refused to learn, despite vast opportunities and much goodwill at its disposal.
The August 1 killings were bad enough but typically, the regime played a card to trick the world. Mnangagwa appointed a commission to investigate the violence. It included people of international character and reputation. Some gave him credit for that move believing it was a genuine process. On her trip to South Africa last August, the British Prime Minister Theresa May commented on Mnangagwa’s promise to set up a commission, suggesting the move had been noticed as a positive signal.
But some of us raised scepticism from day one and the outcome was unsurprising. We argued that the terms of reference were narrow and contrived. We also argued that the composition was skewed since it included a known ZANU PF cheerleader and conflicted persons. We pointed out the absurdity of a man appointing a commission to investigate his own conduct.
We argued that it was a charade. And it largely was. Two months after the report was published, not a single word has been said about the report and none of the recommendations have been implemented. If anything, some of the key recommendations has been completely ignored.
The Motlanthe Commission was a waste of time and money. But it was all part of the facade that Mnangagwa was creating for the world. The men and women in the commission walked away with happier pockets. They had been used but at least they got a fee for it.
Then came the carnage of January when the military was yet again deployed in the streets and against the recommendations of the Motlanthe Commission used guns and live ammunition on protestors. They went into residential areas and bludgeoned citizens. Hundreds were detained and in what appeared to be a politically-orchestrated prosecution and judicial operation, the detained were denied bail while some trials were fast-tracked, leaving suspects with little to no time to prepare their defence. It was a serious assault upon the rule of law.
The egregious human rights violations and Mnangagwa’s apparent indifference (he flew to Russia after announcing the fuel hike) and his failure to call a halt on the atrocities resulted in an international outcry. Zimbabwe was once again in the news but in a bad way. Some opined that the violence was the work of his VP, the former soldier General Chiwenga. But this perspective exonerates Mnangagwa, who holds the constitutional mandate over the defence forces. If the Chiwenga theory were true it would mean Mnangagwa is not in charge. But nothing suggests that he is not in charge.
These conspiracy theories may appear to work in his favour by painting his deputy as the bad apple, but they also suggest that he has no power, which is hardly complimentary. The fact of the matter is these men act in concert. They know each other and work together for a common end, their differences occasioned by a clash of ambitions notwithstanding.
The Commonwealth rejection might be a blow, but a far bigger problem is Britain’s statement that it would not at present be able to support Zimbabwe’s bid to clear its arrears at the International Financial Institutions (IFIs). "We are a long way from that and we have gone further away as a result of use of violence by the security forces,” said Baldwin commenting on possible support for Zimbabwe especially regarding debt-clearance.
Britain had come in as a handy ally in this effort to deal with the crippling arrears which are a principal cause of the country’s failure to access credit from IFIs and other lenders. Britain has sent a former executive board member of the World Bank as its chief diplomat in Harare, which some saw as a positive signal on that front. Mnangagwa’s Finance Minister, Mthuli Ncube, is himself a member of the IFI community having served at the AfDB. The expectation was that these peers could work together to rescue Zimbabwe from the debt-trap.
But that is now in jeopardy after the recent pronouncements by the Minister for Africa. The Mnangagwa regime has shot itself in the foot by revealing an authoritarian and brutal streak, itself a grim reminder of an era that hopefuls had thought was long gone.
Instead, the “s” word has come up again, with propositions to add more names to the targeted sanctions list. “Specifically with regard to sanctions … I think that since the recent developments there might be a case for widening it to include further individuals," said Baldwin when she gave evidence before the International Development Committee at Westminster. These are chilling words at a time when the Mnangagwa establishment and its allies are calling for the removal of sanctions. This will only intensify the attrition, a return to the era of exclusion and isolation which some thought was over after the coup in November 2017.
Rally of Candidates
Like his predecessor, Mnangagwa is adept at the art of deception. He is fond of saying he is as soft as wool, itself a contrast to the hardline approach of his regime. Twice within 6 months, he has deployed soldiers into the streets and the consequences have been brutal and disastrous.
On the first occasion in August, Mnangagwa feigned ignorance as to what had happened and promised to investigate. Many were led to believe that someone else had deployed the soldiers without his knowledge. But when results of the investigation came in December, they revealed that it was Mnangagwa who had deployed the soldiers on the fateful day.
A major pre-occupation ever since he took over in November 2017, has been to woo the international community, particularly the West. The regime has invested heavily in a major international public relations campaign. The problem is he has done this by word but not by deed. His words have been soft but his deeds have been hard.
That hasn’t stopped him from the strategy of deception. The Motlanthe Commission falls into that category. It was designed to suggest that something was being done about the atrocities of August 1 which had shocked and appalled the world. But the effort amounted to very little. He might have released the report as promised but then again, he has simply ignored it, which is far worse.
The Presidential Advisory Council is another deception - suggesting that he is consulting widely when he simply officialised his motley crew of friends and personal advisers who have been with him all along. A few were added into the large structure to give the appearance of diversity. Last year, he announced an assets declaration policy for his ministers and senior officials. The day of its announcement was the last day it was heard of, another deception.
It is in this context where Mnangagwa’s call for a meeting with presidential candidates falls. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss a framework for dialogue and interaction. It was a hurried call of an assorted group of individuals.
With the qualification criteria for the meeting set merely at having been a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections, the bar was very low. There were more than 20 candidates and each was allowed to bring 3 persons in tow.
None except two of the candidates in the 2018 elections had made impact which registered on the political Richter scale. As one Zimbabwean put it on social media, the dip tank attendant had invited all farmers including those who did not own any livestock.
Sympathetic observers might argue that he was being democratic by extending the call to everyone. But in reality he was skirting around the issue, which is the dispute between him and his closest rival, Nelson Chamisa. Most of those who attendant had no dispute with him. If anything, they had endorsed him long before the meeting.
In the event, while acknowledging the invitation, Chamisa did not attend the meeting. Another candidate, former VP Joice Mujuru also refused to attend, writing on Twitter that a photo opportunity did not count as dialogue.
In a nutshell, Chamisa argued that the conditions were not conducive for dialogue. He cited the continued harassment of members of the party and the presence of the military who had not returned to the barracks. He was happy to dialogue, but it had to be sincere and genuine dialogue, he said. He was not convinced that Mnangagwa’s call for the meeting was genuine.
But what had motivated Mnangagwa’s hasty call for the meeting? Why was he making the call at that particular time?
It was all part of a strategic move with several elements and goals. To understand the call, one has to stand in Mnangagwa’s shoes.
A Show for Peers
First, the hasty call was made as part of Mnangagwa’s preparations for the AU Summit which he knew was coming at the end of the week. Mnangagwa anticipated there might be questions over the recent atrocities and what he was doing about it. Mnangagwa’s response would be that he had already initiated dialogue with opposition parties. The meeting at State House would be presented as evidence that he was handling issues.
Mnangagwa does not want a mediator that he cannot control, so he decided to pre-empt any suggestion of a mediator from the AU or SADC. That it was part of the elaborate preparations for the AU Summit can be viewed through the major diplomatic offensive he launched across the region, sending special envoys to several heads of state. He was aware the trouble at home had caused reputational damage and he had to carry out a salvage operation before the Summit.
The special envoys would have delivered messages that cast the opposition as the trouble-causers, indicating that the demonstrations were fomented by the MDC with the help of NGOs and Western countries allegedly bent on effecting regime change. It’s back to the old narrative of the Mugabe era, in which the government was always cast as a victim of Western machinations. This is not surprising because the men in charge were the architects and technicians of the Mugabe regime. Back then they lurked in the background with Mugabe as the frontman.
Claiming the Moral High Ground
Chamisa’s presence at Mnangagwa’s meeting would have bolstered the claim that things were under control and that there was no need any third party assistance. However, Chamisa’s absence would not have hurt Mnangagwa either. He would simply argue to his peers that he had tried his best but his young rival was being intransigent and immature, a favourite taunt ZANU PF often throws towards the popular opposition leader.
This raises the second motivation which was to seek the moral high ground. Mnangagwa wanted to be seen as the mature leader who is offering to accommodate his rival through dialogue. Mnangagwa would have known his invitation was likely to receive short shrift from Chamisa and the MDC. It was not an invitation that was designed to be accepted by any self-respecting leader with solid political capital.
So Mnangagwa would have calculated that Chamisa’s refusal to attend would bolster his case that his rival is being difficult and unresponsive. The diplomatic offensive around Africa is as much about discrediting Chamisa as it is a promotion of the Mnangagwa regime.
But as far as African leaders are concerned Mnangagwa’s is wasting precious resources speaking to the converted. The same trade union of African leaders backed his predecessor Mugabe for many years, the vileness of his regime notwithstanding.
However, whatever moral high ground Mnangagwa thought he had gained at his meeting was eroded when he avoided the Breakfast Prayer Meeting organised a day later by members of the clergy under the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC).
If he argues that Chamisa was stubborn by refusing to attend his State House meeting, his failure to attend the religious platform was no better. It portrayed a man who was affected by his rival’s no-show at his meeting the previous day. Yet the ZCC event was neutral ground which would have been a perfect platform to start a process of internal re-engagement.
In any event, the ZCC Breakfast Meeting is an event that is likely to have been prepared well in advance. It was a big event with many stakeholders. It was already known by the time Mnangagwa made a hasty call for a meeting at State House. Indeed, even The Herald reported that Mnangagwa would be meeting the clergy, before he suddenly dropped out and sent his subordinate, Oppah Muchinguri to read a speech on his behalf.
By reason of its neutrality, the ZCC event would have been a perfect setting for the first meeting of the political leaders. If anything Mnangagwa’s hastily arranged meeting spoiled what would have been a good platform for initiating political dialogue. Did Mnangagwa deliberately sabotage the ZCC efforts by pre-emptying its Breakfast Prayer event by staging his own I’ll-fated State House meeting?
The net effect is that with Chamisa refusing to attend Mnangagwa’s meeting and Mnangagwa refusing to pitch up at the ZCC gathering, the political stalemate continues. If anything the two events highlighted once again, that after a process of political distillation, the only two political actors who are relevant to the dialogue are Mnangagwa and Chamisa. It is their dispute which needs resolution. Everything else is residual.
Diluting the recent atrocities
The January atrocities appalled and shocked the world. It lost Mnangagwa allies or potential allies. He had to plant a new narrative: that of dialogue and charting a way forward. Yet that was pointless given that the political harassment has not stopped. Opposition politicians are still being haunted by the regime.
Mnangagwa’s favourite line when it comes to atrocities is that people must allow bygones to be bygones. Last year, be blatantly denied in an interview with The Economist that the 2008 election had been violent. This was despite the fact that human rights organisations had reported more than 200 deaths and rapes, assaults, torture, abductions and internal displacements. He has not given attention to Gukurahundi of the 1980s, refusing like his predecessor to release investigation reports into those atrocities.
Finding a bridge with the international community
The regime is once again ostracized and isolated in the international community. All efforts to woo the West have spectacularly collapsed. The trip to Russia has not yielded much support. There is no bailout package from Russia. There is nothing coin from China.
He has turned his diplomatic efforts on Africa, but there’s no financial respite from the fellow brothers. The hope is to get some assistance to put pressure on the West to remove sanctions. Yet, the conduct at home, with the brutalisation of citizens grabbing international headlines, this is unlikely to yield much fruit. He should be focusing more attention on the home front, rather than spending time and effort on a constituency whose support he already enjoys.
Mnangagwa thinks rapprochement with the opposition or some effort towards that direction will re-open clogged channels. An indication that he is offering dialogue would be used to push the argument that he is trying to find solutions to the challenges. But while the African peers will buy it, this is unlikely to find traction in the West. Some who were seemingly prepared to support his administration must be angry at the embarrassment he has caused them after failing to live up to promises and expectations.
Chamisa and the MDC knew that Mnangagwa was playing to the international gallery. Mujuru too figured this out and decided to stay away from what she derided as a “photo opportunity”. Some MDC activists described it as a rally where Mnangagwa had invited his allies. They saw the invited politicians as Mnangagwa’s allies disguised as opposition leaders.
However, Chamisa must have known that an outright refusal will play into Mnangagwa’s hands. It would give fuel to the narrative that the main opposition was being arrogant and stubborn. At the same time, an outright acceptance would have simply glossed over the gross atrocities which had happened and were continuing. It would be seen by members of the party as naive and an act of betrayal.
It was necessary therefore to navigate with caution and dexterity, mindful of the international audience but also of local opinion. Most of his supporters, it seems, were not impressed by what they saw as Mnangagwa’s gimmick.
Zimbabweans are not new to political dialogue. There have been a few over the course of history and each has left Zimbabweans a lot wiser than the one before.
This week, Zimbabweans were quick to share a reminder of the ill-fated dialogue between Ian Douglas Smith and the likes of Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, Chief Chirau in 1978. They resulted in the Internal Settlement, essentially a power-sharing arrangement in which the colonial minority retained the lion’s share of power. Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and other nationalists had rejected it outright.
Although Britain initially welcomed elections that resulted from the Internal Settlement, it didn’t take long before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was convinced by African leaders at the Commonwealth Summit in Lusaka that this was not the solution to the Rhodesian problem.
Zimbabweans remembered how Mugabe and other nationalists had remained resolute in their quest for a legitimate leadership. For them, the political leaders who attended the Mnangagwa meeting are no different from the African nationalists who were part of the Internal Settlement. And it had had a short-lived and forgettable existence because it was devoid of legitimacy.
It was only at Lancaster House, when the nationalists who were leading guerrilla armies attended that a firm and binding agreement was rafted. It stood and opened the way to independence because it had one ingredient that its' predecessor a year earlier lacked: legitimacy. Mnangagwa knows this too well from his time as Mugabe's assistant and it would be foolhardy to repeat Smith's trick of calling politicians without the necessary political capital and pretending to be engaged in dialogue.
Unity Accord and GPA
Zimbabweans also remember the 1987 Unity Accord, negotiated over a few years and at a time when supporters of PF ZAPU were under siege because of Gukurahundi and its lasting effects. They know that Nkomo had been bludgeoned into an agreement which effectively consumed his party. Zimbabweans know the hazards of negotiating an agreement when your people are being persecuted.
Zimbabweans also recall the 2008 Global Political Agreement which led to the Inclusive Government. Then Morgan Tsvangirai, like Nkomo before him was forced to negotiate as his supporters were under siege. This time the situation was compounded by the economic malaise in the country and there was a view that it was necessary to negotiate in order to avert a national calamity. Others thought, Tsvangirai should have held on for some time. Those were difficult times.
The result was an agreement which was heavily skewed in favour of ZANU PF. For the next 5 years, the MDC was effectively a junior partner in a political arrangement in which ZANU PF dominated. From a moral perspective, the MDC had done the right thing, but politically it had been entrapped in an agreement which favoured its rival.
Zimbabweans know that in both cases, Nkomo and Tsvangirai were motivated by what they believed to be in the best interests of the people, who were suffering terribly under an incorrigible regime. But it is fair to say their kind hearts prevailed over their heads. The trouble is they were dealing with heartless counterparts.
Zimbabweans are mindful of the perils of yielding space to ZANU PF or showing it any signs of desperation for power. They have learnt the virtue of patience and caution against a vile and cunning regime.
Framing Path to Dialogue
Mnangagwa could have framed the matter differently, starting first, with a complete cessation of military activity in civilian affairs. He could not possibly be tone deaf to the cries of people who lost their loved ones, those who were raped and tortured and those living in hiding. A clear and sincere statement and sending the soldiers back to the barracks before calling for dialogue would have demonstrated seriousness on his part.
Second, the primary call is one for party technocrats to work on a framework for dialogue. The public call and meeting smacked of a show for the world than serious engagement. It’s not surprising that Chamisa and Mujuru, opposition leaders with more mettle, refused to be part of the show.
Third, Mnagagwa should have identified the most relevant party to the dispute. The criteria of calling 20-odd presidential candidates, most of whom have no political capital whatsoever was pointless.
Fourth, Mnangagwa could have indicated an inclination towards locating a neutral mediator. A party to a dispute cannot be a mediator, neither can he unilaterally choose the mediator for the same dispute. The tone of Mnangagwa’s letter was one of a headmaster summoning naughty pupils to his office.
In conclusion, as ever, apart from Chamisa and the MDC, Mnangagwa annot afford to ignore the economy. On that front there is no respite. Major companies are shutting down operations due to foreign currency shortages and promises which have not been met by the government. Other businesses are raising prices because the market knows the bond note is not equal to the US Dollar, a fallacy which the government preposterously maintains.
With debilitating arrears and no serious investors or lines of credit coming Zimbabwe’s way, it is ultimately the economy which will push the regime to see sense. Mnangagwa might continue to say Zimbabwe is open for business, his favourite mantra, but what Zimbabwe really needs right now is for its leadership to be open to common sense.
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