Big Saturday Read: The Opposition’s “Annus Horribilis”
A horrible year
Twenty-eight years ago, Queen Elizabeth II famously described 1992 as an “annus horribilis”. It is a Latin phrase which translates to a “horrible year”. Things had not gone well for the royal family. It is not surprising that the phrase annus horribilis has experienced a resurgence in usage this year, such is the scale of the tragedy that has engulfed the world on account of the COVID19 virus.
There is that reality, but it would not be an exaggeration if Zimbabwe’s main opposition political party made a similar claim. To say it has been a tough year for the MDC Alliance must qualify as one of the great understatements of the year. The harm it has suffered is so grievous that it is a miracle that it is still standing. If it were an organisation of lesser stock, the high priests of politics would have already administered the last rites.
The severe circumstances of the MDC Alliance began with a highly controversial Supreme Court judgment at the end of March which required it, against common, political, and legal sense to turn back the hands of time. The result has been a catalogue of catastrophe for the party and, it must be said, for democratic politics in Zimbabwe.
The party lost several of its elected representatives in parliament and urban local authorities. It also lost its headquarters in Harare and funding from the state which was due to it under the political parties’ financing legislation. It lost its mayor in the capital, Herbert Gomba and at the time of writing, his replacement, Jacob Mafume is languishing in remand prison where he is detained. Also, at the time of writing, one of the party’s Vice Presidents, Tendai Biti is detained in Harare, facing a spurious charge.
“Hollowing out” of the opposition
The losses that the MDC Alliance has suffered are unnatural. They represent a well-calculated and systematic assault by the ruling party under the guise of law. The strategy of complete annihilation of the opposition is underpinned by what I have referred to as “lawfare”, whereby attacks are done using legal instruments and processes, thereby conferring a veneer of legality. To the uncritical eye, everything appears to be legitimate because of the veneer of legality. But the reality cannot escape the critical eye.
One easy giveaway is selective application of the law, whereby laws are applied differently to persons depending on their political affiliation. Thus, if they are of ZANU PF stock, they are spared, but if they are MDC Alliance, the legal instruments are applied ruthlessly. Therefore, a ZANU PF minister, John Mangwiro, who is accused of corruption is invited to an interview and is allowed to go home, while Harare Mayor, Jacob Mafume, who is accused of corruption is kept in detention and denied bail. Likewise, a ZANU PF minister, Obadiah Moyo, who is accused of US$60 million corruption is granted bail without even having to spend a night in detention. It is an Animal Farm scenario where “some animals are more equal than others”.
The principal instrument of assault is the judicially reconstructed MDC-T, thanks to a controversial judgment of the Supreme Court in March this year. This dubiously resurrected political entity went on to claim rights over persons who were elected under the MDC Alliance, the party headquarters, and the funding from the state. The state through its agencies such as Parliament, the Ministries of Finance and Justice, the police and army, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, and the courts duly obliged, picking the MDC-T over the MDC Alliance. Most of these referees that were called upon to make decisions over the fate of the MDC Alliance rights are either explicitly ZANU PF or captured by it. The MDC Alliance never had a chance.
As a result, MPs and councilors who were elected under the MDC Alliance were removed from Parliament and councils. The remaining representatives also face removal. Their survival hangs upon the grace of the leadership of the judicially reconstructed MDC-T. The mass removal of these elected representatives revealed a major fault-line in the electoral system. It allows a few men and women to remove a person who has been elected by thousands. It marginalises the voters whose minor role is to challenge nominees to replace representatives that would have been removed already. The removal of elected representatives represented a “hollowing out” of the main opposition party.
Even then, the process has demonstrated that the objections of voters are meaningless when the ZEC, the electoral referee, is biased. ZEC simply nonchalantly dismissed more than 10,000 objections to replacement MPs that were proposed by the judicially reconstructed MDC-T. It did not give any reasons. The outcome: Thokozani Khupe and a band of other political upstarts who had been roundly rejected by voters in the 2018 elections returned to Parliament via the backdoor. The poisonous cherry on top of the absurdity was having Khupe described as the “Leader of the Opposition”. It is difficult to imagine a lower moment for democratic politics in Zimbabwe – a loser re-emerging as leader of the opposition.
It was also because of political favour that the Ministers of Justice and Finance ignored an on-going judicial process and handed Khupe and the judicially-reconstructed MDC-T, all the funds that were due to the MDC Alliance under the Political Parties (Financing) Act. The removal of the party from Morgan Tsvangirai House, the party headquarters was a key moment. It is a cardinal rule that in battle you must hang on to your headquarters. Losing it has symbolic significance. When it happened, it was a low moment for the party.
The surprise though, for many observers was the absence of resistance from the MDC Alliance. The MDC Alliance said their rivals had the help of the police and the army. The party may have had reason to yield so easily, but without an explanation, it left observers wondering whether it was part of a strategy or the party was simply bereft of strategy. That it demoralised the base cannot be swept under the carpet. To do so would be the proverbial act of burying heads in the sand.
Effects of the pandemic
It did not help that the MDC Alliance’s troubles began when the COVID19 pandemic set in, causing panic and pandemonium around the world. The pandemic caused states around the world to look inward, as they sought to cater to their citizens. It was not just the physical borders that were closed. With no one looking to see what was going on elsewhere, authoritarian regimes took advantage of the gap. The limitation of fundamental rights and freedoms to deal with the pandemic severely affected political activity. It is hard enough for the opposition in normal inter-election periods when they must keep the morale high. The opposition leader usually fills this lean time holding political rallies and meetings across the country, re-connecting with the people, and mobilising them for political action. It also gives him a chance to be visible in the political spaces.
However, the pandemic changed everything this year. The party could not hold political rallies or meetings because of the ban on political gatherings. An attempt to hold a virtual rally did not quite work out. It is never the same. Politicians like to connect with their supporters and virtual rallies do not have the same vibe that comes with a physical rally. Political rallies would also have helped to quickly settle the apparent claims and counterclaims between the MDC Alliance and the judicially reconstructed MDC-T. A credible hypothesis was that while the judicially reconstructed MDCT was scoring major wins in the formal spaces which are controlled by ZANU PF, the MDC Alliance would recover ground in public spaces such as political rallies and by-elections.
But without rallies and by-elections, Nelson Chamisa did not have the opportunity to showcase his prowess on the political stage. The absence of political rallies, meetings, and by-elections has starved Chamisa and the MDC Alliance of the oxygen they need to keep themselves politically alive. Political rallies do more than connect the leader and his supporters. They serve a political purpose in political ordering where there are rival claimants to a prize. They demonstrate who among the rival leaders has the people’s favour and who does not.
However, political also serve another purpose on the political landscape: if they are successful, they boost the confidence of the political leader. But if they fail, they damage morale. Chamisa has missed these political spaces. A quick return to meet with his supporters at a time when the combined force of the state and the surrogate opposition were having a field day would have restored his confidence and reassured him. In the absence of the political rally, he has not been able to make use of his major gifts. By contrast, his rivals have been comfortable without these public-political processes. This explains why they welcomed the illegal ban on by-elections. They do not want the embarrassment of small numbers at their political gatherings or defeat in by-elections.
The drought of inter-election years
Nevertheless, even if there was no pandemic, the opposition would still have had to cope with the political drought of the inter-election years. The period between election cycles is traditionally a testing time for the opposition. In the first year after a controversial election, there is a lot of motivation among supporters and even among sympathisers. They are drawn to the opposition leader because they believe he was cheated. Later, in the year before an election, people start gearing up for the contest. However, in the period in-between there is a drought of activity and greater scrutiny of the opposition. People would have come to terms with the fact that the rigged election cannot be undone. They start to make do with what is available, managing a difficult terrain.
A perusal of inter-election years in the recent past suggests that the opposition’s post-election strategy is characterised by resistance to the election outcome and delegitimization of the government. Under this strategy, the opposition complains that the election was rigged and therefore the outcome as illegitimate. It refuses to acknowledge and recognise the resulting government. There are, implicit in this strategy, calls for disengagement. There is an impasse between the government and the opposition. Another strategy is to call for electoral reforms. This has been a recurring song with each election-cycle since the early 2000s. However, a critical assessment suggests an internal contradiction that is implicit in these strategies. The opposition needs to fix this and have a coherent strategy.
First, the strategy of refusing to acknowledge the government after an election is contradicted by the active participation of the opposition in the formal political spaces together with the ruling party, for example in parliament and councils. The problem is that self-interest gets in the way of the opposition party’s main stance on legitimacy. Winning a seat in Parliament or council is both an individual victory for the MP or councillor and collective success for the party. For the newly elected representatives, it presents multiple opportunities at a personal level. Therefore, most MPs or councillors are not interested in boycotting Parliament or council even when they say the election was rigged. This results in a situation where the party says the election was rigged, but its members are happy to participate in so-called rigged institutions. This indecisiveness weakens the party’s position. It also strengthens the ruling party’s resolve because it knows the opposition members will still participate even if they cheat.
Second, the strategy of calling for electoral reforms is based on the belief that there is a legitimate authority that can affect such reforms. There would be no point in calling for electoral reforms from an illegitimate authority because the outcome will be illegitimate. Therefore, in calling for electoral reforms from a ZANU PF led government, the opposition is without noticing it acknowledging its legitimacy despite political rhetoric to the contrary. The adage that you cannot have your cake and eat it at the same time is something that the opposition cannot avoid in such circumstances.
All this calls for decisive leadership based on solid strategic objectives. The opposition must have the courage to decide what to do in the face of a rigged election. If it is resistance, then it must have the resolve to resist a rigged election and that includes disengagement from formal political spaces. So far, the opposition party has sent mixed messages after every election – resistance to a rigged election and participation on rigged platforms. There is never a clear endgame in such a scenario. This means 5 years pass between the elections, from one controversial one straight into another which likely will be controversial again, producing the same outcome. The result is frustration. It is not surprising that some in the leadership has given up in the process. They have given up because they have run out of ideas. They choose accommodation in the regime.
One of the traditional functions of the opposition is to present an alternative to the ruling party. It must demonstrate that it can take over and run the government in place of the ruling party. This is the role that it plays in the period between election cycles. To exercise this role effectively, the opposition must have a clear strategy. There must be a shadow government, matching the government in every department. It is members of the shadow government that scrutinise every step of the government, department by department. It is fair to say that this function has not been effectively fulfilled over the years. While there have been announcements of a shadow cabinet, it has not been an effective institution. This is partly because of limited resources, but also probably because it does not sit comfortably in an environment with competing institutions such as the Standing Committee and the National Executive.
If 2020 has been a year to forget for the opposition, 2021 will be even harder. There will be mounting questions for the leadership. ZANU PF will continue to turn the screws using lawfare as the principal strategy. Without any political response from the MDC Alliance, the ZANU PF regime will gain more confidence to do what it wants. These are the years when the leadership of the opposition is severely tested. The ability to carry the party forward outside the election cycles is the mark of great leadership. Therefore, Chamisa has his work cut out for him.
Defining the approach
One of the things that the opposition must confront is how it defines itself and its approach given the environment in which it is operating. This is a deep matter of strategy which must exercise the minds of the leadership as a collective. Currently, there are discordant voices. Sometimes, some voices suggest radicalism, raising as they do, possibilities of a more confrontational approach. Although they are occasionally vocal, they appear to be heterodox voices within the broader opposition movement. Rather confusingly, these few radical voices are sometimes moderate, for example, suggesting that “talks” with the regime are the way to go.
A lot of this points to the great difficulty of being an opposition in an authoritarian environment. On the one hand, it wants to conform with expectations of how a political opposition ought to behave. But this is incongruous with the abnormal environment which criminalises even the most basic expressions of orthodox opposition, such as exercising the right to demonstrate. The result is that the opposition finds itself in a cul-de-sac: using orthodox means in an authoritarian regime is meaningless. The public looks at this and concludes that the opposition is useless and does not know what it is doing.
On the other hand, if the opposition chooses to use unorthodox means, this invites the use of coercive apparatuses of the state, including increasingly, deployment of the military. When the state uses these means, some observers might even say it is justified. The opposition leaders are criticised for deliberately disobeying the laws, even if those laws are so vile and unjust that the only reasonable response, they invite is disobedience. The Mnangagwa regime has demonstrated a stronger appetite to use lawfare.
Nevertheless, there is nothing new under the sun. A glimpse at our history shows that the nationalist parties that were challenging the colonial regimes faced similar dilemmas in the early sixties. There were radicals and moderates among the nationalists, and differences over approaches to the colonial regime played a part in the splits and political formations in those nascent years and during the liberation war. They increasingly took the more radical approach, realising that the orthodox means would not yield any decent dividend. But even then, as late as 1978, some moderates thought it was better to settle for half-baked independence under the double-barrelled creature called Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Current circumstances are, of course, different but still, opposition leaders must be decisive. They must decide whether they seek accommodation or prefer a more radical approach. At present, there is no clarity.
In conclusion, there can be no doubt that this has been one of the most difficult years for the main opposition political party. Apart from Job Sikhala, the names that have prominent both locally and internationally like journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and politician Jacob Ngarivhume, are outside or on the fringes of the MDC Alliance. In years past, it is the opposition leadership that has been at the centre of major political processes and events. There is a reason why for all his foibles many around the world knew and now remember Morgan Tsvangirai. It is because they believe he demonstrated extraordinary courage against one of the world’s most infamous dictators.
Going forward, the opposition leaders must invest more in strategizing. The regime they are dealing with is not relenting. The events of the past nine months have shown the extent to which it is prepared to go. It wants the total obliteration of the main opposition so that by the time the next election cycle comes, it will have a near clean sweep of the seats. The regime wants ZANU PF to dominate political space as it did before 2000 when the MDC took away nearly half of the seats in parliament and won most of the urban councils. ZANU PF has managed to check the opposition’s influence in urban councils by maintaining a legislative framework that completely keeps most of the power in the hands of the central government, through the Ministry of Local Government and Public Works. The result is that local authorities are a burden that has no serious dividend for the opposition.
The opposition’s response to the onslaught this year has raised questions among supporters and sympathisers alike. Some fear the opposition leaders have been too meek in the face of the onslaught. The more sympathetic think the opposition leaders have been wise to remain calm and unperturbed in the face of deliberate provocation. Nevertheless, while people understand the virtue of patience, they also believe it is not unlimited. There comes a point when it cannot be stretched any longer.
Therefore, if people ask questions incessantly, it is because they are beginning to question the wisdom of stretching patience beyond the bounds of reasonableness. There is no substitute for clear, reasoned, and evidence-based thinking that informs political strategy. It must not be that the opposition is floating along with the current. Sometimes the current has to be challenged.
2020 has been a horrible year for the opposition. The opposite of an annus horribilis is called an “annus mirabilis”, a wonderful year. The problem for the opposition is that 2021 does not offer serious prospects of an annus mirabilis. It has to strategize more carefully because the ZANU PF regime is not relenting and its use of lawfare, coercion and related strategies will continue.