PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe and his old guard emerged from the ruling Zanu PF’s fourth congress which ended earlier this week on top after a bitter power struggle which threatened the fabric of the party.
Mugabe and his lo
yalists used all the instruments of repression at their disposal to crush rising dissent which followed a bruising contest for power and prevent seismic leadership changes. This ensured the cabal of veteran nationalists at the helm of Zanu PF maintained its rigid grip and unassailable position in the party — at least for now.
The congress came against a background of searing trials and tribulations. The long-running political and economic crisis presented serious challenges. The problems included high inflation, poverty, unemployment, shortages of fuel, foreign currency, and electricity, macro-economic instability and food shortages.
Zimbabwe’s social and economic conditions has continued to deteriorate. In particular, the chaotic land reform programme has largely contributed to a sharp reduction in agricultural output.
There were also concerns about governance, the rule of law and human rights, and lack of clarity about property rights. These issues have severely damaged investor-confidence, promoted capital flight and mass emigration. Social services delivery systems face collapse and the HIV/Aids pandemic remains largely unchecked and on the march.
Zanu PF and its leadership found themselves confronted with a sea of troubles — compounded by a heightened power struggle and deep factionalism — and this emergency ultimately presented a clear and present danger to them.
For that reason — if no other — Zanu PF needed to tackle the crisis vigorously. But the scramble for power dominated congress proceedings. It became the volatile issue that needed to be stabilised to contain the dangerous state of flux the party was locked in.
Mugabe’s hitherto heir apparent Emmerson Mnangagwa and his spin-doctor Jonathan Moyo, who led the vanquished group which reportedly tried to stage a palace coup against the party leadership, were knocked down in the concentrated backlash that followed.
The Mnangagwa faction was accused by Mugabe and others of holding an “illegal” and “clandestine” meeting which was disguised as a prize-giving ceremony at Dingane Secondary School in Tsholotsho, Matabeleland North province, on November 18 to plot a new command structure for Zanu PF.
Although Moyo claimed it was a “mere speech and prize-giving ceremony”, Mugabe said the function attended by a number of Mnangagwa’s supporters was a subversive political gathering.
While Mnangagwa did not attend the event due to an emergency politburo meeting on the same day, he was supposed to be the guest of honour and thus culpable. After quizzing the culprits in court martial-style hearings in Bulawayo on November 26, Mugabe then launched purges in his party.
The first casualties of the crackdown included six provincial chairmen and war veterans’ leader Jabulani Sibanda, who were suspended for six months and four years respectively.
Moyo was however the biggest loser at congress. He was dropped from the central committee by Mugabe and now faces dismissal from the politburo and cabinet. Moyo, who tried to defend himself through vitriolic counter-attacks, is currently battling for political survival.
But the defeat of the Mnangagwa faction and its containment afterwards came at a huge cost to democratic development both within and outside Zanu PF.
The ruling party probably came out of congress in relatively better shape, cohesion and strength ahead of next year’s general election. But the danger is that unity enforced by threats and suppression of alternative voices is too fragile to stand the test of time.
There is also the risk of creating a groundswell of discontent and internal opposition, which will bubble under the surface until it finally explodes.
The Zanu PF “rebels” were overbearingly hushed-up and they appear down at the moment. But they may not be out as yet. The conspiracy of silence in the aftermath of the onslaught could become a hotbed for heightened future instability.
While it appears the fierce counter-offensive by Mugabe and his old guard left the Young Turks incapacitated and immobilised, it did not address the need for a renewed party leadership. The repackaged Zanu PF hierarchy of Mugabe, Joseph Msika, Joyce Mujuru and John Nkomo is almost certainly old wine in new bottles.
Mujuru — whom Mugabe hinted could now be his anointed successor — is seen by some analysts as a “pawn in a dangerous political game” because she is supposed to have come in just to prevent Mnangagwa’s ascendancy.
“She has earned her place in the past, but in this case she is coming through as a pawn in a deadly political game,” said analyst Eldred Masunungure.
“It’s going to be very difficult for Mujuru’s name to be seen outside this political saga. The impression is that she was imposed and a lot of people were purged to pave the way for her.”
Appointments to the central committee clearly show Mugabe wanted to ring-fence himself with deadwood — some of them reactionaries — and that is not helpful in ensuring leadership renewal and continuity in Zanu PF.
Although the old guard managed to shirk the compelling demand for consequential leadership changes, in the end it only postponed rather than resolved the problem. The real succession fight might still be on the cards after all.
The quality and calibre of leadership in the Mnangagwa grouping was questionable, to say the least. The faction’s top candidates include the Zanu PF Women’s League chairperson Thenjiwe Lesabe, expected to be co-vice-president with Mnangagwa himself, and legal affairs secretary Patrick Chinamasa. Moyo was earmarked to be secretary for administration.
This line-up of political hawks — with threadbare democratic credentials — hardly fits the description of the leadership of good temperament which Zanu PF and Zimbabwe desperately need now.
The simmering situation after congress is further compounded by intensified ethnic tensions which may be fuelled by the new Zanu PF structure. There appears to be tribal restlessness stemming from the election of the recycled Zanu PF leadership.
The most common claim has been that the Karanga and Manyika people have been totally “left out” of the Zanu PF presidium and thus marginalised.
There have also been charges that Zezurus have grabbed all the top positions and consolidated their hegemony in local politics. Mugabe, Msika and Mujuru are being conveniently classified as Zezuru in this tribal model to suit designed positions. Ethnic contradictions among Shona and Ndebele groups, themselves a hodgepodge of different tribes brought together by history and circumstances, are also being stirred in this debate.
But the growth of politics based on narrow concerns, especially regionalism and ethnicity — which promote a take-no-prisoners activism — can be very damaging to a nation.
In a bid to reassert his political supremacy in Zanu PF, Mugabe also significantly undermined emerging democratic discourse and pulsating politics in his party.
He strengthened his repressive hand and growing conviction in negative democratic centralism, which in essence is authoritarianism.
On balance, Zanu PF’s closed and controlled politics were further tightened, a move which could precipitate an accelerated decline and widen the mounting democratic deficit.
Thus the outcome of the critical congress simply proved — as much to Zanu PF itself as to others as well — that democratic practice only existed more as an illusion than a reality in the ruling party. This reinforces the view that Zanu PF and Zimbabwe are only democratic in form but authoritarian in substance.
But Mugabe seems to think that narrowing down the democratic space in his party and elsewhere in the name of firm control is evidence of “democracy at work” as he claimed at congress.
Although no party leadership anywhere in the world would allow “secret dealings” and “clandestine activities”, as Mugabe openly characterised the Tsholotsho meeting, the impact of his actions on national politics is likely to extend far beyond what could be imagined while the Zanu PF political soap opera runs its course.
As seen in the past, the squashing of debate and criticism within Zanu PF suppressed multiparty democracy and severely undermined the credibility and effectiveness of parliament as a democratic, representative institution.
It had an immensely negative impact on the political, economic and social factors, which had helped to promote — and also hold back — a national democratic agenda. This has had dire consequences for governance and national development — which is why Zimbabwe is today identified with political repression and economic failure.
If Mugabe is allowed, without rhyme or reason, to impose his will on Zanu PF, as happened during congress, it becomes exceedingly difficult for his own party, let alone ordinary citizens, to insist on fair political competition, hold government accountable, ensure elected officials are responsive to their interests and demands, foster a culture of transparency and consultation, and allow popular participation in decision-making processes.