LAST week, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) treasurer Roy Bennett gave an interview to Violet Gonda on SW Radio Africa’s “Hot Seat” programme.
One salient aspect of the fascinating exchange was Bennett’s indication of clear displeasure at what he saw as the “imposition” of Simba Makoni on the electorate by what he referred to as the “diplomatic community”. Of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Bennett is quoted as saying: “He is going to shock the world, shock the chattering class, shock the diplomatic community that all try to impose people of their choice rather than listening to the grassroots of Zimbabwe and the people of Zimbabwe.”
On being asked who the diplomatic community is trying to impose, he stated: “They are trying to impose Simba Makoni.”
Whether or not this is correct, it indicates that there is a perception within the MDC leadership that the “diplomatic community” is interfering in opposition politics and trying to impose its will on the people of Zimbabwe.
This raises many questions.
Why would they be trying to impose Makoni?
Â Do they have the power or leverage over the MDC to impose Makoni?
Have they, in the past, played a role in selecting opposition leaders?
Why would the opinion of the “diplomatic community” cause any worries to the MDC leadership which is confident of its local support base?
Or is there a deeper relationship here that has taken a wrong turn and if so why?
There is no easy answer to these questions, but one senses that there is tension building up between the MDC and its traditional base of external sympathisers.
And that makes victory on March 29 even more imperative given the diplomatic fallout that seems to be brewing.
It is easy to overlook the fact that this line of thought now advocated by the MDC is not new.
The reason President Robert Mugabe has been steadfast in his refusal to allow space to the MDC is that he perceives them as puppets of the West. The run-ins between the government and the US, UK and lately Swedish diplomatic missions indicate the public face of this animosity and accusations.
Could these be the same powers whose diplomats the MDC alleges to be now favouring Makoni in place of Tsvangirai?
Gonda did not go further to ask specification on the identity of these diplomats leaving the audience to speculate on the specificities of this amorphous “diplomatic community”.
There is, plainly, a sense of betrayal, perhaps frustration within the MDC leadership over the intentions and activities of this undefined diplomatic community.
For a party that has enjoyed visible support from the diplomatic community, these latest allegations reveal simmering tensions and mistrust.
But, importantly, the allegations do raise shades of a “Mugabesque” approach to opponents, except that Bennett does not use the same derogatory language often employed by Mugabe whose choice of descriptions of adversaries range from puppets to prostitutes and lately frogs.
But Bennett’s comments which effectively characterise Makoni as someone who is being imposed on the electorate by the “diplomatic community” will no doubt find resonance in the state media which has been carrying similar attacksÂ in much the same way that it has treated Tsvangirai over the years.
There is here the irony of a so-called stooge now turning and calling another a stooge on precisely the same basis. That being the case, it seems to be one of those rare instances when the MDC and Zanu PF seem to be in agreement.
But in the eyes of Zanu PF, this does not exonerate the MDC from the same charges.
It simply provides further ammunition to its arsenal, arguing perhaps that the MDC is simply acting like the petulant child who cries on seeing his slice of the cake being given to a new sibling.
But if there is any substance in these comments, they do raise serious concerns about the character of opposition politics in Zimbabwe. The question that has dogged every serious opposition leader for the last decade is whether one can actually claim to be his own man.
Zanu PF has always suggested the problem to be the opposition’s lack of independence, it being a tool to further the interests of the West. Crude though it might be, it has been an effective method, especially among the uninformed sections of society.
It has also been effective in the community of African leaders who, plainly, believe that Mugabe is a victim of Western interference. It also explains, in part, why Tsvangirai has never quite found the favour he sought from the likes of Thabo Mbeki and fellow African leaders in southern Africa.
It is interesting, therefore, that the MDC would now resort to the same line of argumentation in respect of a fellow challenger. That might well be interpreted to its disadvantage, it being taken by its perennial detractors to give credence to Mugabe’s usual rhetoric.
The MDC may well be right about its apprehensions. But when it is trying to manoeuvre in this treacherous terrain, it seems to make sense to also retain a measure of diplomacy in its dealings.
Bennett’s comments came hardly two weeks after another diplomatic faux pas in South Africa, when Tsvangirai was reported to have publicly criticised Mbeki for not being “a little brave” in handling Mugabe.
He may be right, but it is not helpful to appear to be humiliating a host, to whom one is likely to return in future.
The MDC is right to say that the decision-makers are the Zimbabwean voters and that they may well post a surprise on March 29. But surely, they have been in the trenches long enough to know that local support needs to be augmented by external understanding and backing.
There will be a time when they will be needed just as their material largesse has sustained the organisational needs of the opposition and civil society groups.
A lesson learnt, perhaps, would be that there is nothing like a free lunch in this world. If there is indeed some pressure on the MDC leadership, it is perhaps the price they are paying – a consequence of investment in a relationship that had up to now appeared safe and comforting.
It brings to mind the old lesson that there are no permanent friends in the world of politics. Rather, it is only the pursuit of interests that is permanent.
It is easy to forget that although by the time he went to the gallows Saddam was a sworn enemy, it was not always so. Even America’s most wanted, Osama Bin Laden, he too, was not always a bad apple.
There is, however, a risk here for the MDC: one of burning bridges.
Legend has it that “burning bridges” is a phrase that goes way back to the Roman times. It is said that the generals of the Roman army took the practice of burning bridges once their soldiers had crossed on their way to battle.
This, supposedly, took away any ideas of retreating that the soldiers might otherwise have entertained. Today, it is a phrase that means that those who burn bridges tend to place themselves in positions from which there might be no return. This comes at great cost.
The opposition now finds itself facing more challenges, not just Mugabe but also the simmering doubts within the traditionally friendly “diplomatic community”.
Is there something more the public should know? No doubt this is only the tip of the iceberg. Sooner or later, it shall manifest.
By Alex Magaisa