WHEN Arthur Mutambara, who had left local politics as a student leader in the 1990s, dramatically strutted back onto the political scene some five years ago, it was hard to envisage an even more ignoble exit from the political party he joined at the top.
Mutambara’s re-entry into local politics was surprising if unexpected as his only foray into politics was placing an advert supporting Morgan Tsvangirai’s fight against Zanu PF hegemony. By his own admission, Mutambara will not stand as the presidential candidate for the party he suffixed with his initials (MDC-M) at its congress tomorrow. The man who made that chastisised statement on New Year’s Eve was a far cry from the one who swaggered around five years ago exuding the aura and buoyancy of a self-confident professional.
It was inevitable that Mutambara would step down after almost all the party provinces nominated secretary-general Welshman Ncube as the next MDC-M president.
After leading one of the very first post-Independence student protests at the University of Zimbabwe in late 1980s and 1990, Mutambara acquired an almost mythical status among Zimbabweans and in the absence of viable opposition political parties was regarded as a symbol of resistance to the corruption and dictatorship manifesting itself in Zanu PF.
As president of the UZ Students Representative Council (SRC), Mutambara led demonstrations at the campus, causing the closure of the university and the subsequent arrest of the student leaders together with Tsvangirai, then Secretary-General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
After almost 15 years in the political wilderness, having left the country as a Rhodes Scholar and earning various qualifications including a doctorate in robotics and mechatronics — a very unfamiliar field — Mutambara was a surprise choice to head the splinter group of the MDC.
His return to active politics, a jump from being a top businessman as he was the chief executive officer and managing director of the African Technology and Business Institute, split public opinion.
On one side there were people who felt that Mutambara was being used by Ncube, who had led a party rebellion against Tsvangirai which resulted in a split of the party in October 2005.
Ncube, this school of thought argued, wanted a national leader for his regional project as most of the politicians who broke away were from the southern part of the country.
Those who differed argued that Mutambara was justified to join this group and would bring in a lot of political capital given that he was among the very first people to stand up against President Robert Mugabe.
Others credit former MDC-M founder member, Job Sikhala with bringing Mutambara into the MDC-M fold.Sikhala, who has since abandoned the splinter group to found his own MDC 99 party, says he played no part in scouting for a leader for the party which saw them approaching up to seven business personalities and politicians in the country and in exile.
“Mutambara was brought in by Ncube,” said Sikhala.
Ncube was the kingmaker about five years ago but now wants the crown after the dust stirred by the split five years ago has settled.
Mutambara had an easy victory against Gift Chimanikire who had stood as a candidate for the presidency of the party and thereafter benefited from the winds of change that swept across the country.
Despite losing in the March 2008 elections, Mutambara heavily benefited from the inconclusive nature of the results. With his party winning 10 House of Assembly seats out of 210 and managing six senatorial seats out of 60, Mutambara’s MDC held the balance in both houses and was duly rewarded with a deputy prime minister’s post as well as three full ministries.
When Mutambara was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister in February 11, 2009 with that infamous pause between “So help me…” and …“God,” it appeared his star was on the ascendancy. His peers in the UZ’s SRC who ventured into politics, Edgar Mbwembwe was just a member of the House of Assembly and Munyaradzi Gwisai had been fired as an MP six years earlier.
Mutambara, who had served as an academic, research scientist and management consultant in the United States and South Africa, appeared suited for the newly recreated post of DPM.
Despite his ascendency, Mutambara was always vulnerable mainly because he had failed to win an election, a fate that befell most of the party’s leadership. He faced a rebellion early on as MDC-M Members of the House of Assembly defied an order to vote Paul Themba Nyathi as House Speaker.
A failure to stamp his authority on the party led many to suspect that Mutambara was a mere figurehead with Ncube as the puppet master.
Mutambara’s views were in some instances at variance with the party’s position and this cost him the leadership of the party. There were cases where Mutambara was said to side with Mugabe and this further alienated him from the party leadership, not to mention the grassroots.
Dhewa Mavhinga, the coordinator of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition’s South African office, said Mutambara’s comments too often swung widely from the party position.
“For instance, praising Mugabe as a hero one minute and berating him in the next was so inconsistent and that became part of his legacy and may have harmed his party.”
He, however, pointed out that Mutambara’s decision not to contest party leadership was sensible and likely to win him respect and support in the long run.
Political analyst Trevor Maisiri said the downfall of Mutambara was a progressive rollout of a plan which could have been hatched when the MDC split.
“Ncube could not rise immediately then. He would have been seen as power-hungry thus had to look for a stop-gap measure,” said Maisiri. Media reports have suggested that Mutambara was likely to inherit Ncube’s position as Industry minister, a position which means he would now be required to balance between his own position and that of the party.
Should he retain his lofty position in government due to some technicality, the axe of recall will forever be hanging above his political head, drawing parallels to the fate of former South African President Thabo Mbeki who was booted out of office after he lost the leadership of the party to Jacob Zuma.
While the ouster of Mutambara has been couched in the language of leadership renewal, a UZ political science professor, Eldred Masunungure, said the changes were mere elite recycling.
“If Mutambara is replaced by Ncube then there is not much (leadership renewal) because Ncube was in the leadership (as secretary general),” said Masunungure.
Mutambara, who put a brave face on the eve of the New Year saying he would bounce back as “head of state”, is likely to make an abrupt exit into the political wilderness unless or until someone else picks him up and dusts him down for another office.
“Politics being usually unpredictable, he (Mutambara) might eventually resurrect politically,” said political analyst, Jack Zaba. “But the chances of him having a political resurrection within the MDC-M formation are highly unlikely. It is increasingly becoming clear that if he decides to get back into politics, he might as well need to migrate to a different political formation like the MDC-T or even Zanu PF to seek refuge and exorcism of his political ghosts.”