BSR: Election Time and the Return of Mugabe

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When Robert Mugabe died in September 2019, the man who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years had made sure that he wouldn’t go down without a fight. They may have toppled him from power, but he would throw one last shot from the grave

His last act of defiance was to refuse to be buried at the National Heroes Acre, the cemetery where ZANU PF buries its heroes. For the 37 years that he was in power, Mugabe had presided over scores of funerals of his peers and subordinates, most of them from the liberation war days. In some cases, their wishes did not matter. 

Everyone believed Mugabe’s remains would one day be interred at that cemetery. There was even an empty grave next to his first wife Sally’s grave, which was thought to be reserved for him. But Mugabe being Mugabe, he was not going to let anyone determine his resting place. 

The refusal was a symbolic after-life punch directed at his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa. By refusing to be buried at the national shrine, he denied Mnangagwa a grand stage upon which to pontificate as the new sheriff in town. A master of funeral politics, Mugabe knew the political significance of his funeral for Mnangagwa and his allies. He had shed so many crocodile tears at the same spot and he wasn’t going to allow his successor the same pleasure. 

Mugabe was buried in the courtyard of his rural home in Zvimba. Meanwhile, Mnangagwa had commissioned the building of a mausoleum at the Heroes Acre. The siting of Mugabe’s grave is still a subject of legal wrangles ostensibly pitting his widow Grace and local traditional leaders. But most people see it as a battle that’s being driven from the very top of the national leadership, with traditional leaders as mere instruments. 

One chief issued an order that Mugabe’s remains be exhumed for reburial at the national shrine. He even fined Mugabe’s widow, Grace. Mugabe’s children waded into the legal fight. The matter is currently in abeyance but hangs above the family’s heads like a sword of Damocles. 

The significance of Mugabe’s last act of defiance is that it was a vote of no confidence in Mnangagwa, a political statement of disapproval. Although he accepted that Mnangagwa was the President after the 2018 elections, in his heart, he never quite acknowledged his legitimacy. It’s fair to say the old man was bitter to the very end and never forgave his long-time lieutenant for his act of betrayal in carrying out a military coup that toppled him from power.

But no one could have guessed that three years after his demise, Mugabe would still be hovering around the centre stage of Zimbabwean politics. His widow once remarked at a rally during his last days in power that he would rule from a wheelchair and if need be, he would continue to rule from the grave. She was mocking Mnangagwa and others who were gunning for Mugabe’s throne, but as it turns out, Mugabe’s hand is still very much in play. 

On 23 March, there was much excitement and speculation when Mugabe’s eldest son, Robert Junior made a rare appearance at a Zanu PF star rally in Chitungwiza. Was he there on free-will? Had he been coerced? Is he under pressure? Is it self-preservation? Is he making a foray into politics? There were many questions. Some thought the young Mugabe had been coerced into attending. Others thought he was there to protect his family and its assets in Zimbabwe. Some thought he was a little subdued for the occasion. But whatever the case, the ZANU PF mandarins and apparatchiks on social media were certainly excited. 

It was ironic to see Chris Mutsvangwa, ZANU PF spokesperson and one of Mugabe’s most virulent critics who always rail against the G40 faction of ZANU PF appearing very animated in the company of Mugabe’s son. “Having Robert here is very inspiring, it’s very reassuring,” gushes an excited Mutsvangwa. Soon another picture emerged of Mutsvangwa alongside Bona’s Mugabe’s daughter and her husband Simba Chikore. The timing suggests efforts at courting the Mugabe family back into ZANU PF or the family seeking a way in. The Mugabe’s have stayed off the political limelight since the patriarch was toppled by the November 2017 coup. It was an ignominious fall for a family that had occupied centre-stage in public life for 37 years. Mugabe’s children were born during his presidency. They enjoyed the trappings of power and had known no other life apart from being members of the First Family.

But to their credit, they seem to have taken the fall well, accepting their place off the big stage and remaining in the shadows. Grace Mugabe had become highly influential and visible between 2014 and 2017 as she propelled a faction that was fighting off Mnangagwa’s faction in the succession race. She taunted Mnangagwa, relentlessly dressing him down at political rallies. In those short 3 years, it seemed the unthinkable could happen, that she could succeed her aging husband. The coup put paid to any ambitions that she might have harboured. But she took the defeat well and retreated away from public affairs. Only recently she appeared at a funeral of a political ally, Sarah Mahoka, a reminder of her loyalty to her old friends despite the current circumstances of political adversity.

Mnangagwa’s passage to power via the coup would probably not have been sanctioned by regional leaders without undertakings to respect and protect the Mugabe family. For all his flaws and misdeeds, Mugabe still retained the respect of his regional peers. Therefore, after the coup, Mugabe’s pension and benefits were retained. He continued to receive specialist medical treatment in Singapore, where he eventually died. His substantial wealth, including businesses and multiple farms, was protected. In 2020, months after Mugabe’s death, Mnangagwa issued a decree giving a lavish set of pension and benefits to spouses of former presidents. The beneficiary was Grace, although Mnangagwa has a personal interest in this as his wife is set to be a future beneficiary.

What then might be the reason for the apparent resurrection of the Mugabes in public life? In truth, the Mugabe name has never left the political stage. It has been framed either as an asset or liability depending on one’s political inclination. When Mugabe expressed his preference for Chamisa before the 2018 elections, Mnangagwa and his allies taunted him for being aligned with the G40 faction, their succession nemesis. When Mwonzora broke away from Chamisa, he used the same line to criticize his old ally. For his part, Chamisa knows that while the favours shown by Mugabe might seem like a liability, there are some benefits that his rivals would take if they had them.

Although they publicly mocked Chamisa, ZANU PF was frustrated and annoyed by Mugabe’s snub. He was their leader for decades and he had become an institution in their party. There remains a political constituency, especially in the Mashonaland region, that still identifies with Mugabe. Many of these people sympathize with the Mugabes and harbour concerns over how he was treated in 2017. When Mugabe declared favour for Chamisa in 2018, many of these people may have followed his lead and voted for Chamisa. 

Publicly ZANU PF mandarins might despise G40, but to the extent that it is associated with Mugabe, they would love to court its supporters rather than leave them up for grabs. ZANU PF is not as solid as it was under Mugabe’s reign. Reaching out to the Mugabe family is one way to restore the lost fortunes of a political party that is in decline and a leader who has never warmed hearts across the country.

But what’s in it for the Mugabe family? After all, the family patriarch died a bitter man, never forgiving the men who had removed him from power by force of the gun. They must surely have listened to his grumbling and frustrations during his final days? Have they forgotten the pain that their father went through? Would they go against his wishes? One plausible explanation might be rooted in the political economy theory. It is that there is a convergence of interests that has driven the two parties to find common ground. 

Although the Mugabes acquired enormous wealth during Mugabe’s presidency, wealth is not finite. They may have been accumulators of wealth but without a capitalist mindset, where money is turned into a commodity and a commodity is then turned into more money, this wealth depreciates very fast. The waning fortunes of the Gushungo Dairy business illustrate this predicament.

The Mugabes are not alone in this. Most politicians that accumulate wealth when they have access to power tend to struggle after the end of power. They would have appeared like excellent businesspeople only because they had access to freebies from the state. When you acquire inputs at no cost, it’s hard to fail because whatever you produce is a profit. But once you lose access to those cheap inputs, the cost of doing business rises and without proper management, the enterprise will struggle.

Likewise, properties that are acquired during times of plentiful power are not always guaranteed when power is lost. They become vulnerable to those in power, and they let you know so that you become beholden to them. Mnangagwa has spoken of taking properties from those who own multiple farms. The Mugabes would be affected if this were implemented. The threat has not been carried out but, just like the legal wrangles over Mugabe’s burial, the presence of the threat is enough to keep the Mugabes in check, to remind them to play ball. 

And although Mnangagwa issued that decree of lavish pension and benefits to Mugabe’s widow, it gives him so much power that he can turn off the tap as a reminder of her vulnerability. There can be delays in payments, the pensions might be eroded by inflation, and there might even be withdrawal of benefits so that what appears on paper is not reflected in practice. There might be inconveniences such as switching off power at the main residence or businesses. He only needs to turn the screws to squeeze the family and it has no choice but to comply. 

We do not know what has caused the change and made young Robert grace ZANU PF’s rally after so long, but as Achebe would say, a toad does not jump in broad daylight unless something is after its life. But one way to read it is that the Mugabe name is still valuable political currency in Zanu PF politics. It is probably a sign of desperate times that Mnangagwa has had to call on Mugabe, the man he toppled, to shore up his waning political fortunes. Mnangagwa always was the water-carrier for Mugabe; the assistant who dutifully served his principal until ambition drove him to wrestle power from him.

But he has never been his own man. Always in the shadow of the big man, he managed to avoid serious scrutiny and judgment. But 5 years after leaving that shadow, Mnangagwa’s limitations have been severely exposed. No wonder his allies have had to run around to fetch a Mugabe for cover. As it happens, the tall Robert Jr literally towers over Mnangagwa and his lieutenants. Whether that will draw enough cover for the electorally exposed Mnangagwa is another question. Wherever he is, Mugabe must have been wearing a wry smile at the sights at the rally, smirking at how the man who toppled him is now seeking his son to shore up a porous campaign.

Indeed, the ghost of Mugabe seemed to pervade the entire rally in Chitungwiza. There was a hilarious moment when the Goodwills Masimirembwa, ZANU PF Chairman for Harare Metropolitan Province made a faux pas when he was welcoming Mnangagwa.  

“Mauya Gushungo!” he said, which translates to “Welcome Gushungo!”. Gushungo is Mugabe’s clan name. The chairman was calling Mnangagwa by Mugabe’s clan name! There was a brief attempt at ululation from a member of the crowd, probably a reflex response before a realization of the chairman’s error. Oblivious of his error, Masimirembwa ploughed on until the audience’s murmurs grew to a crescendo, accompanied by shouting and whistling. In a panic, a perplexed Masimirembwa swerved his head sideways. Someone was obviously correcting him.

“Sorry, sorry, Your Excellency …” the mortified chairman pleaded, repeating the double apology for emphasis. “Tinoti mauya Shumba Murambwi …”, he said. (We say welcome Shumba Murambwi), this time getting Mnangagwa’s clan name right.

A Freudian slip probably. A Freudian slip, also called parapraxis, is an error of speech that is linked to the unconscious mind. When such a slip happens, it reveals secret thoughts and feelings that the person holds; what a person is really thinking. If welcoming Mugabe to the rally was a Freudian slip, the question is how many more people apart from the chairman have secret yearnings for Mugabe? And what does that mean for Mnangagwa, five years after he grabbed power from the old man?  

By-elections

On 26 March many Zimbabweans go to the polls in by-elections across the country. These by-elections are meant to fill vacancies in parliament and local authorities. Most of these vacancies arose from the recall by the MDC-T of elected representatives that were elected under the MDC Alliance at the 2018 general elections. Others were caused by the death of MPs. These by-elections should have been held over the past 2 years, but the vacancies remained unfilled because the government banned all elections citing the pandemic.

There are 3 principal contestants in these by-elections, namely the Citizens Coalition of Change, ZANU PF, and the MDC-T which is trading under the label of the MDC Alliance. The by-elections present a moment of reckoning for the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora. The electorate will remember that most of these costly by-elections would not have been necessary had the MDC-T exercised forbearance and restraint ahead of the rampant recalls that were motivated by vengeance.

For most opposition voters, this is an opportunity to correct a historic wrong that assaulted the foundations of democracy. Most voters will remember that when they voted in 2018, they were voting for the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa. They will also remember how horrified they were when they learned that the MPs and councillors they had voted for could be recalled first by Dr Thokozani Khupe, whom they had defeated and later by Mwonzora. This happened because, with the support of ZANU PF and compromised institutions, the two were allowed to tamper with the will of the people.

Most voters will remember that these recalls were done without even consulting them. Both Khupe and Mwonzora did not care for the opinion of voters. They were only interested in pursuing vengeance using ill-gotten powers. The by-elections present an opportunity for the voters to demonstrate who between the voters and the politicians is king in electoral politics. They were disrespected by Mwonzora and now it’s an opportunity to remind him that voters matter. Khupe and Mwonzora have since had a fallout with Khupe now pledging to support candidates of the CCC. This is a vote of no confidence in Mwonzora, her former ally.

While some CCC supporters are finding it difficult to come to terms with Khupe’s volte-face, the issue is not whether to accept her as a leader. A party does not choose its supporters, but it can choose its leaders. The fact that Khupe has chosen to support the CCC is not a problem for the party but a vote of confidence by a rival. If you want power, you do not have the luxury of discriminating against voters. There is no doubt that Khupe caused torment to the party and its members over the past 2 years. She even got into parliament on the back of the expulsion of legitimately elected MPs. She was part of the cabal that saw the party losing its headquarters and public funding. Indeed, had she retained power in the MDC-T she would still be a serious rival. She has changed not because she has come to her senses but because she found herself politically homeless. But if she is supporting the CCC in the electoral contest, it is not for the CCC to reject her support. Political parties are not in the business of rejecting votes when they are contesting elections.      

The by-elections also present an opportunity to register a vote of no confidence in the regime’s performance since it came into power. The election is the one occasion when people have a chance to either reward the incumbent by voting for them or punish them by voting for the alternative. The Mnangagwa regime arrived with great promises in 2017, but its performance has generally been dismal. Zimbabwe is still stuck in an economic swamp. Politically, Zimbabwe is still stuck in a stalemate. Internationally, the agenda of re-engagement has failed to bear fruit. It’s a terrible sign when citizens think things were better under Mugabe, whose rule was legendary for its ineptitude.

Both Mwonzora and Khupe allowed themselves to be instrumentalized by the regime to decimate the main opposition. High on rented power, they betrayed the people who had faithfully voted for their representatives. The Mnangagwa regime set out to decimate the MDC Alliance using two strategies: co-optation and coercion. They found willing allies in Khupe and Mwonzora, whom they handed control of the MDC Alliance, effectively grabbing it from Chamisa and his allies. But the authoritarian project failed. The resurgence of the opposition under the guise of the CCC has demonstrated the resilience of the people and that they have the wisdom to distinguish between the real and the genuine. A vote for CCC candidates would be the perfect conclusion to a chapter in which the regime tried and failed to destroy the main opposition.

The by-elections also present important challenges for the CCC. It must show that it has learned lessons from its predecessors in past elections. Although it is a new political party, all CCC leaders and members have considerable experience in elections when they traded as the MDC. They have demonstrated that they can build afresh, but the by-elections test their capacity to overcome past habits. The fielding of double candidates in some wards was a disappointing early sign of old habits dying hard, but the key is how the party monitors the election and protects the vote.

The CCC will get no prizes for saying that the electoral system is rigged. That is already known, and they are going into this election in the full knowledge of the impediments placed in their way. The challenge as ever is whether it has developed suitable mechanisms to overcome these hurdles. When you are operating in an authoritarian environment, it’s clear that you will be fighting against the odds because institutions are usually compromised. You know it’s a fight in which one of your hands will be tied at the back and if you decide to fight you have to be ready to work within the limitations.

One of the reasons for participating in these by-elections is to test the electoral system before the main election in 2023 and gather evidence for electoral reform advocacy. Some ask why the opposition continues to participate in flawed elections. Elections in authoritarian environments are always flawed, but success is incremental, you keep knocking the system. There is nothing to be gained from boycotting elections unless the opposition has sufficient leverage which will mean the boycott delegitimizes the electoral process. Since authoritarian regimes don’t like elections, they are happy if their main rival boycotts. They simply proceed with their surrogates.

These by-elections are a useful tool for enhancing regional and international advocacy for electoral reforms before 2023. Already, participation in the election campaigns has revealed key challenges with the electoral system that undermine the legitimacy of elections. The role of the police and its institutional bias, a shambolic voters’ roll, biased public media, ZEC’s incompetence, and bias are all factors that have once again emerged prominently in these by-elections’ campaigns. It has been better to experience these problems now rather than in 2023 when it would have been too late to do anything.

The opposition and civil society have a fresh and verifiable body of evidence that can be used for reform advocacy. The question is whether they are meticulously documenting the electoral malpractices and abuses to make a cogent case in the regional and international courts of peers that the electoral process in Zimbabwe is incapable of producing a legitimate outcome. It is such an incontrovertible body of evidence that makes the case for an effective boycott in the event of refusal to effect reforms. 

The by-elections are an important dry run for the 2023 elections. The political parties have their battles to fight. The CCC wants to correct the wrongs that it feels were committed against it when the MDC-T aided by ZANU PF removed its elected representatives. The MDC-T wants to prove that it is the legitimate opposition and that it was right to recall the elected representatives. This is the time for the court of public opinion to pronounce judgment. The CCC has served notice with an impressive set of rallies, but it all boils down to what happens at the ballot box. 

For ZANU PF, it would like to frustrate the CCC and spoil the party. The way the regime has abused institutions, including the police, public media, and ZEC demonstrates its serious intent. But the body that is under serious test and scrutiny in this election is ZEC. Its suitability as an electoral referee has long been questioned by the opposition and civil society. International observers have made recommendations for improvement. The conduct of the by-elections so far does not inspire confidence. A failure to run a credible by-election that produces a legitimate outcome will be an ominous sign for the 2023 elections. There have been red flags already, but it has election day to redeem itself. 

WaMagaisa