BSR: what about the gunners?


There’s a group of young men sitting on a broken slab that covers a long-contested water drain at the corner of the road. Joe, a tall, lanky chap with a freshly-shaved head is smoking a cigarette while his friend, Tom, waits anxiously for his turn. “Ndikatirewoka wangu,” Tom says to Joe, anxious that his friend might have forgotten him. It’s the last cigarette they have.

Givhi is watching closely to make sure Mhoze doesn’t finish the bottle of Chibuku Super, which he has been holding and drinking for a while. It’s the only one they have. If they finish it they will have to resort to a cheap but potent brew they have in reserve.

Joe doesn’t drink. He prefers marijuana. “These things keep us sane, Mdhara” they say, explaining themselves. Marijuana transports him into a different world, explains Joe.

I notice there’s a young chap lying motionless on a grass patch nearby. His eyes are wide open and one of his hands sticks out as if he’s reaching out for something. There is no sign of movement or indication that he is conscious of his surroundings. I ask if he is alright. The others laugh and say, “AkaSticker uyu, Mdhara!”

The young chap’s name is Charlie. He is thin and doesn’t look like someone who has been eating well for months. Apparently, he is a regular user of illegal and highly intoxicating substances that are awash in Harare. He will be like that for a while, they say. But he will be ok, they assure me. “Don’t worry Mdhara. Atori bho ipapa! Zvake zvaita” (Don’t worry, he’s doing just fine in that state).

I get the sense that this is normal. It doesn’t look good but this is their life, a life that, in part, dire circumstances have cruelly imposed upon their young lives.

I had just met them in the neighbourhood as I took a walk. I was wearing an Arsenal shirt when one of them shouted Gunners – it turned out he is also a fan. We found comfort in solidarity while the others taunted us. We ended up having a long and diverse conversation.

They finished different levels of education a few years ago. They are young and were ambitious once but their dreams are ebbing away with each passing day. I ask if they have registered to vote. Only half have registered. The others have no interest.

“Madhinhiwe aya Mdhara,” says Joe, pointing towards his friends. They can’t be bothered, they surrendered a long time ago. Joe speaks with the authority of the leader of the group. I learn later that he is the most educated of the group. He holds a post-graduate degree in economics but has never worked. There are no jobs for these young men. They are all thinking of leaving to join the ever-growing Zimbabwean Diaspora.

They thought things had turned in November last year. But 6 months later, little has changed to make their lives any better. Back in October, they sat at this corner, passing time and watching the world go by. It’s April and they are still at the corner of the road. Nothing is changing. “We marched. But here we are …” says Joe. “Takaitiswa!” (We were used) says Tom, who is always laughing. Life for Tom has turned out to be one big joke.

“We will vote, Mdhara don’t worry,” says Mhoze who by now has switched to the other brew because the bottle of Chibuku Super is finished.

“Ko maGunners, Mdhara?” he asks with considerable concern written all over his face. “Panoti maGunners apa, Mdhara!” adds Tom, laughing raucously as if he had just discovered something very amusing.

If you did not know you would think it was still a football conversation. The Gunners is a moniker for Arsenal. Except that here the lads were referring to the soldiers, the Zimbabwean army.

Their question reveals a lingering fear among ordinary Zimbabweans: what will the army do? Will the soldiers accept defeat of the incumbent? Will they stand aside if the incumbent is defeated? Will they even allow Mnangagwa and ZANU PF to lose? Will there be a smooth transfer of power if the opposition wins? Could they give up power so soon after they grabbed it from Mugabe?

The boys were asking tough but legitimate questions.

This week, the issue burst into the spotlight when a government minister declared that the military would not allow Chamisa and the MDC Alliance to take power. He was addressing a political gathering. The video which first appeared on social media was soon picked up by local and international media. “Army won’t let Chamisa rule: Minister,” Newsday, a private daily announced on Wednesday. Bloomberg, eNCA and others soon took it to the international stage.

On Friday, The Daily News, another private daily led with the headline, “ED will shoot to keep power,” words attributed to one of Mnangagwa’s ministers and loyalists. The story first appeared in Masvingo’s provincial paper, The Mirror. According to Hungwe, who has made making reckless statements a habit, if Mnangagwa could shoot to power as he did in November, then nothing could stop him from doing the same in order to keep power.

These are chilling words from the president’s appointees.

But it’s also bad news for Mnangagwa and his administration. For months he has led an elaborate charm offensive around the world, telling everyone that he is a democrat and promising a free, fair and credible election. His ministers are busting the myth of openness and tolerance that his administration has been trying to build. Mnangagwa is acutely aware that he needs to establish legitimacy. Statements by Mukupe and Hungwe run contrary to the narrative he has been trying to sell to the world.

Mnangagwa is also acutely aware of the fact that the Achilles Heel of his administration is the close association with the military which catapulted him to power last November. There is a perception of a disproportionate influence of the military and this is not good for legitimacy. The last thing he wants is a reaffirmation of this narrative of military control; of the idea that the military will not yield to the democratic will of the people.

Yet, some think it’s all part of the plan. The electorate must be reminded that there is a greater power behind Mnangagwa. Mukupe and Hungwe are not hallucinating. They are simply reminding people of the reality. It may be why they are not getting firmer sanctions from their superiors. They are the unit sent to put in a word; to condition citizens to the reality of the military power behind ZANU PF’s campaign.

Even if its doesn’t condition them, the fear is that it might intimidate a section of the voters, especially in the rural areas. They have always suspected the military might play a role and now that ministers are saying it so plainly, it reinforces the fear. If so there is some method in Mukupe and Hungwe’s apparent madness. those who have taken to the ruling party’s rhetoric must take note. These statements seriously threaten the election’s legitimacy.   .

It would be naïve to ignore the significance of these statements by Mukupe and Hungwe. It’s not the first time that a ZANU PF official has made outrageous comments regarding the military’s role in the forthcoming elections. ZANU PF’ political commissar, Engelbert Rugeje, himself a military man who took up the role after last year’s coup, was once widely rebuked after allegedly telling an audience that they would do a repeat of 2008, referring to the bloody period of the presidential run-off election. The military  intervened to help Mugabe retain power after losing the first round of elections to Morgan Tsvangirai.

In another incident, Chris Mutsvangwa who is a senior presidential adviser, was also forced to explain away his comments after allegedly stating that the army would have an active role in the election campaign.

So while the Mukupe and Hungwe statements may be outrageous, they follow a pattern. It’s only that the administration has been keen to keep away from the public arena. Now, however, Mukupe and Hungwe have burst the bubble.  Mnangagwa is concerned by the damage. Newfound friends in the international community are embarrassed by this flagrant show of political arrogance by members of his government.

The gravity of the matter is reflected by ZANU PF’s reaction in the wake of media reports. ZANU PF said Mukupe’s statements were “reckless and unfortunate,” in a terse statement. The statement is meant for the world. The administration knows that all eyes are on Zimbabwe and that Mukupe’s utterances are severely damaging. They have to be seen to be saying something. It’s a damage limitation exercise.

But the response falls short on many levels. One would have expected firmer action against such conduct. The Mukupe and Hungwe statements undermine the constitution. They reflect a blatant disregard for the constitutional order which, as ministers, they are sworn to obey and protect. It must worry voters and the international community that the ZANU PF statement is no more than a slap on the wrist.

The real worry for the opposition and the international community is that Mukupe’s and Hungwe’s  crime is that they have uttered in public what is being said or thought behind closed doors. Indeed, these are questions that most people have been asking outside the public arena. Perhaps this is what embarrasses ZANU PF the most: that, in the case of Mukupe, this latent fear has now been exposed and confirmed by a government minister. And now reinforced by Hungwe.

It was a fear that had been expressed by the lads at the corner of the road during our impromptu discussion. It was a fear that had been expressed by the women pamusika – the vegetable market. Vanoenda ivavo? (Will they agree to go?) they had also asked. It was a concern that had been raised by the villagers, indeed a matter that has been raised in the many bars around the country. The only difference is Mukupe has said it publicly and he is a government minister. The fear that ZANU PF will refuse to lose is ubiquitous across the land.

This is therefore, a call for reflection. It is important to reflect on the serious threat of what Mukupe and Hungwe expressed. Shall we condemn them and bury our heads in the sand, as if what they said is not a real threat? Shall we simply berate them because they have uttered a taboo? They have stated what we do not want to hear. But is it not a real threat? Is it not a legitimate concern? Are there any measures to prevent this threat? What can be done to minimise the risk? First, you have to acknowledge that it is a risk and map out strategies to manage it.

Indeed, there is no point pretending that the risk does not exist. History reminds us that the military has become an important pillar in our politics – a kingmaker of sorts. This did not begin last November when they led the toppling if Mugabe. The only reason parliament was able to impeach Mugabe was because the military had intervened and made that politically possible. The only reason ZANU PF was able to sack Mugabe was because they had been emboldened by the military intervention. Both parliament and the party simply dressed up the coup in the apparel of decency. It’s the soldiers who made Mnangagwa. They were the kingmakers.

But, as we have already observed, it was not the first time the military had played the role of kingmaker. They performed this role in 2008, after Mugabe faced defeat against Tsvangirai. The military intervention in the presidential run-off election saved Mugabe’s presidency. From then on, it was the military that made Mugabe. Since the 2002 presidential election top military generals had also shown their hand, issuing warnings against an opposition victory.

So the fears are not unfounded. There is a history which is unsettling. It has happened before and it could happen again. Chiwenga, Shiri, Moyo all top generals exchanged their military fatigues for the office suits just a few months ago. Did they do that in order to serve for just a few months? Can the events of last November be separated from the election? There is good reason for people to be concerned, especially when government reaction to these threats by ministers is so lukewarm.

Right now Mukupe and Hungwe are Mnangagwa’s problem. Their utterances have severely undermined the trust and confidence the world has in his word. In those countries that he is courting, a minister who goes offside in this manner would have either resigned or been sacked. His predecessor developed a habit of condoning outrageous conduct. Whatever their faults, Mugabe kept his ministers on the gravy train. This was an incentive for bad behaviour among ministers. They could do what they wanted because nothing would happen to them. If Mnangagwa wants to demonstrate that he is made of different stock, he must learn to act differently and take a tough line against irresponsible ministers.

But there is one motivating factor which gives some hope.

It is, as already hinted, that the most important issue in this election is legitimacy. One of the prices paid for the acceptance of what happened last November is that there is an expectation of restoration of legitimacy through a free, fair and credible election. Mnangagwa is well aware that there will be no progress without legitimacy. All his efforts at charming the international community will come to nought if the military is seen to have an active role in this election. If the military does indeed intervene, it’s goodbye to legitimacy and the next 5 years will be hellish for Zimbabwe.

When I met with the lads at the corner of the road in Harare, I did not have a ready answer for their questions. We met again later. I had brought with me a case of Chibuku Super so that we could while up time as we chatted. They were thankful. “MaSparker Mdhara,” they said, smiles and laughter all round. I said I wanted a sip but when I tried to open the bottle, Mhoze quickly offered to help. “Haivhurwe zvekumhanya Mdhara,” (You have to open carefully) he said, slowly turning the bottle top, a technique that revealed experience. Chibuku Super is a carbonated opaque beer and like a soda you have to open with care. He poured a full mug and I drank a little. It seemed to amuse them no end.

By this time young Charlie had recovered from his stupor and was fairly active. He was a different animal from the motionless body that I had observed earlier that day. Charlie was the youngest of the lot and also the funniest. His wild and unkempt hair gave him the appearance of an older man. At 17, he is not yet qualified to vote. But so keen was he to exercise the right and “change things” that he had tried his luck at the voter registration centre. They turned him away. Charlie turns 18 in November, just a few months after the election. He’s heartbroken that he cannot vote. He has even offered his older friends who aren’t bothered so that he votes on their behalf.

I think the desire for legitimacy is a strong incentive for everyone to behave in this election, I say when Joe reminded me of their earlier enquiry. Legitimacy? I saw that Tom was unsure what that was all about. For once he was not laughing. That resulted in a long lecture on legitimacy. But I did not want to go all technical about it.

We refer to the legitimacy of the State’s authority to govern; to exercise power over others. In the case of the State we ask for the legitimacy of a party’s authority to govern. Authority has legitimacy when it is accepted by consent rather than relying on coercion. One might have raw power without legitimacy. Legitimacy is what changes this power into authority. With legitimate authority, citizens do not comply because they are afraid but because they voluntarily accept the obligation to do so.

There are three pillars of legitimacy: first performance legitimacy or output legitimacy – whereby citizens give up their autonomy in return for benefits that the State gives. In this case, citizens accept certain restrictions as a necessary price to pay in exchange for the benefits of cooperating with the State.

The second is Procedural Legitimacy or input legitimacy – in this case legitimacy is the product of conforming to agreed and pre-determined rules of the game. Those who govern must comply with the right procedures. Thus a party that takes power is legitimate only if it is selected in accordance with electoral rules. There are other ways, besides elections which are perfectly legitimate – thus in hereditary monarchies, kings and queens are legitimate as long as they inherit power according to those rules. The Pope becomes head of the Catholic Church through a specific procedure and as long as it is followed, his authority is legitimate. Likewise, rules become legitimate only if they are produced in accordance with agreed rules.

The third is principled legitimacy – this derives from principles, beliefs, values or knowledge which are promoted by one group and accepted by others. Thus civil society organisations have authority based on the principles that they stand for and promote as long as they are accepted by others. Religious leaders, preachers, etc, earn their legitimacy in this way. Scientists and other professionals also derive their authority from the superior knowledge that they possess and claim.

In this case, while all three forms matter, it is procedural legitimacy that is key in this election. It is the lack of procedural legitimacy in particular that has been the great weakness of Mugabe’s government since the 2000 election. Mnangagwa knows this. It’s not so clear whether his colleagues in government understand it. The main question in this election is: how will the next government be elected. For it to have legitimacy, the next government must be elected in accordance with Zimbabwe’s electoral laws and also regional and international standards. But who will make this determination? Who will determine that procedural legitimacy is satisfied?

This is where election certifiers come in. These election certifiers are local, regional and international. They are the ones who pronounce whether or not election is free, fair and credible. The domestic certifiers include ZEC, the election management body and local observers. The international certifiers include regional and international observers such as SADC, the AU, the EU, US, China, etc. In the past, local and regional certifiers and some international certifiers had endorsed elections. But Western observers have withheld their certification and this has affected the legitimacy of elections.

This time, however, some in ZANU PF are desperate for the endorsement of these Western observers, hence the elaborate moves to woo the West in the last few months. They know that procedural legitimacy is key and they want it desperately. This is the best antidote to military influence because once the military is seen to be playing a role, it will rob the process of procedural legitimacy. They would not have respected the rules of the game. This indeed is why Mnangagwa must be worried by the conduct of his ministers – they are undoing all the work he has been trying to do in order to establish procedural legitimacy.

The boys nodded slowly, suggesting that it was sinking in. Even young Charlie was attentive, sitting very close to me and asking questions. It was clear that behind the fog of intoxicating substances, there was a sharp and enquiring mind. Whatever had made him “stick” earlier that day had surely dissolved into his system and lost potency. “Mationesa mdhara,” said Charlie as Mhoze echoed his effusive praise. “Muri dhara,” he said. We all laughed, Tom laughing the loudest. He pronounced himself a guru on the subject of legitimacy!

As we left, I told them I hoped the future would be brighter and that by this time next year they won’t be sitting by the corner of the road everyday with very little to do. Hatichada kumenya maPole Mdhara”, (we are tired of being idle) they said. “Mwari akuchengetei mdhara,” (May God bless you) said young Charlie as we drove away. “God bless you too, my brother” I said, with a smile and wave.