Zimbabwe’s “opposition” leaders collude with ZANU-PF to allow President Mnangagwa to stay in power

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Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is in talks with senior “opposition” figures in a move that could lead to the extension of his term in office and the life of the parliament. In a development that will send shockwaves throughout the country, it has emerged that ZANU-PF has hatched a plan to ensure that Mnangagwa is not forced to step down when he completes his second term in office in 2028. Instead, the ruling party is set to do a backroom deal with compromised leaders from within the Citizen’s Coalition for Change (CCC) party to effectively extend the term in office of all sitting politicians.

This would benefit ZANU-PF leaders, who have grown increasingly unpopular, by enabling them to hide from popular anger and dissatisfaction. It would also be a way for President Mnangagwa, who has failed to deliver on his early promises of change, to remain in power without actually having to explicitly state that he wishes to break the constitution and have a third term in office.

The deal has also been packaged in a way that would benefit some CCC leaders as well. Postponing legislative elections will allow all sitting MPs to retain their positions, and defer the need to fight a costly election. This will be particularly attractive to those CCC leaders who are accused of being government pawns who have taken over the party by stealth.

Those close to the talks say that apart from his desire to cling onto power beyond 2028, President Mnangagwa is also hoping that an inclusive government would bolster his flagging legitimacy. A unity government would also enable ZANU-PF to be able to extend patronage and influence to its allies within CCC, and to win over some CCC legislators who continue to oppose the government. This is likely to be critical as any proposal to enable President Mnangagwa to remain in power will result in further divisions within the opposition, and a popular outcry.

Because those who are entertaining this plan know they will probably never be forgiven by sections of the electorate, they are said to be lobbying hard for government positions so that they are insulated from ire of opposition stalwarts and voters.

Such a deal between the government and the main opposition party is only possible because of a bizarre turn of events that has hollowed out the CCC and led to the resignation of leader Nelson Chamisa’s back in January. The latest episode of opposition collapse began when Sengezo Tshabangu – until then a little known figure – declared himself to be the CCC’s interim Secretary General. Despite the protestations of Chamisa and his allies, he then proceeded to recall elected CCC leaders on the basis that they had not been legitimate candidates. While figures close to Chamisa were barred from contesting the by-elections by the courts, Tshabangu failed to field CCC candidates in a number of cases, allowing the seats to be captured by the ruling party.

This led to the widespread perception that Tshabangu was a ZANU-PF plant designed to undermine Chamisa’s leadership and CCC cohesion. The recalls only stopped after Chamisa’s resignation, and have left a weakened opposition that is fragmented along a number of lines. Similar suspicions now extend to other CCC leaders who did not leave with Chamisa, and these will now ramp up following the latest revelations.

Tshabangu, now a CCC senator, says that informal talks with ZANU-PF have been taking place both “inside and outside Parliament”, with the proposals coming from ZANU-PF. According to Tshabangu, sympathetic CCC leaders are now waiting for a position paper from ZANU-PF that he – as Secretary General and hence the most senior member in Parliament – would lead the negotiations on. Tshabangu is clear that one of his key demands is the formation of an inclusive government. “They want an inclusive arrangement, an extension of the term. For us to move on, there should be a reconfiguration of government. We should be part of that government”, he said.

Tshabangu’s argument that he should lead the negotiation process is likely to anger other leaders such as former Industry Minister Welshman Ncube, who was appointed acting CCC president by one faction of the party after Chamisa’s departure. However, when it comes to their position on a possible deal, Ncube and Tshabangu are in lock-step.

In an interview, Ncube said that while no formal talks were underway with ZANU-PF, the CCC was pushing for political dialogue. When it comes to the content of any talks, Ncube was clear that “everything will be on the table” and he would agree to a unity government if it provided that it would resolve country’s economic and political problems.

“Our approach to dialogue is that you take nothing off the table. Everything is on the table until it’s taken off the table by the process of negotiation. Our philosophy is that everything is on the table until it is taken off. If we then have an inclusive government so that the economy delivers for the people, so that politics delivers for the people, so be it,” said Ncube.

In a particularly telling comment about the willingness of opposition leaders to betray the democratic principles on which the Movement for Democratic Change and the CCC were formed, Ncube argued that there is a need to break with a cycle that seems to suggest that the country “lives for elections.”

As these interviews suggest, there seems to be considerable interest in a unity government from among the ranks of the CCC. Indeed, one of the party’s own spokespeople, Nqobizitha Mlilo, who was recently reported to have proposed postponing the 2028 harmonised elections to allow for the creation of a government of national unity.

For his part Chris Mutsvangwa, spokesperson for ZANU-PF, stated that the proposal to extend the life of parliament was coming from the CCC.

Whoever initiated the plans, they are likely to be highly controversial and to spell the end of the CCC as an opposition movement of any kind. If developments continue in their current direction, more genuine opposition MPs will feel compelled to quit the party, and discussions will turn to what kind of unity government might be constructed.  

Political analysts such as Ricky Mukonza have been quick to point out that any government that does not include civil society leaders and Nelson Chamisa would not be inclusive in any meaningful sense of the word. “I think ED [President Mnangagwa] can objectively see that a sole ZANU PF government is failing to govern effectively, especially in relation to the economy. The government also lacks legitimacy whether within the country (citizens) or from other countries. This is an attempt by him to deal with the issue of legitimacy. He is likely to face challenges from ZANU PF hardliners who may feel that they are losing power in this whole process,” he said.

Mukonza’s final line is a key one. Ironically, given the lack of resistance to the postponement of elections within the CCC, the greatest challenge to Mnangagwa’s plans may come from his rivals within ZANU-PF. If the man known as the crocodile extends his stay in State House indefinitely, it will thwart the presidential ambitions of others, such as Mnangagwa’s deputy and former army general, Constantine Chiwenga. In March Mnangagwa’s biographer, Eddie Cross ruled out Chiwenga succeeding his boss, stating that Chiwenga knew that he was never going to be President “even for five minutes”, despite playing a key role in the coup that brought Mnangagwa to power.

Chiwenga may still want to see power rotating, however, as may others in ZANU-PF and the army who have been disappointed by Mnangagwa’s leadership. Given the CCC’s compromised state, they may just represent the best hope for preserving the country’s multiparty system.

Clemence Manyukwe is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist.

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