The Chamisa Effect – and the hope for a New Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe’s main opposition party is seeking to build on the momentum it generated during the 2018 presidential election. DiA’s very own Obert Hodzi reflects on the leadership of Nelson Chamisa and whether or not it represents a new dawn.

Nelson Chamisa, the unopposed president of the Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance (MDC-A) recently announced the members of his National Executive Committee. The appointments are not surprising – in many respects, they are a culmination of his take-over from the old guard that Morgan Tsvangirai trusted for decades, to a relatively new breed. From the onset, Chamisa has emphasised, on every occasion, that the future of the party and Zimbabwe is the youth. With the new appointments, there is no doubt that the generational shift seem to be conclusive: MDC-A is now firmly in the hands of former Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) and NGO activists, and Chamisa is secure. This process has generated considerable optimism among both party activists, civil society groups and some in the international community. A number of those appointed, including women’s rights activist Maureen Kademaunga – new MDC Secretary for Public Service and Social Welfare – have already brought fresh ideas to the table. But a number of significant challenges remain.

New structures

Beyond the appointments, Chamisa also announced a raft of changes to the party’s institutional makeup. Major among the changes is returning to one vice-president instead of the current three. That the MDC felt it necessary to return to the original position, soon after a congress that elected three vice-presidents, suggests this change may be a direct consequence of the controversy that surrounded Chamisa’s rise to power following the death of Morgan Tsvangirai. But moving back to one vice-president may be difficult, especially considering rumours that Tendai Biti, one of the three vice presidents refers to himself as the “first vice president”. If the matter is not skilfully handled, this could be a ticking time bomb that may threaten the party, and cause another split. Time will tell.

There will also be challenges elsewhere. An Independent Tribunal and the Appeals Tribunal for resolving internal disputes are essential for any political party. But, they can also be instruments of purging political opponents – as has been the case before. In this light, Chamisa’s reference to the need for these bodies due to the problem of stubborn people in the party may just have been a poor choice of words, but may be revealing of the real intention of the two bodies. One would hope that Harrison Nkomo, Chair of the Independent Tribunal and Chris Mhike, Chair of the Appeals Tribunal will exercise fairness, and be the professionals that they are. The conduct of internal elections has been the main source of grievances in the MDC –  in the past, reports of delegate intimidation and manipulation of structures were not fully dealt with, and there is a risk that history will be repeated. Again, while disgruntled members may be cowed for now, it is possible that they will serve as the source of future disruption if they are not well managed.

It would be a mistake, however, to place too great an emphasis on structures and institutions, as one of the main issues facing the MDC historically has been that these have not always been respected. In the opposition’s current incarnation, Chamisa is that strong individual just as much as his predecessor, Morgan Tsvangirai, was before. A ray of hope in this regards is the reintroduction of term limits, which had been removed to accommodate Morgan Tsvangirai, who had gone well beyond them. The argument then was that you can’t change a commander in the middle of a battle, especially if the commander is the ‘best foot forward.’ That argument continued even after Morgan Tsvangirai was terminally ill, and obviously incapacitated. It will be important for the MDC to ensure that rules such as this are respected in future, and that Chamisa is not allowed to stay in power indefinitely. Implementing restrictions on those in power is what separates Africa’s democratic countries and parties from authoritarian ones such as Rwanda and ZANU-PF.

Its the economy, stupid!

New individuals and institutions have given the opposition a valuable boost, but what really matters to the general populace is whether the MDC can given them a better functioning economy with jobs and public services. Simply voting on the grounds of the calibre of a party’s structures and principles is a luxury that many Zimbabweans cannot afford. This means that the MDC will need to focus on how to win further hearts and minds, and how to persuade people that it can defeat the ruling party given the vast advantages of incumbency that it enjoys.

For example, the MDC would benefit from deciding on whether they are fighting for a dialogue with ZANU-PF leading to a transitional authority, or they are preparing for the 2023 elections. This is an ‘either or’ question – it cannot be both. In his press statement on 20 June 2019, Chamisa reiterated that the MDC are the real government and will set up an alternative cabinet while they increase political and diplomatic pressure on Mnangagwa to agree to dialogue with them. The risk with this strategy is that it deflects attention away from building party structures and developing a stronger machinery with which to fight the next election. It has been a year since the last election, and the illegitimacy argument has not delivered any tangible results for the opposition, so there seems little point in continuing with this tactic.

It is also unclear what the MDC would get out of “dialogue”. Chamisa has rightly argued that past transitions, have been false transitions. The 1987 dialogue between ZANU-PF and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party strengthened ZANU-PF, and so did the Government of National Unity between the MDC and ZANU-PF in 2008-13. In all these transitional mechanisms, ZANU-PF emerged stronger. Given this, it is unclear exactly how the transitional mechanism proposed by Chamisa will deliver the comprehensive reforms and credible elections that previous arrangements that included the MDC did not. Especially in the context of the recent democratic backsliding under president Emmerson Mnangagwa, it seems unlikely that the MDC would have its demands met, or be able to force ZANU-PF into genuine concessions. When a journalist asked Chamisa how he will make a stubborn president compromise, his response that “we are asking for the breeze of wisdom to blow across his face and visit his mind” suggested that the MDC lacks an understanding as to exactly how concessions would be extracted – something that ZANU-PF understands only too well.

Gaining ground

The challenge of facing an entrenched ruling party notwithstanding, Chamisa has made inroads into what was a predominantly ZANU-PF enclave – the traditional chiefs. By gaining the support of Chief Nhlanhlayamangwe Ndiweni and setting up plans to include freedom fighters in its structures, Chamisa may be able to capitalise on popular frustrations with ZANU-PF rule. Traditional leaders are particularly important in this regard as they will enable the MDC to reach into rural areas. In many ways, Zimbabwe is a bifurcated state, which tends to see different voting patterns in rural and urban areas.

Urbanites strongly support Chamisa, both because they feel the effects of the collapsed economy and because they understand MDC’s language of human rights, political legitimacy and economic management. By contrast, rural dwellers, living under traditional and customary institutions, feel the effects of bad governance but have not always responded as positively to the MDC’s message, and may respond less and have tended to face great pressure to back the government. If Chamisa can start to dismantle the rural local state that has sustained ZANU-PF rule and start to bridge the gap between urban and rural voters – a process that began around the 2018 polls – it will change the electoral playing field. Not only will the MDC win more votes, but the opposition will also be in a better position to disrupt and challenge the architecture that the government has established to manipulate elections. And if that happens, Nelson Chamisa might just be able to secure the presidency in 2023.


Obert Hodzi is co-editor of Democracy in Africa

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