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Is Tsvangirai ready to step out of Mugabe shadow?

By Daniel Molokele

Robert Gabriel Mugabe (88) is the only political leader that Zimbabwe has ever known. Indeed as the country celebrates its 32nd independence anniversary, no other person has dominated the national political landscape as Mugabe.

Government of National Friction: Mugabe and Tsvangirai
Government of National Friction: Mugabe and Tsvangirai

He was elected as the executive Prime Minister of the country in 1980 in a set up that also involved the late Canaan Sodindo Banana as a largely ceremonial President. However after the signing of the Unity Accord with the late Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo of PF-Zapu on the 22nd December 1987, Mugabe managed to further exert his firm grip on the echelons of power in Zimbabwe.

By the end of 1988, he had managed to successfully push for a drastic constitutional amendment that led to the setting up of a new powerful post of the Executive Presidency. The office of the Prime Minister was abolished while at the same time, Banana who was 12 years younger than Mugabe, was asked to go into political retirement.

In the process, Mugabe managed to hybridise the two separate positions of the Prime Minister and the President to his own advantage. And so in spite of every effort to dislodge from his place at the highest office in the land, Mugabe has somehow managed to extend his stay in power up to this day. Not that it has been very easy thing for him to do!

In fact he has had to elbow out a series of his rivals both within and without his political movement, Zanu-PF. The list of people who at one stage or another tried to wrestle him out of his strong grip on political power include the following among others; Nkomo (PF-Zapu), Edgar Zivanai Tekere (Zimbabwe Unity Movement), Enock Dumbutshena (Forum Party) and Margaret Dongo (Zimbabwe Union of Democrats).

However, apart from Joshua Nkomo, only one other person has really given Mugabe some tremendous pressure to date. The person is none other than Morgan Richard Tsvangirai. (60). Indeed if there is one person who has proved to be a fierce rival to Mugabe, then it is Tsvangirai. In fact many Zimbabweans assume that he is actually Mugabe’s ultimate nemesis.

Tsvangirai has been Mugabe’s thorn in the flesh for more than 15 years now. He started to share Mugabe’s political limelight in the later part of the 1990s when he first emerged on to the national platform as a radical trade union leader. At that time, Tsvangirai’s was serving as the Secretary General of the all-powerful Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

It was Tsvangirai who bravely led the ZCTU away from its historical strong alliance with Zanu-PF after the failure of the government’s socio-economic policies in the early 1990s that had led to widespread decline in the industrial and business potential of the country. This had also led in turn, to mass retrenchments and ever increasing high rates of unemployment in the country.

Consequently, the labour movement just like the rest of the sectors in the Zimbabwean society had increasingly grown restless and disenchanted about both Mugabe and his Zanu-PF government.

This had then led to the setting up of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) in 1997 as broad coalition campaigning for massive constitutional reforms in the country. And as fate would have it, the setting up of the NCA soon proved to be a political boon for Tsvangirai since he was elected as the first Chairperson of the constitutional movement. As such as the leader of the NCA, Tsvangirai managed to get his first break on the national agenda outside his limited influence as a trade unionist.

Unfortunately for Mugabe, the rise of Tsvangirai soon became an obvious threat to his strong grip on power that he had for so many years enjoyed basically unchallenged in the aftermath of his successful battle against Tekere druing the 1990 presidential elections.

Tsvangirai as the ultimate populist managed to successfully use his dual role as both the leader of the labour and constitutional movement to launch a serious political campaign to unseat Mugabe. Such was his impact so much that Mugabe was forced to appoint a Constitutional Commission after initially scoffing at the vision and agenda of the NCA.

But still, Tsvangirai soon proved to be a more than capable adversary for Mugabe after he led the NCA to successful block his government’s attempts to impose a highly compromised new Constitution via a referendum process in February 2000.

In fact prior to the holding of the referendum, Tsvangirai had further enhanced his claim as Mugabe’s would be successor by being elected as the leader of a new dynamic political party known as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in September 1999.

As such, using both the NCA and the MDC national platforms, Tsvangirai was able to easily increase his stake as a serious challenger to the once invisible Mugabe by the start of 2000.

Mugabe had initially dismissed and scoffed at Tsvangirai as a former ‘tea boy’ and also willing puppet of the West; however the outcome of the referendum forced to finally acknowledge Tsvangirai as his most serious contender for the office of the Presidency.

As it if it was not enough for the obviously rattled Mugabe, an increasingly confident Tsvangirai who was buoyed by the referendum results, soon laid down the gauntlet at Mugabe’s feet by staking his claim as a candidate for the MDC in the next presidential elections that were due to be held in 2002.

Stung by the painful bite of the referendum loss, Mugabe soon devised a radical counter attack to halt Tsvangirai’s determined march to the State House.

Mugabe first point of attack was the basis of Tsvangirai’s mass public appeal; that is the mine workers and the farm workers. This he easily achieved by instigating the now infamous ‘white farm invasions’ that led to a dramatic collapse of the globally acclaimed commercial agricultural system of the country.

Added to that, Mugabe evoked the largely xenophobic citizenship laws that sought to disenfranchise the majority of mine workers and farm workers. This was simply because most of them had Malawian, Zambian and Mozambican descent due to a long standing history of international migrant labour from the country’s poorer neighbouring countries.

Ironically, Mugabe himself has always been suspected to be of either Malawian or Mozambican origin. There is this long held view that his father, whom Mugabe rarely talks about in public, was actually a migrant labourer in Zimbabwe. Other critics have even gone a step further and postulated that Mugabe’s actual surname is Matibiri and as such, he is of Malawian descent.

Another effective strategy that Mugabe used to ward off Tsvangirai was to call for elections soon after the referendum using the old Lancaster House Constitution, as amended. This gave him an unfair advantage over his new fierce rivals. And as fate would have it, two protagonists led their two respective political parties to hotly contested national and local government elections in June 2000.

The official poll results seemed to suggest a draw verdict. However, the MDC cried foul and accused Mugabe of using massive political violence and fraud to hang on to power in spite of his obvious unpopularity and ultimate rejection by the disappointed Zimbabwean electorate.

After a largely indecisive 2000 plebiscite, the now universally acclaimed two galacticos of the Zimbabwean political stage soon started the preparations of what both hoped could prove to be a decisive battle. This came in the form of the long awaited March 2002 presidential elections.

During the 2002 elections, Tsvangirai hoped to use his ever growing mass public appeal to finally wrestle power from his rival. However Mugabe as the sly old fox soon realised that in order to thwart his rival, the only effective formula was the same tried and tested ‘carrot and stick’ strategy.

This involved providing massive government aid to communities perceived to be most likely to vote for his Zanu-PF party and also unleashing state funded terror on the constituencies that were likely to vote for Tsvangirai.

Added to that, Mugabe made sure that the electoral system was largely skewered to his own advantage by taking full use of all available state resources especially the electronic and print media. He also barred international monitors and media from the western countries of whom he assumed were blatantly biased in Tsvangirai’s favour.

In the end, Mugabe managed to hang on to power by the skin of his teeth, much to the utter disappointment of not just Tsvangirai but to also the electoral majority. In fact it was after their disillusionment with the manipulated outcome of the 2002 elections that most Zimbabweans started voting by their feet instead.

From that time onwards, Zimbabwe experiences its largest ever exodus as most of its adult population opted for an uncertain life in exile rather a certain life of continued suffering at home under Mugabe’s endless reign in power by hook or crook.

The now seemingly endless rivalry between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was to continue for the next few more years till yet another much vaunted battle between the two political foes happened in March 2008. Just like the previous polls that were held in 2002, the two giants met again in the Zimbabwean political ring with the ultimate aim of winning the presidential belt.

Unfortunately for Tsvangirai, a lot had happened since 2002 that had tipped things in Mugabe’s favour. Firstly, the MDC had been severely weakened by the mass exodus of Zimbabweans after the previous polls. This had also affected its ability to mobilise its voters at a local constituency level.

Secondly, Mugabe still retained his largely control of both the state resources and the electoral system.

Thirdly, the MDC had been affected by a massive political split in 2005 that had led to the setting up of yet another rival MDC group that was opposed to both Mugabe and Tsvangirai’s leadership credentials. And so it happened that Mugabe’s chances at the polls received a shot in the arm when Tsvangirai failed to rally the entire opposition forces to his cause.

The other MDC eventually opted to back another opposition candidate, Simba Makoni. Makoni who ran under the ticket of the newly set up Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn party, proved to be such a big spoiler of Tsvangirai’s chances in the final analysis since he had managed to garner a significant amount of votes that were enough to tip the scales in Mugabe’s favour.

Yet in spite of all the odds against him, a determined Tsvangirai managed to give Mugabe a really good run for his money. According to the official poll results, Tsvangirai had somehow managed to edge past his rival for the first time ever. However since both Mugabe and Tsvangirai had not managed to win the polls decisively, a second run up election was called for in June 2008.

The second election was eventually declared a no-contest after Tsvangirai withdrew from the race citing continued political violence and manipulation of the electoral process by Mugabe as his reasons. Unperturbed by Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the second round of polls, Mugabe romped on to an easy victory and was duly re-elected unopposed for yet another term as the President of Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai on his part managed to obtain international support for his cause especially after the African lobby opted not to unconditionally endorse the re-election of Mugabe unlike in the previous polls.

And so soon thereafter, talks begun for an all-inclusive government to be set up under the auspices of the mediator appointed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), President Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki from South Africa.

And so it happened that after several months of protracted negotiations, Mbeki claimed a diplomatic breakthrough when the two warring giants agreed to be part of the three way all-inclusive government as the principals together with Arthur Guseni Oliver Mutambara from the other rival MDC grouping.

It was on 15th September 2008 that the historic Global Political Agreement was signed in Harare. This in turn led to a constitutional compromise that enabled to Mugabe to once again share his power with someone else. This time however, it Mugabe who was the President and Tsvangirai was now the Prime Minister in a dramatic reversal of roles from the same scenario after the 1980 elections.

And so after many years of continued feuding and bitter rivalry, Tsvngirai had somehow managed to gain Mugabe’s grudging respect by being welcomed aboard the corridors of power in Zimbabwe. what remained to be seen was whether Tsvangirai would then be able from there on to progressively move on out of Mugabe’s shadow and become the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the Zimbabwean political arena.

* Daniel Molokele is a human rights lawyer who is based at Johannesburg. He can be contacted via email at ‘danielmolokele@gmail.com’ or via twitter at @molokele