When Nelson Chamisa this week announced his intention to inaugurate himself as “People’s President” of Zimbabwe, he was following in the footsteps of other African opposition leaders — specifically Uganda’s Kizza Besigye and Kenya’s Raila Odinga, both of whom rejected election results and staged their own ceremonial inauguration ceremonies.
This is no coincidence. On the advice of their Kenyan counterparts, Chamisa’s MDC Alliance consciously modelled its electoral strategy on that of Odinga’s National Super Alliance, according to well-placed sources connected to the party.
The planned “inauguration” (which has been put on hold) is a key element of that strategy, designed to force concessions from the new administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa — who narrowly won the July 30 election — and to shore up Chamisa’s position within his own party.
The links between the Kenyan and Zimbabwean opposition movements are rooted in the friendship between Odinga and the late Morgan Tsvangirai, the veteran leader who founded the MDC. Odinga attended Tsvangirai’s funeral in February. There, he pulled aside Tsvangirai’s heir-apparent — Chamisa, who was then fighting to shore up his control of the party.
Odinga told Chamisa to watch out for the impact of foreign consulting firms like Cambridge Analytica, which was exposed just a month later for deploying dirty tactics to manipulate the results of elections around the world; and to pay close attention to irregularities in the voters’ roll.
Odinga’s advisers also told the MDC how to prepare for a legal challenge to the election results, including technical details on how to analyse the results.
The two campaigns even shared at least one staff member: Kenyan economics professor Edgar Otumba. Otumba’s job was to run the numbers once the election results came in, and identify where and how they had been manipulated.
In Kenya, his findings contributed to a successful court challenge to have the August 8 presidential results set aside, forcing a rerun. In Zimbabwe, the MDC’s legal challenge failed. The party blames a biased judiciary.
But outside the courts, Chamisa and his team were already executing another element of the Odinga plan.
“The Odinga strategy was declare victory and don’t stop declaring victory. If you declare and declare early, you set the system in panic, and you just keep declaring victory,” said the senior MDC official.
On August 1, the day before the official results, Chamisa took to Twitter to do just that: “THANK YOU ZIMBABWE,” he tweeted.
“We have won the popular vote. You voted for total Change in this past election!
“We have won this one together. No amount of results manipulation will alter your WILL.”
Sure enough, the system panicked — but with fatal consequences. Later that afternoon, inspired by the messages coming from party headquarters, a crowd of angry MDC supporters gathered in central Harare to protest against alleged vote rigging.
The army responded in brutal fashion, using tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the crowd. At least six people were killed.
Chamisa’s latest gambit, the “inauguration”, is another tactic ripped straight from the Odinga playbook — although Chamisa is very much making his own decisions, insists his spokesperson.
Like Chamisa’s early declaration of victory, this “inauguration” also carries with it the threat of violence. Zimbabwe’s Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi has already described the planned gathering as “illegal” and threatened to arrest Chamisa if it goes ahead.
According to MDC sources, the mock inauguration achieves two complementary aims. First, it cements Chamisa’s position as leader of the party.
Second, it keeps the MDC and Chamisa in the national conversation, and might force Mnangagwa to the negotiating table.
With an eye already on the 2023 election, the MDC wants concrete promises of electoral and economic reform before it agrees to work with the current administration; with this in mind, the ‘‘inauguration’’ is designed to show both Zanu PF and the international community that Zanu PF cannot govern alone.
It helps that the MDC is particularly strong in Zimbabwe’s cities, and — crucially — its supporters make up the bulk of Zimbabwe’s tax base. That’s the plan, anyway.
But plans don’t always work out the way they are supposed to.
In as much as Chamisa is following in Odinga’s footsteps, his supporters must hope that he also knows when to strike out on his own path. Daily News