Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Tim Mutsekwa: Mnangagwa’s repression…. A case for a people’s revolt?

By Tim Mutsekwa

Greetings to you all. l trust you are all well and in rude health.

lt has been one hell of a week. The week began with a case of false accounting which quickly ballooned into an international incident. In his budget presentation, Ncube stated that bilateral support provided by China stood at US$3 631 500.

Anger: Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) of Nelson Chamisa burn an election banner with the face of Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare
Anger: Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) of Nelson Chamisa burn an election banner with the face of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare

The figure attracted interest on social media with a number of people questioning how China, which is regarded as an all-weather friend and strategic partner to Zimbabwe, had been dwarfed in its contribution by the United States and Britain which contributed US$50 million each while the European Union provided US$41 million.

Chinese embassy officials, including Ambassador Guo Shaochun and Zhao, immediately refuted the figures. The Chinese embassy on issued a statement saying China had provided US$136,8 million between January and September.

In a move synonymous with those of a more authoritarian bent, Emmerson Mnangagwa completed two rites of passages beloved of old-school African strongmen on when he stripped dozens of streets of their colonial identities and then renamed many of them after himself.

Thoroughfares in ten of Zimbabwe’s biggest cities and towns, including the capital Harare, will now bear the name Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa as his government embarks on a campaign to eradicate the last visible vestiges of the country’s British past.

What the project fails to capture in pithiness it will more than make up for in national pride.

Zimbabwean police with riot gear, bludgeoned, maimed, fired teargas and caused unimaginable suffering to people who gathered to hear a speech of hope by President Nelson Chamisa amid growing frustration with the collapsing economy.

Dozens of people ran and dodged baton blows in the capital, Harare. Officers cordoned off the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party headquarters before President Nelson Chamisa’s speech and patrolled with water cannon.

After some supporters were left critically injured and bleeding, he told the gathering that Mnangagwa has scaled new levels of dictatorship. “Our country is burning,” he said. “Why would you beat people who are at their head office? Is the MDC now a banned party?”

Recent events and evidence point precisely to that. A tacit instruction has clearly been passed to effectively silence the MDC.

“Blessed are they who will follow the path of the government laws, for their days on earth will be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on earth.”

This was Emmerson Mnangagwa, on April 4, 1983 – then security minister – when he decided to use the biblical saying at the onset of the Gukurahundi genocide in which more than 20 000 people were killed in the southwestern parts of the country.

It seems very evident Emmerson has reprised that very role then, now.

REGIME IN CRISIS

I agree with Alex Magaisa in one of the Big Saturday Read Blogs where he observes that the regime is currently at a ‘cul–de-sac,’ unable to negotiate its way out of bankruptcy and insurmountable debt, and unable to convince even some of its traditional backers in both Beijing and Pretoria to provide debt relief.

The regime has incorporated the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund such as reducing the public service wage bill, which was swiftly carried and resulted in the retrenchment and unemployment of thousands of public workers as well as the erosion of working conditions.

In the face of protests, teacher strikes, the general strike and the possible all-out rebellion these could spark, however, the fearful regime has backtracked and on three occasions raised wages to allow for some (wholly inadequate) compensation for rampant inflation.

Part of the austerity policies is the re-imposition, in June, of the Zimbabwe dollar that was abandoned in 2009.

The regional ruling classes’ solidarity with the regime in Harare has remained unshaken however, with Mnangagwa having been recently appointed the Chairperson of the SADC Troika on Politics, Peace and Security (Southern African Development Community has 15 member countries).

The EU, despite its repeated condemnation of the human rights abuses, has remained open to ‘re-engagement’ with the regime. Authoritarian regimes are crumbling across the world; street protests are rocking capitals from Syria to Swaziland. Is the age of dictators finally over?

Certainly, dictators have been around for thousands of years, and for every strongman turned out of office in the past few months, there are dozens still holding onto power.

And yet, what protests in a growing number of countries show is that citizens have a greater sense of courageous solidarity and more tools at their disposal to throw their dictators off balance, if not out of power.

What does it take to overthrow a dictator? Reflecting on this question in exile, Leon Trotsky wrote in History of the Russian Revolution (1930):

OUSTING DICTATORS: IT TAKES MORE THAN A SMARTPHONE

It takes more than a smartphone to take on an authoritarian regime, of course.

In addition to courage, it requires organization and discipline, coordination and communication, and clever techniques to keep a regime guessing about what will come next.

For this reason, protests have worked best in North Africa, where citizen networks had prepared their civil disobedience campaigns well in advance, and then adapted their methods to stay one step ahead of the security forces.

They have not worked as well in sub-Saharan Africa, where citizen groups are less organized and often associated directly with political parties rather than the citizens themselves.

As Greek statesman and orator Demosthenes wrote in the third century B.C., “Every dictator is an enemy of freedom, an opponent of law.” Moreover, while there are a couple of notable exceptions such as Lee, dictators are almost always bad for the economy.

MILITARY FACTOR

There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the army … Thus in the streets and squares, by the bridges, at the barrack gates, is waged a ceaseless struggle now dramatic, now unnoticeable but always a desperate struggle, for the heart of the soldier.

However solitary, the power of an authoritarian leader might seem, dictators never rule alone. When enforcers shirk duty or rebel, the regime collapses. When they stay loyal, the regime stands. Mass protests alone are never enough.

During the Tunisian revolution, the mutiny that ultimately led to the president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from power on 14 January 2011 started in an elite police unit exceptionally deployed to protect the Ministry of Interior against the biggest demonstration to date. When protesters marched on to the presidential palace, disobedience spread to the other security forces, and Ben Ali was forced to flee hours later. When police turned, the regime fell.

The decision to rebel is a far cry from the execution of obvious and well-understood material interests. It is also easy to overlook how profound an ethical dilemma mass repression can pose to professional soldiers and policemen. Consider a country in the midst of a full-scale uprising.

Tens or hundreds of thousands of demonstrators fill the streets of its capital city. The authoritarian ruler can no longer rely on his secret police and riot-response units. He must mobilise reserve forces, who typically carry live ammunition and have no training or experience in dealing with crowds. These men face a stark choice. Defending the regime comes at the price of massive bloodshed. Shirking duty or rebelling carry the threat of court martial and death.

Even for those with experience in repression, being made to kill tens or hundreds of innocents is often a deeply unpleasant prospect. The dilemma is first ethical and individual: it betrays a stark choice between serving one’s government and serving one’s country.

But it quickly becomes collective. When an officer becomes aware that he’s not alone in his conundrum, he begins to wonder whether his colleagues will follow orders. From this doubt emerges the possibility of his own disobedience.

Military and police mutinies rarely break out in the face of small demonstrations, but reliably occur when revolutionary uprisings reach a critical mass, making unconscionable large scale killing the government’s only survival option.

This year, scattered protesters in Sudan defied security forces for more than three months without prompting large scale defections; but when the opposition converged in a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters on 6 April, soldiers wavered.

On the second day, they protected demonstrators against loyalist militias. And on 12 April, the military and security apparatus turned against the president Omar al-Bashir.

Rebellions that begin during uprisings often spread like wildfire throughout the military and security apparatus. The Russian revolution of 1917 began when the Volynsky Life-Guards Regiment ‘refused to serve as executioners any longer’, as the Soviet historian E N Burdzhalov put it in 1967; the mutiny then propagated rapidly to neighbouring regiments in Petrograd.

Burdzhalov writes that, by the evening, ‘no tsarist general could have taken charge of the situation to save the autocracy’. 

Once a mutiny begins, the threat of fratricidal violence between loyalists and rebels weighs heavily over officers’ calculations. Would-be loyalists will often go along with a mutiny to avoid infighting.

In Tunisia, the head of the rebellion against Ben Ali rallied two additional units by pretending to act on orders; when his colleagues understood that he had lied, they remained on his side instead of turning their weapons against him. Minutes later, Ben Ali’s head of security, a loyalist, convinced the president to board a plane to Saudi Arabia, saying he feared ‘a bloodbath’.

In the end, however, the success of a rebellion depends on the crossing of a fear barrier by enough people, not simply the small group of dedicated dissidents. A judgment that the risk is worth it and the rebellion might actually succeed.

I will leave you with the eternal words of the erudite Wole Soyinka who said:

‘’Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist. All that remains is a fiefdom, a planet of slaves regimented by aliens from outer space’’.

Tim Mutsekwa: MDC Secretary for International Affairs and Coordination [London Branch]. You can follow him on Twitter: @tsumekwa