In 1998 two aspiring politicians met to plot the beginnings of a movement that would change Zimbabwe’s political landscape for more than a decade. One of them, Morgan Tsvangirai, was already a household name in the country as a result of the mass protests that he had led against government instituted economic austerity measures of the late 1990s. Because of this experience and associated celebrity, he naturally became the first leader of the newly created Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)
The other, Tendai Biti, a gifted and ambitious lawyer, chose not to contest the party leadership – he would have been soundly thrashed by Tsvangirai in any contest. Instead, he took a backstage, and assumed that most precarious of perches: Heir Apparent.
The two quickly fell out after the formation of the party, but for appearances sake, decided to exist side by side in an uneasy alliance that has been characterised by back stabbing, plotting and sub-plotting against each other. The uneasiness between the two largely stems from the dominance of Tsvangirai’s personality over the MDC. Tsvangirai is popular with the party supporters and as a result he and his followers find it hard to accommodate alternative ideas and leadership. Indeed, the name of the party, MDC-Tsvangirai, illustrates the entrenchment of his personal power.
The power struggle approached comic-opera status this Saturday when Tsvangirai was suspended by the MDC’s national council after a meeting that had been instigated by Biti. Biti’s “˜ambush’ followed the suspension of several of his allies a couple of months earlier, leaving his position within the party severely weakened.
In a statement read out by one of Biti’s consigliere, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the MDC National Council (often the venue of the most vicious political infighting) declared that the party had suspended and dissolved the entire committee consisting of President Tsvangirai, Deputy President Thokozani Khupe, National Chairman Lovemore Moyo, Vice Chairman, Morgan Komichi, National Organising Secretary, Nelson Chamisa, Vice Organising Secretary Abedinico Bhebhe, and National Spokesman, Douglas Mwonzora. Sipepa Nkomo also announced the lifting of the suspension of Biti’s allies. According to the resolutions, the party’s Guardian Council headed by Sekai Holland will now take charge and prepare for an earlier elective congress where Tendai Biti is expected to stand for the leadership.
Biti, who has been determinedly silent about his leadership ambitions, appears to have now made his agenda clear. Indeed, for the first time, he was critical of his rival, and stated that Tsvangirai would be charged with violation of the MDC’s constitution as well as bringing the party into disrepute. In his harshest assessment of Tsvangirai to date, Biti was quoted at the weekend saying that Tsvangirai had “˜failed as a leader.’
In a statement, the opposition party said it was suspending the party leader Morgan Tsvangirai for “˜fascist’ tendencies, further alleging that the MDC had been ‘transformed into a fiefdom of the leader’. They also accused Tsvangirai and his lieutenants of resisting leadership change after losing a third general election to Mugabe last July. Behind the scenes some MDC officials have reportedly compiled a dossier of allegations of misuse of party funds by Tsvangirai which insiders say they hope will persuade him to go quietly.
The “˜putsch’ has rankled Tsvangirai’s rank and file supporters who soon after learning of the suspension, turned up at the party headquarters to show their support for the beleaguered leader. The move has also drawn outraged cries of treachery from his allies, who have since dismissed the suspension as unconstitutional and meaningless.
Nelson Chamisa, the party’s organising secretary and a staunch Tsvangirai supporter dismissed his boss’s suspension as ‘utter nonsense’. Douglas Mwonzora, the polarising party spokesman, also declared that Tsvangirai remains the MDC leader. Indeed, on Sunday, Tsvangirai’s group convened its own meeting and called for a press conference in Harare. In an attempt to discredit the MDC’s suspension of Tsvangirai, in a statement, Tsvangirai’s allies went through the composition of the National Council that had suspended the MDC leader, alleging that paid youth and political members from other parties had masqueraded as national council members.
Though the suspensions and counter suspensions provide a fertile landscape for bitter recriminations, the MDC is unlikely to split. The spectre of 2005, when the then secretary general Welshman Ncube created another splinter group, is just too much.
Tendai Biti and his group appear resolved to see Tsvangirai toppled. Unlike Welshman Ncube, whose attempt to unseat the MDC leader in 2005 was seen as a personal calamity, Biti’s move is largely seen as a party initiative. In addition, in comparison to Ncube, his political tribe is solid and is unlikely to be pushed out so easily. They are likely to play a waiting game, hoping that the former Prime Minister’s political fortunes will continue to decline before they attempt a fatal blow.
According to a Biti ally who spoke on condition of anonymity, the former Minister of Finance will continue to amass and consolidate power, using a mixture of promises and pressure to win over the elites in Tsvangirai’s group as he works to marginalise the trade unionists and expunge the support that he still has amongst this group. He added that Biti’s group is confident that Tsvangirai is now closer than at any point in his career to losing the party leadership. They just have to be patient.
But for now, with both groups not recognising the other, and claiming legitimacy of their actions, this dilemma is setting the stage for a bruising legal battle. The two groups are likely to seek legal recourse in an attempt to resolve the leadership impasse. Indeed, the suspension of Tsvangirai, and the inevitable counter-suspension of Biti by Tsvangirai’s group, is certain to be challenged by each man’s allies. The courts, packed with ZANU-PF allies, has the option of letting the legal battle drag beyond the 2018 elections, plunging the opposition into a crisis that will confuse voters. Alternatively, the courts might hand the leadership to Biti, whom ZANU-PF perceives as electorally weaker.
Turmoil in the MDC is a gift to ZANU-PF. Indeed, the MDC leadership is increasingly weakened by the constant plotting against each other, with power struggles eroding internal cohesion, tarnishing the public image and undermining the party’s recruitment drive. There is potential that voters might be turned off and stay at home rather than vote for a candidate who is not their preferred choice.
The infighting would be less chaotic if the two main combatants, Biti and Tsvangirai, realised that the MDC is not merely defined by their own personalities, but is a force that they should harness together in order to achieve change in Zimbabwe. Whilst Tsvangirai appeals to the masses, Biti has the trust of political elites and donors. The truth is, both men need each other.
Simukai Tinhu is a political analyst. @STinhu