The UK needs to stay out of Zimbabwe’s succession politics

Whether the UK favours Mnangagwa over Mugabe and Chamisa over Tsvangirai is immaterial. What matters is that it remains a disinterested bystander.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai talking at Chatham House, UK. Credit: Chatham House.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai talking at Chatham House, UK. Credit: Chatham House.

Last week, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai sparked controversy in Zimbabwe when he claimed that foreign diplomats he’d spoken to had revealed a preference over who the country’s next president should be. Speaking to journalists, the MDC-T party leader said: “I was with one of the ambassadors [in Harare] who was talking about [Vice-President Emmerson] Mnangagwa being a pragmatist”.

Tsvangirai’s suggestion that Western diplomats favour Mnangagwa made headline news in Zimbabwe and re-energised debates about who will eventually succeed the 91-year-old President Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa, a seasoned minister within the ruling ZANU-PF, is seen as one of the most likely candidates.

In the succession debate, the shifting stance of certain Western states has been deliberated amongst Zimbabwe’s political elites for many months now. And Tsvangirai’s assertion that Mnangagwa is the preferred figure is supported by sources in Harare and London. These insiders suggest that at least one Western country − the UK − sees the Vice-President as a reformer and an improvement on the man who has been in power since 1980.

Abandoning Tsvangirai

It is unclear which ambassador Tsvangirai was referring to in his statement, but if it was the UK’s, this would mark a significant change of policy for the country after a decade of trying to expedite Mugabe’s exit from power. From 2000 to 2013, Zimbabwe’s former colonial power strongly backed Tsvangirai, before changing tack after his decisive defeat in the 2013 elections. The British Embassy’s internal poll at the time reportedly projected that Tsvangirai would garner 60-65% of the vote, but when Mugabe romped to victory with 61%, the diplomatic mission was caught off guard.

Since then, a programme of pragmatic re-engagement with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government has gradually emerged from the vestiges of the previous failed policy. And it is this approach that informs the UK’s preference towards Mnangagwa.

This move away from Tsvangirai also explains the opposition leader’s decision to publicly reveal the West’s policy shift, though his revelation could also be a strategy of deflection. Much as he refuses to stand down as MDC-T leader, Tsvangirai probably realises he will never now be president, and by outing some Western states’ changed stance, he could be trying to lay the fault for the opposition’s current weakness at the door of his unreliable former allies.

However, the relationship between the UK and Tsvangirai was never perfect for either side. Tsvangirai’s inadequacies as an effective opposition leader have become all too transparent over the years, while the UK and other European countries let the opposition leader down on many occasions. As long ago as 2006, Tsvangirai disclosed to me in an interview that the West made the “mistake” of insisting on regime change in Zimbabwe and that this undercut his credibility with African leaders. The West “should have insisted on democratisation”, he said.

Double standards

The UK’s break from Tsvangirai has implications on various fronts. One of these is that it undermines the standing of democracy and human rights. From 2000 onwards, the UK inserted itself in Zimbabwe’s domestic politics claiming to do so in the name of these ideals. And the fact that Mnangagwa − one of Mugabe’s point men in the mass killings in the early-1980s and in the political election violence in 2008 − has now reportedly found favour with the UK reinforces perceptions that democracy and human rights have only ever been a fig leaf for the UK’s own agenda.

The fact that the UK’s apparent partiality towards Mnangagwa has become known well before Mugabe leaves office also reflects the diplomatic mission’s lack of discretion − especially with Mugabe having said he intends to run for re-election in 2018 − and could have an impact on those very succession dynamics. Mugabe could interpret the UK’s preference for Mnangagwa as his arch-enemy choosing his successor. Indeed, one of the allegations Mugabe used to justify his purge of former Vice-President Joice Mujuru in 2014 was that she is a moderate reformer who had proven acceptable to America. The UK’s bias for Mnangagwa may prove a kiss of death for this long-time presidential aspirant too.

Discussion of the UK’s interest in Zimbabwe’s succession politics goes beyond ZANU-PF and the presidency, however, and involves the opposition as well. Since his 2013 election defeat, Tsvangirai has viewed Nelson Chamisa, the MDC-T’s former National Organising Secretary, as a threat to his continued hold on party power. And not only does Chamisa enjoy a close but unclear relationship with Mnangagwa − an association that is much debated in elite circles and one Tsvangirai is said to be ill at ease about − but it is also alleged the UK now favours Chamisa as MDC-T leader over Tsvangirai. The conjecture goes even further and suggests the UK is hoping for a post-Mugabe alliance between Chamisa and Mnangagwa.

To an extent, the degree of truth behind the UK’s reported preferences towards Mnangagwa, Chamisa or perhaps an Mnangagwa-Chamisa coalition is immaterial. What matters most for the moment is that Zimbabwean political elites believe the UK is trying to intrude in MDC-T and ZANU-PF succession politics, a sense that has been intensified by Tsvangirai’s recent comments. And after 36 years of applying double standards in its foreign policy towards its former colony, concerned Zimbabweans insist that there is no place for the UK to intervene. As the country reaches a crossroads and the long era of Mugabe vs. Tsvangirai draws to an inevitable close, the message from Zimbabwe is basic and unswerving: the UK must be a disinterested bystander in what happens next.

Blessing-Miles Tendi teaches Politics in the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development (Queen Elizabeth House).

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8 thoughts on “The UK needs to stay out of Zimbabwe’s succession politics

  1. This is based writing and unexpected from a scholar. I live in Zimbabwe and I have misgivings of British of foreign interference in Zimbabwean politics. However, the authors precise of writing is based on the assumption that the anonymous source mentioned by Morgan Tsvangirai is British is fishing for raindrops. Instead of building a story around facts, the author is fabricating facts to build a story. All the same one is free to say what they want to say I guess

  2. Why does the Uk still have its nose in African affairs? It is because we still have these black leaders who do not understand that it is time to set a distance between them and our enemy–which is the West

  3. Any article that fails to treat established material facts with respect lose credibility. President Mugabe did not “romp to victory with a 61% of the vote”. Anyone who is anyone knows that Zanu PF blatantly rigged the elections. Most people accepted the result as a fait accompli because the opposition had five years to implement the democratic reforms necessary to stop the vote rigging but failed to get even one reform implemented.

    SADC leaders were very disappointed with MDC’s failure to implement the democratic reforms and said so in a statement accusing MDC leaders “enjoying themselves during the GNU and forgetting why they were there!”

    None of the Western countries accept the rest of Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections as a true reflection of the democratic will of the people of Zimbabwe. By rigging the elections President Mugabe highlighted his regime’s total disrespect for the rule of law and it is this lawlessness that is at the heart of the regime’s failure to attract any foreign direct investment and financial assistance.

    President Mugabe confident he would raise the $27 billion to pay for his ZimAsset economic recov-ery plan after the 2013 elections. The plan is died in the water because he failed to get anyone to bankroll it. He talked of “progress” in the implementation of ZimAsset yesterday at the Zanu PF politburo meeting; he is still in denial that the plan is died, but he is only fooling himself and no one else.

    Zimbabwe’s economic recovery is now totally dependent on the country’s return to political legality and the rule of law and that will only happen by implementing the democratic reforms MDC should have implemented during the GNU and holding of free, fair and credible elections. The Zanu PF regime has a serious legitimacy problem and it why its economic relationship with the rest of the world has been strained and it all stemmed from the blatant rigging of the 2013 elections.

  4. The writer gives an impression that his own preference is probably loosing out. The British have always been involved from way back. They held a secret meeting between Mugabe, the South African Apartheid leaders and themselves in Mozambique on the eve of announcing election results in 1980 to declare Mugabe a winner despite all the violence carried out by his supporters against other parties. They funded his regime and even the military build up including the tribal army Gukurahundi and its operation. They knighted Mugabe and took the Gukurahundi commander to their most prestigious military institution.
    When Mugabe took the farms from whites they then propped up the MDC in an attempt to get Zimbabweans to remove Mugabe themselves. Tswangirai has failed to deliver and they are now seeing that it is better to work within Zanupf itself. This is why there are these re-engagements that have brought in the French, the USA and others as well. The British will always be involved as they have always been involved and their involvement obviously goes beyond Morgan Tswangirai and Robert Mugabe just it went beyond Ian Smith. All in all it is the people of Zimbabwe who must be allowed and assisted to shape their own destiny by the International Community.

  5. zanu PF didn’t rig the 2013 elections Tsvangirai forgot his job in the GNU and was busy chasing women .No body will get close to Mugabe and win the war.Tsvangirai failed and should hand over power to someone if he remains that will show he is a dictator.

  6. Question, how many ‘western’ diplomatic missions are represented in Zimbabwe? Maybe between 15 – 25. Now this fellow Tsvangirai shares the view expressed by just one diplomat and you hang on to that as if he is speaking for the whole diplomatic corps? Did you or zanu pf G40 handlers conduct a straw poll? The ambassador in question might have been expressing his/her own opinion (off the record) which might not necessarily be the official line or view shared by their government they represent, this is typical of relatively free societies where people have some freedom of thought. Each ambassador western or otherwise is there at the behest of their respective government to promote their own national interest above all else.

    Funny enough you then acknowledge that you have no idea which ambassador shared that view with him but go on to pontificate on a whole article about the UK? As one forumite put it ‘Instead of building a story around facts, the author is fabricating facts to build a story.’ Pseudo intellectuals like Blessing Tendi cloaked in the garbs from ‘reputable’ seats of learning instead of enriching political discourse that help to build strong & accountable African institutions that deliver for the majority of their peoples are busy brazenly impoverishing and poisoning the thinking well.

  7. What a contrast to an earlier article here: ‘Following the hotly-contested 2008 elections, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission stalled the release of the presidential results for five weeks, ultimately announcing that there had been no clear winner…..In a surprising moment of candour at the ZANU-PF congress in December 2014, President Robert Mugabe accidentally let slip that the opposition had in fact won the contentious 2008 polls by an astounding 73%.’


    I’d take any statement that ZANU-PF, under Robert Mugabe’s leadership, have won any election since 1980, with a “large pinch of salt”.

    Yes, the UK has interests in Zimbabwe, but whether it actually does much about them is a moot point. For a long time now the UK has left Zimbabweans to decide how their country is governed.

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