In Zimbabwe, can unity trump divide and conquer?

A certain amount of volatility has always accompanied President Robert Mugabe’s long rule in Zimbabwe, even – especially – within his inner circle. An avid student of colonial history, Mugabe has long perfected the British Empire’s “divide and conquer” tactics to keep himself in power, pitting both his allies and his opponents against each other as a way to keep them from challenging the president himself.

By Simon Allison for ISS TODAY

It has been an enormously successful strategy. Even today, with the 92-year-old Mugabe struggling to cope with the demands of his office, the deep divisions within the ruling Zanu-PF party – divisions that Mugabe created and cultivated – mean that no single faction is powerful enough to seize power from him. Even if Mugabe is no longer pulling the strings, the puppet show he put in motion continues to protect him.

But for how long? The faction fighting is getting uglier by the day. The volatility within the ranks of the ruling party is increasing to unprecedented levels, and spilling into the public eye with alarming frequency.

Take, for example, the fraud and corruption charges filed against higher education minister Jonathan Moyo, a senior figure in the G40 faction of Zanu-PF. These have been accompanied by a virulent smear campaign against the minister in the state-run Heraldnewspaper, including repeated requests for his immediate arrest.

Moyo has been in trouble before, of course. At one stage in his career, he was even expelled from the party. But this is different. A sitting minister is being dragged through the coals in public, by institutions supposedly loyal to a different faction (Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Lacoste faction) within the party. At the very highest levels of Zanu-PF, there is no longer even a pretence of party unity.

Another example of how Mugabe’s divide and rule tactics are spiralling out of control are the divisions within the war veterans’ movement. The war vets have long been an important element in maintaining Mugabe’s legitimacy, using their struggle credentials – accompanied, on more than one occasion, by violence – to bolster the regime.

But even the war vets are now fighting among themselves, with some openly breaking ranks with the ruling party. Earlier this month, one war vets organisation formally dumped Mugabe as its patron, while the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) openly brags that some war veterans are now on its side. This could lend the opposition some serious political capital.

But even as Mugabe’s power base fractures, possible beyond repair, so the political opposition is trying desperately to present a united front. They know some kind of coalition is the surest antidote to divide and rule – and their best chance of success in the 2018 presidential election.

It’s not an easy proposition. There are more than a dozen political parties to consider, as well as various social movements and civil society organisations, all with competing interests and agendas.

As the largest and most established opposition group, Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T has taken the lead in building this coalition, starting with a united front on electoral reform under the banner of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA). This is a clever issue to tackle first: all opposition parties are likely to benefit from free and fair elections, and the joint platform provides a relatively safe environment in which to form the relationships and build the trust that will be crucial ingredients for a future coalition.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. When 13 political parties met in Cape Town earlier this month to thrash out the details, the MDC-T was not among them. A senior MDC-T official told ISS Today that the party was unhappy that it hadn’t been consulted about the invitation list. He also made it clear that the MDC-T believed that its long years in opposition had earned it the right to initiate coalition talks, and determine the agenda.

Also absent was former vice president Joyce Mujuru, who formed the Zimbabwe People’s First Party (ZPF) last year after being forced out of Zanu-PF. Although new and untested, ZPF is thought to appeal to disgruntled Zanu-PF supporters in a way that the MDC-T never can, and as such will play a crucial role in the upcoming election.

Privately, MDC-T and ZPF have already begun their own coalition talks, although progress is slow. One major issue is the identity of the proposed coalition’s presidential candidate, with both party principles – Tsvangirai and Mujuru – unwilling to concede the top spot. Tsvangirai is also yet to be convinced of Mujuru’s bona fides, given her long history in Zanu-PF.

“There is a tussle over who should lead the coalition; [MDC-T leader] Morgan Tsvangirai believes he deserves to be the leader,” political analyst Ibbo Mandaza told the Zimbabwe Standard. “His deputies believe that in an event that he does not want to, it should be someone from their side. Mujuru too believes she can and deserves it. So in the process, before we talk about other mechanisms and below structures the people are fighting over the top leadership.”

Mugabe has built his 36-year rule on pitting his enemies against each other. It has been a remarkably successful strategy, and endures even as the president’s political acumen wanes along with his physical health. For his opponents, however, the path to success lies in a different direction. To successfully take on the Zanu-PF machine, they need to embrace unity rather than division – an altogether more difficult value to implement. DM

Simon Allison is an ISS Consultant. This article was first published by the Daily Maverick.

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