Perils of putting foot in mouth

Perils of putting foot in mouth
  • PublishedJuly 1, 2018

Now the gloves are off, it’s bare knuckle for bare knuckle, and not surprisingly, the younger challenger, Nelson Chamisa, with less political nous, is reeling under self-inflicted wounds that could hand victory to the veteran incumbent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa,
on 30 July when Zimbabweans go to the polls. Report by Baffour Ankomah.

After 7 months of political sparring, and the birth of 125 political parties in the post-Mugabe era, the real contest to occupy State House has become a two-horse race between the incumbent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zanu-PF, and his youthful challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance (MDC-A), a coalition of several of the 125 parties that recently registered to contest the 30 July polls.

Chamisa, 40, was quick out of the starting blocks and appeared to leave the 75-year-old Mnangagwa in the far distance, huffing under a heavy load of disunity in the Zanu-PF family. But as the race has progressed, the Zanu-PF mobilisation juggernaut has gathered steam, and now with all systems blazing, has been eating up Chamisa’s early lead with nonchalant ease.

Feeling the heat, the young Chamisa (who is fast becoming a ‘motormouth’) is committing terrible mistakes that might hurt him in the end. His lack of political experience has translated into him promising too much for his own good, and, worse, when the promises are put under serious scrutiny, they have often been found to be just hot air. The resultant credibility problem has been eating into his political stock and making people think twice about him.  

Which is a shame, because some of the promises have been pure fantasy, things that should not cross the lips of any man wanting to be the President of Zimbabwe. Sadly Chamisa appears unable to control what he says.

Improbable promises

For example, in January this year, he told Zimbabweans that if elected he would solve the country’s three-year-old liquidity crisis in two simple weeks and promised to leave office if he failed to do so. He went on to promise to build a bullet train that would reduce the journey between Zimbabwe’s two largest cities – Harare and Bulawayo (a distance of 440km) – to a mere 35 minutes. It happens that there is no such fast train on earth at present, not even in Japan or China.

In another speech, Chamisa promised to build airports all across the land, even in rural areas. Next, he hit on Chinese investors in Zimbabwe and promised to chuck them out if elected, because the deals they signed with Mugabe are unacceptable.

Last December, Chamisa and an MDC delegation went to Washington DC at the invitation of a Congressional sub-committee to speak on the post-Mugabe era. Chamisa returned to tell Zimbabweans that they had been received by President Donald Trump who had promised them a hefty $15bn to rebuild Zimbabwe’s decayed infrastructure, if the MDC is elected. This too turned out to be a lie when the Americans protested. The MDC delegation had only been received by some officials on Capitol Hill, not Trump. 

Chamisa next claimed that a paper he had presented at a conference in Geneva when he was Zimbabwe’s ICT Minister (2009-2013) was the basis for Rwanda’s now successful ICT programme. His claim received a sharp rebuke from an unimpressed Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, who said he did not know Chamisa at all and thus had not held any discussions with him. Besides, Rwanda’s ICT policy, Kagame said, started well before the MDC was formed in September 1999.

In early May, Chamisa appeared on the BBC HARDtalk programme to be told by the host, Stephen Sackur, that some of his promises had been “beyond nonsense” and were “just complete Alice in Wonderland” stuff. 

Sackur told him: “Zimbabweans surely want politicians who are serious, who make promises that can be delivered, but that promise [the bullet train] cannot be delivered … Two weeks to solve the liquidity crisis, I mean that’s nonsense … There’s a difference between making promises that you can keep and making promises that are nothing more than fantasy.”     

But that is Chamisa’s problem. His inability to strike the right balance between populism and credibility is making him unattractive to serious-minded people.

Pulling out the rug

Part of his problem, though, has been Zanu-PF’s shift from its traditional left-of-centre position to occupy the very centre of the political spectrum, which had been the preserve of the MDC in the past, leaving Chamisa little room to manoeuvre. As such, most of the things the MDC used to rail about in the past have been righted or are being righted by Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF. 

For example, the MDC always wanted Mugabe out. Though the MDC itself could not do it, Zanu-PF forced Mugabe out via a military intervention last November. The MDC always wanted Zimbabwe to re-engage with the West. Mnangagwa has done this too, even in a manner that his critics say borders on desperation. The MDC, again, wanted human and political rights to be respected. Mnangagwa has been active on that as well. 

What’s more: The MDC wanted Zimbabwe to re-engage with international business in pursuit of foreign direct investment (FDI). Mnangagwa’s mantra in the past seven months has been ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’. And the response has been electrifying, to the point where, according to Mnangagwa, the government had received FDI pledges to the tune of $16bn by May 2018.

Delegation after delegation of Western business and government representatives (including from the US, the UK and the EU) have trooped to Harare in recent months and expressed satisfaction with the New Dispensation, giving Mnangagwa the confidence to smile on election posters and promise good times ahead. 

Already three election surveys, published by foreign polling agencies, have given Mnangagwa a commanding lead in the campaign. The poll results have basically underlined Zimbabwe’s status as a ‘peculiar country’ because anywhere else in Africa, Zanu-PF and Mnangagwa would not have got a look in, not after the severe economic hardships of the past few years, including the current shortage of cash in the banks (a crisis which goes back to late 2015, making life so difficult), the high unemployment in the country, the decayed national infrastructure, and the general disgruntlement in urban areas. 

But Zanu-PF knows how to look after its core constituencies. Compared to many African countries, Zimbabwe has quite a developed agricultural sector, which is pampered by the government by way of inputs, loans, and extension services. And most of the beneficiaries are smallholder farmers in rural areas who are die-hard Zanu-PF voters. If Mnangagwa should win, it is this electorate that will carry him across the line. In urban areas, however, no matter Chamisa’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ promises, Mnangagwa is going to struggle to convince voters to look at him and Zanu-PF.

Interestingly, despite the presence of Western election monitors already on the ground, Chamisa’s MDC-A is setting the scene to reject and rubbish the election results as not ‘free, fair, and credible’, if it loses. The MDC-A has already come up with demands that many see as just spoiling tactics. It is a tradition that the MDC always resorts to. And nobody should be surprised if it uses it again after 30 July.  NA

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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