The death of Morgan Tsvangirai placed the spotlight on his young successor, Nelson Chamisa who will challenge President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the elections later this year. This week he has been in the news for a number of reasons including threatening a “winter of discontent”. But , asks Baffour Ankomah, does he stand a chance in the upcoming polls?
With the death on 14 February of the longstanding opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s upcoming general election is blown wide open, pitching a David against a Goliath, in the shape of a 40-year-old, Nelson Chamisa of the MDC, and a vastly experienced, politically wily 75-year-old, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zanu-PF.
Tsvangirai (65), leader of the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) since 1999, finally succumbed to colon cancer, heart, kidney and blood system problems on 14 February in a South African hospital. His party’s National Council, still in mourning, met on 18 February (two days before his burial) and appointed the youthful Chamisa as acting president of the party for the next 12 months.
The National Council is the highest decision-making body between the holding of party congresses, and a good 190 of its 215 members were reported to have been present at the meeting on 18 February.
Chamisa is an outspoken MP, lawyer, pastor, and one of the three MDC vice presidents who served under Tsvangirai. Considered by Tsvangirai as his unofficial anointed heir, Chamisa faced opposition even before Tsvangirai died from his covice presidents – Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe – who felt that because of their seniority in age and political experience, they should succeed Tsvangirai.
This led to infighting in the party while Tsvangirai was receiving treatment, a fight which now appears to have been laid to rest by the National Council’s decision to appoint Chamisa as acting president – that is, barring any court challenges by the aggrieved co-vice presidents, who have already rejected the National Council decision and called for a full party congress to be held after Tsvangirai’s funeral to elect a substantive party president.
If that happens, Chamisa, having already secured the support of the National Council, is likely to win. Which means he will automatically become the party’s presidential candidate for the next general election due in either June or July, and will face a formidable opponent in President Mnangagwa, who has 55 years’ experience of serving in various ministerial positions (including being a vice president) under ex-President Robert Mugabe.
Riding the wave of change
In the biblical contest between David and Goliath, the youthful David won over the hugely experienced fighting machine that Goliath was – which is a bad omen for Mnangagwa.
However, in the Zimbabwean contest, unless God descends on the side of Pastor Chamisa as he did on the side of David, there can be no hope for the youthful MP – that is, all things being equal.
But in politics, as in other spheres of life, all things are not always equal and there lies the chance for Chamisa to cause a famous upset, galvanising the huge dissatisfaction in the country, born out of a depressing economic climate that has persisted for the past 12 years.
In fact, he can ride on the back of the current wave for change in the country (especially among urban dwellers) and score a shocking victory. But the stiff challenge he faces is that Zimbabwe has more rural dwellers than urban dwellers, and rural dwellers mostly vote for Zanu-PF. Thus, not being a total political greenhorn as his youthful years try to suggest, Chamisa will have to find a way of tapping into the rural vote.
Born on 2 February 1978, Chamisa has been around for as long as Tsvangirai was MDC leader, serving in various positions in the party until Tsvangirai manoeuvred him and Mudzuri into the vice presidency in July 2016, amidst protestations from senior colleagues.
This was a good 13 years after Chamisa had become Zimbabwe’s youngest MP in 2003, aged 25, and three years after he had ceased to be a Cabinet Minister, serving between 2009 and 2013 as Minister for ICT during the inclusive government formed by Zanu-PF and the MDC after the disputed 2008 elections.
In effect, Chamisa, who is also a youth pastor of the African Faith Mission church of Zimbabwe, has some political experience, having been around for the past 19 years. His assertiveness and lively contributions in Parliament have earned him national respect. When he stands up to speak, the House hushes and listens, for he is a young man whose words carry weight in Parliament and beyond.
These are the strengths Chamisa is bringing to the presidential race, strengths that his mentor Tsvangirai had lost on account of his ill-health and other personal failings that gnawed at his moral credibility.
Yet in spite of Chamisa’s obvious plus-points, President Mnangagwa remains a difficult-to-assail political stronghold. In football terms, he is a Manchester City preparing to do battle with Yeovil Town. Thus, unless a miracle happens, which it often does in football, Mnangagwa will be home and dry.
He said in Botswana in early February that he would be around for some time, “at least for two terms” of 5 years each.
Though his current efforts at economic recovery are yet to bear fruit, because he has only been in power for three months, he is pushing himself hard enough to attract the attentions of the electorate.
Mnangagwa’s Achilles heel
What is acting against him, however, is his unwillingness to stop the unbridled misuse of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) by certain of its officials who are using their positions on the Commission to pursue personal vendettas in the name of the government, and thereby tainting the government’s good name ahead of a crucial general election.
Those errant ZACC officials have capitalised on the new dispensation brought about by Mnangagwa’s ascension to office to start a witch hunt against people (including former Cabinet Ministers they had had problems with in the past, and even the former First Lady), by preferring sometimes frivolous charges against them.
On 18 January, President Mnangagwa’s official spokesperson, George Charamba, who was also the spokesman for President Mugabe, publicly criticised ZACC in a radio interview for not following due process, and reminded the Commission that even criminals deserve justice.
“I don’t think it is a good reflex for us to approach suspects necessarily with handcuffs,” Charamba said. “First of all, they are not resisting arrest. Secondly, there is no risk that they will run away. There is a way in which we can make them account [for their alleged crimes] without necessarily having to look as if we are approaching this whole matter in a high-handed way.”
Charamba continued: “My second point of criticism [is] I don’t think newspapers and radio stations are the best media for delivering processes of justice. Yes, justice must be seen to be done, but at times it is done before it is actually done and that creates a certain sense of victimisation which does not in any way edify processes which must in fact inspire public confidence.”
Sadly, the voice that now matters most in the land – that of President Mnangagwa – has remained silent on the issue. It is a high-risk electoral gamble that might bite the President if it continues for much longer.