Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

The MDC drives itself further into a corner over Roy Bennett

Posted by CM on October 18, 2009

Clearly the MDC had to react strongly to Roy Bennett’s shabby treatment by the Zimbabwe government’s legal prosecuting authorities. The senior party official has been indicted yet again on ‘terrorism’ charges that few people believe have any credibility, and that the government has previouslly failed to prosecute. Not only that, but the government of which the MDC is now a part was clearly itching to send him back to prison, although he won bail within a day or so. The harassment of Bennett continues, and in this case in a way designed by the authorities to show how powerless the MDC really is, and how much in effective control Mugabe and ZANU-PF remain, which may be the whole point of the exercise. It must be remembered that all this is on top of the fact that Bennett, the MDC’s choice for deputy agriculture minister in the inclusive government, has not been sworn in since his nomination many months ago, on the grounds of the charges that have been hanging over him.

So I have no trouble understanding that the MDC felt compelled to protest the latest indictment and jailing of Bennett in very strong terms, both because of what seems like very clear persecution of Bennett (the state has so far dismally failed to make a strong case for its terrorism charges against him in previous court appearances) as well as for the MDC to “save face.”

Since joining the inclusive government ZANU-PF has gone out of its way to show in many ways that it does not have the slightest intention to share any meaningful, effective power with the MDC, to the increasing embarrassment of Morgan Tsvangirai and his party. Long before this latest ‘provocation,’ there have been many arguably more serious ones the MDC has protested but withstood in the name of giving their best effort to making the difficult inclusive government work. But as those provocations have continued and escalated, the MDC has been driven further into a corner and pressure has been growing on the party to take some sort of strong stand to try to show that it has not simply rolled over and played dead to the ZANU-PF steamroller.

But was the dramatically announced ‘disengagement’ by the MDC from government and from ‘cooperation with ZANU-PF’ the best way to protest its being sidelined? What does ‘disengagement’ from a government you remain a part of really mean anyway?

Pulling out of the inclusive government would not have been wise for the MDC to do, for many reasons, although that is the strongest statement they are in a position to make. The fact of the existence inclusive government (not so much anything any of the participating parties have done or not done) has been an overwhelmingly positive symbol to battle-scarred Zimbabweans. In its short existence that mere existence of the inclusive government and what it has done to dramatically reduce political tension in the country has quickly been translated to many other areas of life, including and perhaps mainly in the beginnings of economic normalization.

It would therefore not only be irresponsible for any of the parties to the inclusive government to pull out of it now, it would also be politically very risky, with the withdrawing party accused by Zimbabweans of all political persuasions of dragging the country back to the political and economic depths of recent years. Sure there will be diehards in all the parties who were opposed to the very idea of the inclusive government, but particularly now, I believe the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans believe its existence has brought about huge changes for the better, with prospects for a lot more. The irony is that it is not obvious to me that any of the individual political parties are the direct beneficiary so far of the public approval of the joint government.

Secondly, the new-to-government MDC office holders will be in no hurry to give up the many material inducements of holding office. The salaries may not be much at the moment, but there are the new cars, the foreign trips at public expense and many other perks suddenly available. Issues of principle aside, MDC office holders are not going to give up these personal advantages to go back to the uncertainties of what is still a very difficult economic environment.

For all these reasons and more, withdrawal from the unity government is at this point is neither a realistic nor attractive option for the MDC. What to do then to protest the many humiliations to which the ZANU-PF partner seems intent on goading the MDC with?  A very difficult question, for sure.

I am not going to pretend to have a ready answer to this question. But at first glance there appear to me to be many reasons that the ‘dis-engagement’ is unlikely to achieve any meaningful concessions for the MDC from ZANU-PF, and may create additional problems.

While appreciating why pulling out of the government now is not a good option for the MDC, the notion of “we are still in but we are dis-engaging from ZANU-PF” sounds confusing at best, absurd at worst. How do you stay in the government but ‘dis-engage?’ The MDC runs the risk of being ridiculed with, “they want to go AWOL to sulk at being outmanoeuvred by ZANU-PF at every turn, but they want to also hold on to their perks while doing so.” How on earth does a prime minister boycott meetings of ‘his’ own cabinet?!

ZANU-PF may attempt to thwart the MDC from exercising any real power at every turn, but I don’t believe they want to push the MDC out of the unity government. As much as ZANU-PF may despise the MDC, the general and very quick improvement in overall conditions in the country as a result of the parties coming together in government is clear to all. Being seen to be pushing out the MDC would also be politically/electorally risky to ZANU-PF because of the many Zimbabweans who are just relieved at the breathing space the economy and life in general have received as a result of the two parties having called a truce. Therefore neither party has anything to gain from taking the blame for the collapse of the current arrangement, no matter how imperfect it is.

The ideal situation for ZANU-PF is for the MDC to remain part of the government but to then keep on whittling away as much of its power/authority as possible. That way ZANU-PF can claim a facade of democratic inclusiveness, of continuing to respect regional body SADC’s compromise solution to the country’s political impasse, but doing so while continuing to unilaterally hold on to all the reins of real power. But although this may be ZANU-PF’s preferred scenario, this preference is not likely to be strong enough for it to want to plead with the MDC to ‘re-engage’ with it.

Already ZANU-PF has coolly reacted to the MDC’s theatrics with a dismissive shrug. It has been announced that cabinet and other government business will continue even without the MDC. This was predictable. What will the MDC do now? To sheepishly ‘re-engage’ without having one any concessions from ZANU-PF will just make the MDC look ridiculous and weak. Yet the ‘dis-engagement’ is not much of a leverage to get ZANU-PF to do anything. If the MDC’s ill-defined disengagement continues too long they would have effectively fired themselves from government without any real plan B.

“Constitutional crisis,” some would say, “an election would then have to be held.” Even if so, there is 30 years of evidence to show how ZANU-PF would simply refuse to have the terms of how and when that election is held to be dictated to it, whether by SADC or ‘the international community,’ two centers of influence that the MDC has previously put far too much faith and hope in. While ZANU-PF would not want to be accused of having directly or deliberately pushed out   the MDC from the inclusive government, they are certainly not going to lose any sleep if the MDC  ‘disengages’ itself from participating permanently.

It may be that Bennett may finally and clearly win his case in the courts. But the MDC leader went out of his way to state that Bennett’s treatment was not the only reason for the MDC’s disengagement, that it was just one additional consideration to many other slights the party has suffered at the hands of its ZANU-PF unity government partner. This means that even if the persecution-prosecution of Bennett should now stop, the MDC has implied that it would expect to see many other conditions met before it ‘re-engaged’ with ZANU-PF in doing government business. Yet the MDC has no apparent or easy leverage to wring any significant concession out of ZANU-PF at this point.

The timing of the announcement by the MDC to ‘dis-engage’ means that it will always be perceived by the public that Bennett’s latest troubles were the direct trigger, no matter what Tsvangirai and his officials may say about that merely being the straw that broke the camel’s back. While the party clearly had to take a strong stand in regards to Bennett’s treatment, having the treatment of one man, and this particular one,  linked in the public’s perception with the disengagement is unfortunate for the MDC. It is to appear to give his ill-treatment greater importance than that of the many other MDC officials and members who have or continue to suffer even worse treatment at the hands of various arms of government than Bennett has done. Likewise, if the MDC is seen to be ‘re-engaging’ primarily because the pressure on Bennett has been lifted (legally, politically or both) but without any other significant concessions, similar unfortunate signals would be sent to the national, African and wider international public about the MDC!

So clearly the MDC has been in a very difficult position from day one of its involvement in the unity government, and from many angles. It may well have won the last election outright but had no way to effect that win in the face of a cynical ZANU-PF that was quite prepared to do anything to hold on in power. Even if the MDC really won the vote, the doubt and antipathy of regional and other African leaders towards Tsvangirai and his party is stronger than their respect for the electoral will of Zimbabweans! So neither SADC nor the African Union is inclined to side with the MDC unless Mugabe and ZANU-PF do something so outrageous that they are forced to. The hope that the MDC’s Western backers would turn on the aid taps has not been realised and will not be as long as the party clearly remains the junior partner of the inclusive government. That in turn further weakens the MDC and removes another of what was one of its main points of leverage in the early days of the arrangement (‘respect us and treat us well because it is through us that our rich friends in Europe and America will make milk and honey flow in the streets of Harare’) and has probably emboldened ZANU-PF to think that it would not be any great loss if the MDC pulled out. And on and on.

Yes, the MDC’s frustrations are quite understood.But given all of the foregoing, what is it that the MDC really hopes to achieve with it’s ill-defined ‘disengagement?’ Faced with a clearly insincere partner in government, certainly its choices were limited and difficult. But out of those, the party seems to have exercised the most awkward and ineffectual one. Until I become aware of some brilliant hidden strategy behind the ‘disengement’ which is not apparent to me now, it is difficult to see how the MDC will come off stronger in any sense from its announced stance.

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