by Chido Makunike
I recently expressed how I did not believe Simba Makoni had the fortitude to break away from ZANU-PF and challenge President Mugabe, as had been long rumoured he was contemplating doing. I argued that Makoni was more of a follower than a leader, and that he was poorly suited for the task of taking on Mugabe and leading Zimbabwe out of its multi-faceted morass. I further said Makoni’s recent meeting with Mugabe and his silent coyness in regards to the speculation swirling around him did nothing to inspire confidence that he was ready or equipped for a task many have wished to thrust on his shoulders.
Makoni has since announced that he is after all going to be a presidential contender in the election of March 29.
An initial inclination of mine on hearing of Makoni’s announcement was to apologise to him for that part of my article that expressed doubts that he had the guts to come out and openly criticise and challenge his former government and present party boss. On reflection I have decided to postpone an apology until it becomes clearer whether Makoni has jumped into the presidential race willingly and wholeheartedly, or whether he was pushed kicking and screaming into it by circumstances.
Unless it is part of some mysterious, hitherto unknown campaign strategy, the way Makoni has entered the presidential race initially appears as messy as his silence during the months of “will he or won’t he?” speculation.
Makoni indicated that as recently as his January 21 meeting with Mugabe, the talk about his presidential bid was still merely speculation. A pertinent question that goes to the heart of how seriously he takes the task of taking on an entrenched, ruthless incumbent is why he left a decision until so late. There is not much time to campaign across the country and officialdom has countless ways to frustrate public gatherings of opponents. The government’s dirty tricks and propaganda machinery have already been revved up against him in the few days since his announcement. Yet he does not have access to sympathetic or even merely impartial daily mass media to get his message across and correct distortions in the less than two months until election day.
What did he tell Mugabe at the January 21 meeting? If he had at that time not yet decided to take the plunge, is it not reasonable to assume he would have been anxious to re-assure a sceptical Mugabe of his continued loyalty? If so, in doing so would Makoni have been angling himself to benefit from favourable positioning in the then pending ZANU-PF primary election process?
If Makoni had indeed been in discussions with kindred spirits about a presidential challenge for months, then he has been a part of the system long enough to know that Mugabe would have long ago got wind of it. If he denied this to the president two weeks ago, his reversal suggests he either then changed his mind about an initial decision not to run, or he out rightly misled his former mentor. Living aside any moralistic issues which it is difficult to invoke with a party with ZANU-PF’s bloody, ruthless history, either of the two scenarios raises even more troubling questions about Makoni’s tactical readiness for the task of taking on Mugabe.
Apart from the question of the inexplicable lateness of making a decision, what has changed in the last fortnight to have tipped a previously seemingly reluctant Makoni into running? Is it that his candidature for the ZANU-PF primaries was rejected? Has he been stung by criticisms that he did not have what it took to take a bold stand? His democratic right to challenge Mugabe for whatever reason is not in question, but the answers of many voters to questions like these will determine how serious the challenge turns out to be. Makoni can significantly influence public opinion on this in the way he conducts himself and develops his campaign in the coming days and weeks.
On that score Makoni’s strategy is very puzzling. Obviously he would have secured high level ZANU-PF backers to take the risky gambit of daring to challenge the king. Already The Herald has shown that the system’s official reaction will be not to address the issues of what the incumbent intends to do to solve the country’s worsening problems with another term. It is instead to vacuously, indignantly ask, “how dare anybody challenge the king at all?” and to throw the usual allegations of dissenters being agents of foreign forces.
Why then have Makoni’s backers, said repeatedly to be “the Mujuru faction” of ZANU-PF, not come out to publicly stand by “their” candidate? Are they not sure of him or their cause, or they just hedging their bets to go in whichever direction the political wind blows on March 29? What message does this send to the voters? Does Makoni represent the promise of a fundamentally new brand of politics, or is he just a new front man for the old ZANU-PF backroom deals that have corrupted the essence of democracy in Zimbabwe and brought the country so low? Is Makoni offering himself as just the replacement of a tired individual incumbent with no more to offer the country, or as someone spearheading the attempted overhauling of a corrupt, dysfunctional system?
Who are the “Mujuru faction” we have read about for years, and what is it that binds them into a faction? If they have reached a level of organization and confidence to sponsor a presidential candidate, surely they should now come out into the open, identify their membership and state what they stand for to the public. If Makoni is being backed by a shadowy secret society, perhaps voters should not be too quick to jump on his bandwagon, lest they create and support new kinds of monsters.
On these scores so far, Makoni cues continue to suggest the worrying wishy-washiness I alluded to last week. He is standing as an independent but no, he is not making a clean break with ZANU-PF, although he must know that his candidature will likely mean the party will make a clean break with him! This brings up an old issue that has long dogged him: the perception that he is reactive rather than proactive.
Makoni affirmed his “faith in and loyalty to the party.” He also “would very much have wished to stand as its official candidate” before lamenting, “that opportunity was denied to any other cadre who would have offered themselves to serve the party and country.” Would that frustration of open democratic challenge within ZANU-PF not then have been the right occasion to announce his parting company with the party?
It is Makoni’s right to try to pose as an independent while also trying to keep one foot within ZANU-PF, as awkward and untenable a balancing act as that may be. But this makes it unclear if his fundamental beef is with the way the party and its president run its affairs and that of the country, or just that his ambitions have not been accommodated. He will know that cynics will contend that despite his nice-guy image, he has remained a senior member of the ruling party long after it became obvious that it was “leading” the country to ruin. It is for that very reason that he now belatedly joins much of the rest of the country in attributing Zimbabweans’ hardships to “failure by national leadership.” Makoni squandered the dramatic opportunity of his announcement by not making these things abundantly clear.
It should be part of Zimbabwe’s painful learning curve in creating a system of governance that suits its needs to ask these and similar questions of people presenting themselves as potential leaders. A blind, naïve and overly trustful faith in individuals is how the country has found itself hurtling into one disaster after another, with no ready means to turn out the engineers of the disasters. Building a reliable process of preventing and/or correcting this anomaly is the more important challenge than the immediate relief offered by any half-way credible presidential challenger to the disastrous status quo.
None of these points takes away from the huge symbolic importance of a top ZANU-PF insider directly challenging President Mugabe at the ballot box, flawed as the electoral environment may be. No longer will it be possible for the ruling party to pretend to be a happy united block despite the abundant evidence of the country being in intensive care. It was becoming an increasing embarrassment to ZANU-PF itself that it had failed to have a segment concerned enough about the destruction of the country to openly join the rest of the citizenry in saying “things are not right, and we see no plan in place to arrest that situation.”
Regardless of what happens on March 29, these are the dying days of the Mugabe dispensation. By one means or another, Zimbabwe is entering a stage in which political actors will in future have to account for their roles at today’s crucial juncture in the country’s progression. There will soon come a time of reckoning in which politicians will have to answer the question, “what did you say and do to contribute to trying to salvage the nation at that mad time of decline, hardship and oppression?” Many who are living large in their positions of supporting the status quo will be found on the wrong side of the country’s history.
Simba Makoni risked being cast among those who would have been found to have failed to have used their power, privilege and positions within the ruling party to have taken a strong stand against the destruction of their country out of fear and/or short term gain. By finally overcoming his fear and comfort to join other Zimbabweans who wish to take back their oppressed, impoverished country from its vicious hijackers, Makoni may have just begun the long process of rehabilitating his reputation for posterity. Depending on the answers he provides to the many puzzling questions about his bid, with this role Makoni may yet make a far more significant contribution to a true democratic progression of Zimbabwe than any he did as a coddled, high flying functionary of the system that has landed the country where it is today.