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Is Arthur Mutambara Zimbabwe's Hope?

Some believe Arthur Mutambara has the right qualities to bring salvation to a country crippled by a worsening series of political and economic crises.
By IWPR
Seventeen years ago a militant University of Zimbabwe student leader, Arthur Mutambara, and the radical national trades union leader Morgan Tsvangirai openly criticised the way the country was being governed by President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU PF government.



The two were among the first Zimbabweans to experience the wrath of Mugabe against his critics as popular discontent began to stir. They were arrested in October 1989 following a series of anti-corruption demonstrations which led

to the first-ever closure of the Harare-based University of Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai was detained for supporting the striking

students and condemning the shut-down of the university.



The pair were held under emergency powers retained by Mugabe from the era of white minority government. Mutambara and a fellow student, Enoch Chikweshe, were charged under the draconian pre-independence Law and Order (Maintenance) Act with publishing a subversive document that branded Mugabe's administration as worse than the white minority apartheid

government in South Africa. Tsvangirai was, among other things, accused of attempting to bring the downfall of the

government through unconstitutional means. The two shared a cell.



Today Mutambara, 39, and Tsvangirai, 53, are radical opponents, each leading rival factions of the badly split opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, which for years was Zimbabweans' main hope of political change in their country. Whichever faction eventually triumphs will decide which man gets the chance to topple the ZANU PF government and become only Zimbabwe's second state president since independence in 1980.



The MDC imploded in November in 2005, splitting between a faction eager to contest elections in January this year to a new upper house of parliament, or Senate, and a faction loyal to Tsvangirai which dismissed the Senate as a useless institution, a kind of retirement home for failed politicians loyal to President Mugabe. Tsvangirai also said it was useless contesting the election because Mugabe would again rig it as he had earlier presidential and lower house elections.



No one has yet satisfactorily explained why Zimbabwe needs a Senate nor what its limited powers are. "For most people, the senators will do more dozing than debating," commented veteran Zimbabwean journalist Bill Saidi.



Mutambara, who has not worked or lived in Zimbabwe for the past fifteen years, has emerged as leader of the pro-Senate splinter group of the MDC after being elected its president by faction supporters on February 25. Tsvangirai, the MDC's president since its formation six-and-a-half years ago, will remain leader of the anti-Senate MDC after the faction holds an electoral congress in mid-March.



Tsvangirai and Mutambara will first lock horns publicly for the use of the name MDC, as well as for the party's finances, property and symbols, before tackling Mugabe head on.



Some analysts are beginning to argue that Mutambara has the right qualities to bring salvation to a country crippled by a worsening series of political and economic crises.



"He is the man that Zimbabwe and Africa have been waiting for," one analyst told IWPR. "He is a genius of international reputation, a man of versatile talent. Tsvangirai is now history. Students of history will read that once there was a man called Tsvangirai."



Another analyst said the heavily criticised pro-Senate faction, initially led by Tsvangirai's former right-hand man Welshman Ncube, knew from early on that the breakaway party's success would depend on electing the right leader. He said he believed the faction had finally found a person in Mutambara who could successfully challenge Mugabe and eclipse Tsvangirai.



However, in an illustration of the depth and complexity of Zimbabwe's divisions, a top anti-Senate official said Tsvangirai would emerge as a clear winner. "Morgan is hero-worshipped in the opposition movement," said the official. "He is the true face of the MDC. These issues of the constitution are unnecessary niceties as far as the broad masses are concerned.



"However, it is also true that the split is a setback to opposition politics, a kind of suicide attempt for both sides. The MDC will never be the same again."



Unlike many African leaders who blame western colonisation and civilisation for plunging Africa into decades of crisis and racism since independence, Mutambara is seen as one of a wave of "new thinkers" who argue that Africans should assume responsibility for their own mistakes and seek salvation within themselves.



"Technologically, Africans are behind," he has argued. "We are not competitive. We are lagging behind and we have wrong priorities. The calibre of our leaders leaves a lot to be desired. And culturally we are not defining ourselves and not doing enough to advance our own history."



Mutambara graduated in engineering from the University of Zimbabwe. He became one of Zimbabwe's first two Rhodes Scholars at Britain's Oxford University, taking an MSc in computer engineering before obtaining a PhD in robotics and mechatronics while working with the Oxford Robotics Research Group.



In 1996 he was a visiting research fellow at California's University of Technology and at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.



Before returning recently to Zimbabwe, he had been working in South Africa for the Standard Bank and running scientific and engineering consultancies.



However, the big question is whether his intellectual and academic achievements qualify him to lead a political party?



One political analyst, who declined to be named, told IWPR it might be difficult to sell Mutambara to the electorate, because ordinary Zimbabweans do not know him. It is also an indictment of the pro-Senate faction that they have been unable to find a leader from among themselves and have had to look overseas.



"He [Mutambara] is highly educated, he has taught worldwide, is undoubtedly very intelligent," said the analyst. "But what are his credentials as a politician? People remember him as a student organiser whose leadership was responsible for the first closure of the University of Zimbabwe. At that time no one had ever challenged Mugabe openly. But does he know how to work with the ordinary people? Some say a leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe requires courage more than intellect."



A quick, unscientific survey in Harare's city centre revealed that some people remember him vaguely from his student days.



"Who is Mutambara?" asked Linda Savanhu. "You mean that guy from the University of Zimbabwe? Okay, I remember him from those demonstrations then. Where is he now?"



John Chitima said, "For president? I don't know. I know he is a genius. He might be what we have been waiting for. For me Tsvangirai has failed and he has shown that he is no different from Mugabe. I always thought that whoever will lead the country next would come from a third party. Maybe this is it."



A top anti-Senate official told IWPR the debate over the new upper house was just a smokescreen and a camouflage for the deep-rooted division already within the MDC when it was formed in 1999. He said the party was an association of people from different class backgrounds with different ideologies. Its trade unionists had advocated radical modes of confrontation such as mass actions, violent demonstrations, sanctions and isolation of the regime as a way to force the Mugabe

government out of power, while neo-liberals and professional people in the MDC, as represented by the pro-Senate faction,

wanted a conciliatory approach of constructive engagement.



The other source of division, he said, was as a result of personality clashes between intellectuals who felt Tsvangirai was not educated enough, and lacked sophisticated leadership skills, and others who argued a man cannot be defined purely by the amount of schooling he has been privileged to receive. Tsvangirai, one of nine children of a bricklayer, left school early to become a miner. He later worked as an official in the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and was appointed its president, before emerging as a political force in 1999 when he helped form the MDC and was elected its leader.



"The Senate was a powder keg issue," said the anti-Senate official. "The rift has since widened as accusations and counter-accusations have been traded. The pro-Senate people accused Tsvangirai of being dictatorial, working in violation of the party constitution and suspending party decisions in favour of his kitchen cabinet decisions.



"And Tsvangirai accused the pro-Senate faction of being sell-outs and working in cahoots with the CIO [Mugabe's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation] and ZANU PF and South African president Thabo Mbeki.



"It would appear that the break is now permanent and that all attempts at mediation to resolve the differences have not borne any fruit."



Asked if the split means the end of a formidable opposition party in Zimbabwe, the official said, "No. ZANU PF is beyond political redemption". And if that is the case, he said, then whichever person comes out top in the struggle between the two MDC factions will be the person who eventually leads Zimbabwe into a new era.



Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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