Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Opposition in Disarray

Mugabe sits backs as his opponents squabble amongst themselves.
Many Zimbabweans have been hoping to reverse the steep decline of their country by supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, and a civil society movement, the National Constitutional Assembly, NCA - but both have let them down.

This year the MDC declared war on itself instead of the main enemy, President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party. A serious, and sometimes violent, split opened up which left two separate factions both claiming to be the "true" MDC. The opposition infighting left the electorate confused, while Mugabe and his supporters were delighted with the turn of events.

Hope for sustained opposition switched to the NCA which was launched back in 1997 by a wide alliance of trade unionists, church groups, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists to gather public support for a new and more transparently democratic constitution.

However, the faith the public vested in the NCA has been dashed because its own leadership has begun behaving in the same dictatorial way as the man the NCA set out to topple - Mugabe.

Mugabe decided that the best way to counter the activities and ambitions of the NCA was to initiate his own programme for constitutional reform. In April 1999, the ZANU PF government set up a constitutional commission, which was given the job of drawing up a new constitution to be put before the electorate in a national referendum.

The commission was dominated by ZANU PF. Most of its 400 members, or commissioners, were Mugabe's personal nominees from the ruling party, including every one of ZANU PF's members of parliament.

Seeing its project hijacked, the NCA urged the public to boycott Mugabe's commission and the MDC also spurned it, for its proposals left the vast powers and patronage that Mugabe had acquired as president over two decades and through seventeen major constitutional amendments untouched while giving him the additional right to hold office for another decade.

The commissioners approved the draft commission and Mugabe added yet another clause allowing him to expropriate land without consultation or compensation, believing it would be popular and help to secure the rural vote in coming elections.

Mugabe miscalculated. The referendum campaign on the draft constitution in January-February 2000 came at a time of mass unemployment, increasing poverty, fuel shortages, factory closures, power cuts, crumbling public services and an unpopular war in the Congo. Public attention focused more on the government's record and the result was a stunning referendum defeat for Mugabe and a short-lived triumph for the NCA and MDC.

Mugabe responded furiously with a series of decrees that led to ZANU PF gangs armed with axes and pangas invading white farms across the country, in defiance of the law and numerous court rulings, to expel, and sometimes kill, farm-owners. The invasions destroyed agriculture, the source of Zimbabwe's main foreign exchange earnings, and triggered a meltdown of the entire economy.

Never were a resolute NCA and MDC more badly needed.

But, first, the MDC split and became politically impotent. And now, to widespread shock through wider civil society, NCA chairman Dr Lovemore Madhuku has emulated Mugabe and manipulated amendments to the pressure group's constitution to give himself an extended tenure in office beyond the two mandated five-year terms he has already served.

"This is a tragedy for Zimbabwean democracy," Douglas Mwonzora, a senior NCA official who opposed Lovemore's constitutional amendments, told IWPR. “It appears as though Madhuku has been secretly admiring the very man we have been fighting."

NCA sources said Madhuku began campaigning quietly for key amendments that entrenched his power long before the recent crucial annual general meeting where the movement's constitution was changed. Officials at the NCA's head office handpicked delegates, leaving out anyone suspected of being opposed to the changes. With control of the organisation's finances, those who opposed Madhuku said he was able to mobilise support much as Mugabe does at national level.

Opponents of the changes realised too late the degree of preparation and manipulation by Madhuku and his supporters. When they raised objections from the floor at the annual general meeting they were threatened and manhandled by the chairman's followers. Brilliant Mhlanga, a journalist on the weekly Zimbabwe Independent, wrote, "Everyone has chosen to be quiet on the violence at the NCA's annual general meeting. No one from civil society had the temerity to stand up and remind Madhuku that violence is violence …

“Civil society is showing double standards [while] Madhuku is twisting the NCA constitution inside out. They seem to be confirming the view that elites give way to elites. What a shame for democracy."

Journalist Pedzisai Ruhanya commented, "The bitter paradox of Lovemore Madhuku's political expediency is that he has done what he wants Mugabe and the president's government to stop doing."

Madhuku justified his Mugabe-style coup by saying "the people" want him to continue in power at the NCA until a new national constitution has been achieved. Only then will he step down - an echo of Mugabe's declaration that he will leave office only when "the people" say so.

"What is going on in the NCA is not what we wanted when we formed it," said senior MDC parliamentary deputy Welshman Ncube. "As one of the founding members of the NCA, I am totally dismayed that the leadership is refusing to hand over power to a third generation under the excuse of having been asked by 'the people' not to step down."

Since its formation nearly a decade ago, the NCA has been the leading light in Zimbabwe's struggle for democracy. Countless times its activists have defied draconian legislation that outlaws demonstrations and public gatherings of more than two people.

But the recent palace coup has, for the time being, left civil society with no moral high ground from which to challenge Mugabe's autocratic rule.

Speaking for many, Joseph Jemwa, a vegetable vendor in the poor Harare township of Mbare, told IWPR, "What we need now is divine intervention because we have failed to solve our problems on our own. I don't believe anyone will remove Mugabe and our suffering will just continue."

Tino Zhakata is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.