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

Zimbabwean Opposition Party Implodes

The MDC appears divided over whether to take part in an election, but the real divide, along ethnic lines, has the potential to tear the party apart.
By Benedict Unendoro

With Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, on the verge of a dramatic and fatal split, there is a danger that the infighting will degenerate into tribal politics, changing the face of opposition politics in Zimbabwe.

The immediate problems in the six-year-old MDC have been created by President Robert Mugabe's decision to create a 66-member Senate or upper house of parliament, with first elections to the new body scheduled for November 26.

However, it is the tribal politics which now dominate the increasingly acrimonious discourse within the MDC leadership that is likely to ring the death knell for the party.

The MDC has taken the country back to the tribal divisions that characterised nationalist politics during the struggle against white rule. These divisions culminated in the massacres that immediately followed independence in 1980, when Mugabe's troops swept through Ndebele areas of western Zimbabwe in what was known as the “Gukurahundi” (sweeping away the chaff) campaign, killing some 20,000 to 30,000 people.

The bickering in the MDC is also reminiscent of the events leading up to the 1963 split in Zimbabwe's founding black resistance movement, the Zimbabwe African People's Union, ZAPU, which almost derailed the liberation struggle.

The schism came after ZAPU’s leadership failed to agree on how to confront the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith, in the same way that the MDC is now unable to effectively oppose Mugabe's authoritarian ZANU-PF government.

The moderate ZAPU faction led by Joshua Nkomo, an Ndebele widely regarded as the founding father of Zimbabwean nationalism, favoured negotiating a settlement with Smith and Britain, whereas the more militant wing under Ndabaningi Sithole believed armed resistance was the way to gain independence. After failing to get Nkomo to adopt a more aggressive stance, Sithole pulled out of ZAPU to form the breakaway Zimbabwe African National Union, ZANU, with Mugabe as its secretary-general.

That split contained the seeds of the Gukurahundi massacres, in which Mugabe and his government tried to block the formation of an Ndebele state.

The wounds of that era are still open. The Ndebele people have not forgotten the massacres, and the old Shona-versus-Ndebele politics that characterised the ZAPU-ZANU debate are apparent in the MDC’s current leadership wrangle.

A faction in the MDC which wants to contest the election to the Senate is led by secretary-general Welshman Ncube. He is an Ndebele, and his faction is being viewed as tribal in the same way that Nkomo’s ZAPU was seen as an Ndebele party. The camp boycotting the vote is loyal to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was born into the Manyika clan of the Shona. This faction is thus seen as Shona, just as ZANU was.

No one has satisfactorily explained why Zimbabwe needs a Senate or what its members will do.

Veteran Zimbabwean journalist Bill Saidi dismisses it as an institution his countrymen need "like a hole in the head".

The main criticism is that the Senate will provide another avenue through which Mugabe can exercise patronage, enabling him to offer salaries and perks in a kind of retirement home for failed politicians whose loyalty he wishes to retain.

"For most people, the senators will do more dozing than debating," commented Saidi.

Litany Bird, a journalist who publishes a weekly website column on her life in Zimbabwe, is critical of the MDC candidates who want to join the Senate, saying, "I cannot believe that any one of them will be able to look at themselves in the mirror and feel good about earning a living as a senator. It will be a living that ordinary people are dying, literally, to give them.

“I cannot believe that any of the MDC leaders, even one of them, think that these elections will be different - clean, unrigged, free, fair and transparent."

However, John Makumbe, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Zimbabwe, believes few if any of the pro-Senate MDC groups are likely to be elected to the new house.

He notes that ZANU-PF, delighted at seeing the MDC in disarray, is supporting the breakaway group, and comments, "Under these circumstance, they'll have nobody to campaign on their behalf."

While the two warring MDC camps may have rational arguments to support their respective attitudes towards the Senate, it is the tribal labels now attached to them that spell doom for the party as a whole.

If statements attributed to MDC vice-president Gibson Sibanda, an Ndebele, are anything to go by, then the collapse of the MDC is imminent. Sibanda was quoted in the Daily Mirror, a national daily, as saying there was a need for the formation of a separate Ndebele state along the lines of Lesotho or Swaziland, two small landlocked single-tribe countries in the shadow of South Africa.

"Ndebeles can only exercise sovereignty through creating their state like Lesotho, which is an independent state in South Africa, and it is not politically wrong to have the State of Matabeleland inside Zimbabwe," said Sibanda.

These remarks, made at a rally in Bulawayo to garner support for the Senate elections, indicate there is more to the dispute than the legitimacy of the new body. Sources in the party say the Ndebele camp may be planning to form their own party out of the current confusion, effectively becoming the heirs to ZAPU.

There is clear evidence of a full-scale conflict along tribal lines raging inside the MDC. Ncube's pro-Senate camp is made up almost entirely of Ndebeles, including party vice-president Sibanda and treasurer Fletcher Dulini-Ncube.

The voting pattern at an October meeting of the MDC's National Council on whether or not to contest the election reflected these tribal divisions. Out of the six provinces that voted in favour of participation, three are in Ndebele strongholds - Bulawayo, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South. Two other pro-participation provinces - Midlands North and South - have a strong Ndebele element within more mixed communities.

Manicaland was the only purely Shona province that voted for participation, while the rest - Chitungwiza, Harare, Mashonaland Central and Masvingo - voted against.

The Ncube camp won a narrow majority of 33 to 31 on the National Council in favour of taking part in the election. But it is increasingly clear that the pro-Senate group have the wider ambition of creating a new party based on the Ndebele, who make up about 16 per cent of Zimbabwe’s total population.

That will mean the end, in its current form at least, of the MDC, which had offered the biggest challenge to Mugabe's leadership since Zimbabwe came into being.

But in reality, the MDC has already imploded. "It looks as if Zimbabwe's best hope for a democratic future is determined to go down fighting [against] itself," said Iden Wetherell, projects editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent newspaper group.

The immediate result of a split may be that the opposition space is filled by militant public movements.

In mid-November, anti-Mugabe demonstrations were organised in major cities by the Zimbabwe National Congress of Trade Unions and other assertive organisations such as the National Constitutional Assembly.

These protest actions were, as expected, brutally suppressed by Mugabe's security forces. But the placards carried by demonstrators saying they were ready to die for a new constitution indicated that more protests are in the pipeline.

Few would argue that the party which once carried the hopes of millions has failed to deliver, and that a new force is overdue. With the worsening economic climate that saw inflation top 411 per cent in November, a popular uprising driven not by the MDC but by the grassroots becomes ever more likely.

Benedict Unendoro is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.