Zimbabwe: How Morgan Tsvangirai saved the Mugabe regime

Tsvangirai and Mugabe at the signing ceremony for the unity government in September 2008.

By Tendai Dumbutshena

February 2, 2009 -- After the June 27, 2008, putsch by Zimbabwe ruler Robert Mugabe signs were always there that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was headed for surrender. It officially happened on January 30, 2009, when the party hoisted a white flag on top of its Harvest House headquarters. What followed was a pathetic attempt by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to portray this decision to join the unity government without any of the MDC's conditions being met as some sort of victory.[Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister on February 11, 2009.]

Equally pathetic was a plea to Mugabe to be treated as an equal partner. There is a fat chance of that happening. The old tyrant must have chuckled when he heard this.

What the MDC has done goes beyond naiveté and lack of strategic nous. It is an ineptitude [that leaves one] breathless at its magnitude. Besides guaranteeing an inevitable demise of the party as a political force, it has more importantly set back for many years the struggle for the democratic transformation of Zimbabwe. It threw a lifeline to a vile regime that was on the verge of death.

Mugabe and Southern African Development Community leaders were desperate for the MDC to join a government of national unity to save the Zimbabwe leader from an ignominious downfall.

Tsvangirai had a big bargaining chip in his hand. He did not use it. He could not even get Mugabe to concede on modest and reasonable demands. On the basis of mere promises from a man who honours them more in their breach than observance, he joined the unity government.

The damage, however, was not done on January 30, 2009. It was done on September 11, 2008, when the MDC signed an agreement that legitimised Mugabe's coup d'etat. Before that the MDC had maintained that a unity government had to reflect the wish of the people as expressed in the March 29 election. The MDC won that election at all levels of government. This meant the party and its leader had to be top dogs in a unity government.

The reality is that they have been co-opted as junior partners on its margins. Tsvangirai is not even second to Mugabe. He comes fourth after Joseph Msika and Joice Mujuru the two vice-presidents. Even more critical, all executive power is vested in Mugabe as head of government and state. Tsvangirai is a prime minister without any executive power. He is a glorified cabinet minister. The only power he will exercise is to give Mugabe names of MDC ministers.

Once the MDC conceded the presidency to Mugabe, ignoring the expressed wishes of the electorate, it was on a slippery slope to capitulation. Now the party is at the mercy of Mugabe. All talk by Tsvangirai of outstanding matters being resolved before he is sworn in as prime minister on February 11 is deceitful. There will be no more concessions from Mugabe. All that awaits Tsvangirai is further marginalisation and humiliation. He has made his bed and Mugabe will ensure that he lies in it.

All five conditions for joining government that the MDC spelt out in official resolutions have not been met. As stated above Mugabe refused to yield a centimetre when Tsvangirai was in a strong bargaining position. What chance is there for him to make any concession when Tsvangirai has no single card to play? A statement announcing the MDC's decision claimed that this represented a transition to democracy.

"This inclusive government will serve as a transitional authority leading to free and fair elections," it said.

A transition to free and fair elections in a government dominated by Mugabe is a classic oxymoron. Who will guarantee that whenever elections are held Mugabe will break with tradition and allow people to choose their leaders freely? Where in the agreement does it say elections will be held after a stipulated transitional period? It only refers to a review of the agreement after the adoption of a new constitution without committing to an election. It is up to Mugabe to decide how long this government lasts. He will tolerate the MDC for as long as he needs to. When the MDC is surplus to requirements he will, through an election that he controls, get rid of it.

The post-March 29 and -June 27 period was a crucial one. Sadly, the MDC leadership at this defining moment lacked focus and strategic coherence. It was all over the place. It clearly had not anticipated a victory in March and planned for Mugabe's predictable response to it. Conflicting and contradictory statements emanated from an assortment of spokespersons. The left hand did not know what the right one was doing. It was not clear in which direction the party was headed.

Tsvangirai spent too long outside the country when his followers were under violent siege from Mugabe's coercive apparatus. There was a leadership vacuum in opposition ranks. It was bad politics on Tsvangirai's part. A strong impression was created that he was more concerned about his security and welfare than that of his supporters.

Meanwhile Mugabe, who had been thrown off balance by an unexpected electoral defeat, regained his nerve and composure. He focused on the job at hand – remaining in power. His focus was not distracted by any concern for the welfare of the country and its inhabitants. He long ago ceased to pretend that the welfare of Zimbabweans was a matter that exercised his mind. That is the hallmark of the man soon to be Tsvangirai's boss.

A conclusion to draw from all of this is that the MDC decided to join the unity government for two reasons. First, they no longer have the stomach to fight Mugabe. Fear and fatigue have taken their toll. There is no more fuel in the tank. Refusal to join the unity government would certainly have been followed by a massive crackdown against the party.

Surrender was the best form of defence.

Second, the MDC leadership was seduced by the material comforts of office. Better a large air-conditioned office than a communal cell in Chikurubi. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Let us just take what is on offer.

It will be a busy time for Tsvangirai while Mugabe still needs him. Armed with a diplomatic passport his first and most important task will be to travel to Western capitals to get sanctions against Mugabe and his cronies lifted. This is his most important duty so that visits to London and other desirable destinations can resume. Much-needed economic relief has to be secured from the same Western countries.

Tsvangirai has to convince those who control international purse strings that his association with Mugabe's regime has sufficiently cleansed it to deserve a financial rescue package. Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono, who is going nowhere, and Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) will be grateful beneficiaries of such largesse. Once this is achieved Tsvangirai will become expendable, to be gotten rid off at a time that suits Mugabe.

In the months to come Tsvangirai must get used to life as Mugabe's useful underling. He must learn quickly how to win his favour from the craven pipsqueaks who have surrounded Mugabe for years. There will be frequent visits to State House to pay homage to the boss. An occasional gift to the First Lady will endear him to His Excellency. At least he will have the satisfaction of seeing the inside of State House, something the Mugabes vowed he would never do.

Even in defeat lie small comforts.

Tsvangirai had a good chance to ascend to the presidency of the country and change Zimbabwe for the better. He threw that chance out of the window on January 30. The seeds of that surrender were planted after March 29 when a catalogue of appalling decisions was taken by the MDC. They culminated in a decision that rescued a dying regime.

Even more tragic is the fact that a golden opportunity to transform Zimbabwe into a free society was missed. Nine years of struggle by the MDC came to nought. The buck stops with Tsvangirai.

In a most perverse way he became Mugabe's saviour at a moment of near death for the despot.

[This article first appeared at Pambazuka News.]