By Alex Magaisa
The week ended with an explosive exchange between MDC-T leader Douglas Mwonzora and one of his deputies, Thokozani Khupe. On the one hand, Douglas Mwonzora declared that Khupe had been suspended from the party citing a litany of alleged transgressions. On the other hand, Khupe convened a press conference-cum-rally the following day at which she made a counter-declaration that Mwonzora had automatically expelled himself from the party. She also cited several alleged constitutional violations by Mwonzora. She also made the sensational declaration that the party had split.
No honour amongst thieves
This circus is a new nadir for the small pseudo-opposition party which owes its existence to a controversial act of judicial reconstruction in March 2020. But the news could hardly have been a surprise to keen observers of the Zimbabwean political scene. The political partnership between Mwonzora and Khupe has long been a marriage of convenience fortified solely by a jointly held contempt toward Nelson Chamisa, who leads the MDC Alliance.
The three are erstwhile partners who until his untimely demise in 2018 were subordinates working under Morgan Tsvangirai. Whatever bonds there were ruptured and irretrievably broken down in the messy race to succeed Tsvangirai. Of the trio, Chamisa took the largest chunk of the old party under the MDC Alliance in terms of supporters. Mwonzora and Khupe may have a smaller portion of the support, but they retained the larger chunk of the assets courtesy of the regime’s partiality.
Unsurprisingly, it is these two that are squabbling over their loot. Carrying out the heist is easy enough among robbers. Sharing the loot is always a difficult proposition that leads to friction and division. This is because the common purpose in the stealing enterprise soon gives way to the parochial interests of individual gang members. As the adage goes, there is no honour amongst thieves.
Signs of friction between the two became more evident in the run-up to the party’s Extraordinary Congress held in December 2020 when Khupe purported to suspend Mwonzora. There were also allegations that Mwonzora had misappropriated party funds, with an erstwhile ally, one Patson Murimoga making a report to the police. At the time Khupe was the Acting President of the party and Mwonzora was the Secretary-General. Her efforts came to nought, but the episode showed that the two had fallen out. Further divisions were to emerge in the coming weeks when the party held its poorly attended Extraordinary Congress.
The circumstances of the Extraordinary Congress were farcical. Khupe was allegedly subjected to acts of violence. She lost the contest for the presidency to Mwonzora amid allegations of gross irregularities, which Khupe is raising again. Although she and other candidates cried foul at the time, it was to no avail. Mwonzora prevailed and sought to pacify his vanquished comrades by handing them senior roles in the party. Khupe became a co-Vice President alongside Elias Mudzuri while Morgen Komichi was given the party chairmanship. These sweeteners were supposed to keep the defeated onside.
But the second prize was never going to soothe Khupe’s bruised ego. Her heart was after the golden prize. After all, she believed that she was the rightful successor to Morgan Tsvangirai, the iconic founding leader of the original MDC who died in 2018. She had deputized him for more than a decade, only to see the presidency being snatched from under her nose during the messy succession battles in February 2018. But in what seemed to be an act of political redemption, the Supreme Court had restored her to the presidency of the party in March 2020. She must have seen this as a stepping-stone to assuming full title to lead the party in the long term.
Khupe’s inexplicable naivety
However, for all her experience in politics, Khupe was naïve to the designs of Mwonzora and Komichi, erstwhile enemies who had suddenly turned to her side. Mwonzora and Komichi had ditched Khupe in her hour of need in February 2018, choosing to run with Chamisa. It was a rational choice because they stood a better chance of getting into parliament with Chamisa and the MDC Alliance than with Khupe and her MDC-T outfit. Indeed, the two men had sashayed their way into the Senate using Khupe’s misery as a stepping-stone.
But now here they were, purporting to be her newfound allies. Khupe barely noticed that these two men were merely looking out for their personal interests, having lost their lustre in the MDC Alliance. They had just competed for senior roles at the MDC Alliance Congress and lost dismally. Wounded and bleeding, they were political strays looking for a new home. Their association with Khupe was not to support her political dreams. Rather, they were using her to further their personal ambitions.
Alternatively, knowing that their ambition was to run against her, she could have been more astute in securing her passage to power. But she allowed Mwonzora to take centre stage. She sold her soul when she accepted unjust freebies such as the appointment to parliament as a proportional representation MP. Here was a former presidential candidate who had won a paltry number of votes now taking a parliamentary seat that had been won by a party that she had opposed and competed against in that election.
It was embarrassing, but it demonstrated that this was never based on principle but sheer personal interest. But the impact on whatever moral authority she still had at the time was devastating. Mwonzora thought she would become more beholden to him, but considering current events, that expectation was exaggerated. Khupe has never been one to give in when she feels hard done by. She had defied Tsvangirai before and Mwonzora, a man far smaller than Tsvangirai in political stature was not going to do any better.
After the controversial Extraordinary Congress, Khupe threw a mighty tantrum. She became truant, skipping meetings, the same conduct she had adopted in the last days of Tsvangirai’s leadership following the controversial appointment of Chamisa and Mudzuri by Tsvangirai in 2016. Lightning had defied the odds and struck twice. Eventually, realizing that there was no respite, she trudged back to Mwonzora, reluctantly accepting the co-deputy presidency. To sweeten it, Mwonzora ranked her higher than Mudzuri, naming her first vice president.
But clearly, this was not enough. It was still a reduction in rank, and it hit hard. By comparison, just a few months before she had strutted around the political stage as a leader of the group of losing candidates that accepted Mnangagwa’s invitation to the Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD). POLAD was one of Mnangagwa’s puppet shows that he created soon after the 2018 general elections to hoodwink the international community with a pretence of political inclusivity. None of the candidates’ performances had registered on the political Richter scale. They were just happy to join the gravy train. In return, Mnangagwa has showered them with freebies.
The other puppet project was the Presidential Advisory Council (PAC), which bunched several cronies under the guise of providing counsel to Mnangagwa. Those who might have genuinely albeit naively thought that they would be of service soon reconciled themselves with the fact that their principal was not serious. They realized that they were providing a service as enablers of a stubborn and kleptocratic regime.
Mnangagwa’s treatment of Khupe gave her a misleading impression that she was his favourite. She saw others from the opposition getting rewards – ambassador roles, commissioners, etc. In return, she went the extra mile to praise Mnangagwa while undermining his rival, Chamisa. She had transformed from being an opposition to the government to becoming opposition to the opposition. Mnangagwa entrusted her to lead a mission to the US to promote re-engagement and campaign against sanctions. Only the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic stood in her path as the mission was cancelled.
The mission did not take off, but it was enough to feed into the hubristic tendencies that had already crept into her mind. The problem was that as she pre-occupied herself with appeasing Mnangagwa, her rival Mwonzora was busy plotting to take over the party leadership. In the end, she was left with nothing, and her newfound buddy, Mnangagwa was nowhere to be found when she needed his help. She saw her erstwhile associate cultivating a relationship with her nemesis, Mwonzora who was already dreaming of being Prime Minister.
An uneasy relationship
Over the past year, the frosty relationship between Khupe and Mwonzora was also evident. For Mwonzora, appointing her as co-deputy president was his application of the war strategy of keeping one’s enemy closest. He believed it was a way of managing her and the constituency that she supposedly represents in the Matabeleland region, which based on the 2018 election outcomes may be exaggerated. Khupe was just happy to retain her place on the gravy train. After all, she knew she did nothing to deserve her seat in parliament. Her allies, like Phugeni, were also in the same boat. They were eminently undeserving beneficiaries of the seats that were handed to them by Mwonzora.
Ultimately, theirs was a tense relationship that was never going to last. The problem with the relationship between Khupe and Mwonzora was that it was built on nothing else beyond their common bitterness toward Chamisa and their desire to exact vengeance. Khupe never forgave Chamisa for snatching the Acting Presidency during the confusion following Tsvangirai’s demise. Mwonzora never forgave Chamisa for thwarting first his presidential ambitions in the MDC Alliance and later his more limited goal to remain as Secretary-General. Both were thus united by their desire to punish and humiliate Chamisa. But this blinded them to the fact that Chamisa had the largest share of MDC supporters, and their sustained assault did nothing to endear them to these multitudes. If anything, they reduced their standing in their eyes. It made them look like enablers of the regime.
Mwonzora’s unforced error
The other problem is that while they were united in their hostility toward Chamisa, they forgot that they did not like each other very much. The relationship worked only if they were attacking Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. Without it, there was nothing in common between them; nothing serious that held them together. Therefore, it came as no surprise that if they were not fighting Chamisa, they found themselves fighting each other, ready to pick on and capitalize on the other’s mistakes. Mwonzora committed an unforced error when, in his quest to destroy Chamisa, he recently announced that he was now leading the MDC Alliance. He forgot that this was the very same reason that he had fired Chamisa in 2020 to exclude him from the Extraordinary Congress. He had also used it to justify the mass expulsion of MPs and councillors. No wonder Khupe is giving him a dose of his own medicine, accusing him of having expelled himself from the MDC-T by that declaration. Mwonzora forgot that while he was jabbing Chamisa, he was also opening a gap for Khupe to throw an uppercut.
But this pattern of inconsistency has been the hallmark of Mwonzora’s brief stint at the helm of the judicially reconstructed entity. The very case that resulted in the Supreme Court judgment challenged the late Tsvangirai’s appointment of two deputy presidents in 2016 as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the argument that these appointments were unconstitutional. While Mwonzora celebrated the judgment, soon after his controversial election at the Extraordinary Congress in December 2020, he went on to do the same thing, appointing Khupe and Mudzuri as co-deputy presidents of the party! And regarding the MDC Alliance: in 2018 he boldly stated that the MDC Alliance was a political party. In 2020, he made an astonishing about-turn claiming that the MDC Alliance was never a political party. To top off the hypocrisy, in 2022 he makes a spectacular somersault, claiming that he leads the MDC Alliance!
Chamisa’s advantage from adversity
While the sustained assault against Chamisa was hard, it ironically also worked to his advantage. It saw him losing control of the party headquarters, MPs in parliament, and councillors in local authorities, and party funding under the public funding legislation was damaging. The party’s name has also come under serious threat. This accumulation of losses would have felled any giant. But instead of collapsing Chamisa and the MDC Alliance, the long assault made them stronger. This happened for several reasons.
First, the continual attacks created a siege mentality in the MDC Alliance. When people realize that they are facing an existential threat, they tend to rally around their entity and its leadership as a matter of survival. People realized that the MDC Alliance’s very existence was in jeopardy and rallied around their leadership in an unprecedented fashion. For example, realizing that their party had been unjustly deprived of its public funding which it had legitimately earned in the 2018 elections, citizens in the diaspora began intensive fund-raising campaigns to support the party. In the past, citizens had outsourced the responsibility of party funding to individual and foreign donors. The siege generated new forms of activism centered around resource mobilization outside traditional party structures.
Second, the existence of a common threat meant that party supporters were more focused on the threat than on any concerns that they might have had regarding their leadership. In normal times, Chamisa and his team would have been the subject of serious scrutiny and perhaps criticism from supporters and other observers. The opposition party has always had a hard time in the period between elections. The existential crisis during this term spared Chamisa and his team the same levels of scrutiny. Instead, they benefited from public empathy considering that they were systematically attacked by the regime and its surrogates. There were bigger villains out there and this allowed Chamisa and his team some relief from public scrutiny.
Third, the existence of a common threat helped to bind the leadership together and avoid public conflicts that would undermine the party. There is no political party that does not have factions and the MDC Alliance is no exception. In quieter times, factional politics in the MDC Alliance might have been more prominent. However, in this period of turmoil, when the party has been under severe threat, factions have kept a low and less defined profile, choosing instead to publicly rally around the leader and present a picture of a united party. The siege has therefore actually helped the party to remain more intact than it might have been in normal times. But this does not in any way blind the MDC Alliance from the fundamental reforms that are required to make sure that the party is ready for elections. With the MDC-T circus soon out of the way, greater scrutiny will return to the party.
What happens now?
The MDC-T led by Mwonzora was supposed to pose a challenge to and affect Chamisa’s MDC Alliance. The endgame was to destroy the MDC Alliance. Ironically, it is the Mwonzora-Khupe project that is collapsing like a deck of cards, less than two years after the dubious judicial reconstruction. Mwonzora made his pitch based on the so-called “politics of rational disputation”, which always sounded empty considering the way he was vindictively and systematically sacking the MDC Alliance’s elected representatives. Now with the sacking of his deputy, his moral authority to preach rational disputation is exhausted.
The split will also affect Mwonzora’s vain hopes of negotiating any serious political deal with Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa cannot take him seriously when he cannot even hold his beleaguered small party together. Mwonzora’s claim to a legitimate right to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement was based on the notion that he had control of a united opposition party. Now he is holding on to a broken party, his claim is significantly eroded. He only has to look at how Mnangagwa treated Khupe to appreciate what awaits him. She quickly dropped off his radar once she had lost the leadership of the party.
Both Khupe and Mwonzora were desperate for inclusion in the regime and Mnangagwa has always been aware of their desperation. They pursued a policy of appeasement with the regime and tried too hard to be in good books with Mnangagwa. However, both suffered one serious handicap: they had no independent political capital. Political capital is derived from the authority that comes from the people. Neither of them had this mandate. Khupe lost dismally in the 2018 general elections. Mwonzora has never led a party to an election. Mnangagwa may be keen to spite Chamisa, but he knows the desperados in the opposition offer nothing that would provide credibility to his designs. They can’t even affect Chamisa as they are busy fighting between themselves.
The split is also likely to further diminish Mwonzora’s minimal chances of making any inroads in the by-elections. The byelections were his opportunity to demonstrate some political mettle. A split coming just days before the nomination court for the by-elections is due to sit will affect preparations and performance. He accommodated Khupe with an eye on the Matabeleland vote which has always been significant for the MDC parties. With Khupe gone, Mwonzora will not have a serious leader of influence in the region. He might even struggle to field candidates. A party that was already small will become even smaller and provincial on account of the split. Why would Mnangagwa concern himself with a provincial party and a provincial leader?
Another consequence of the split is that it will lead to legal wrangles between Khupe and Mwonzora, which will eventually be resolved in the courts of law. With the split, current MPs and senior officials will be forced to choose sides. This might result in recalls from parliament which is a real possibility given their penchant for using that power. They will also fight over the allocation of resources, particularly the public funding under the political parties’ legislation which ironically neither of them deserve. These legal disputes will place yet more burdens on judges to resolve political disputes, further escalating the problem of judicialization of politics. Internally, this will be a new front of fighting further stretching their meagre resources and attention. A man who is supposed to be proving his political mettle in his first elections must now fight another battle to keep his small party together.
As for Khupe, she might build her own provincial unit. Her press conference cum rally had more people than Mwonzora has ever assembled and was a show of force. This might not be enough to topple the MDC Alliance’s dominance in the province, but she will probably do better than Mwonzora. The probability is that she will make a beeline to Mnangagwa for a return to POLAD as leader of her faction. After all, it’s a road she has travelled before. She did not leave voluntarily. It will be interesting to see who between the two the government gives the public funding under the Political Parties (Financing) Act. When it had the choice between Mwonzora and Chamisa, the regime chose Mwonzora, making clear its preferred horse.
The challenges and the split in the MDC-T are other reminders of the accumulating costs associated with the MDC brand. Splits are now almost synonymous with the brand, and this has a damaging effect on everyone who uses it, whether they are involved. In this context, the conflicts and controversies affecting the MDC-T also impact the MDC Alliance, even if it is not involved. The political market simply looks and says the MDC parties have started again. It is even worse for the external market which is not familiar with the nuances of local politics. When they hear that the MDC has split, the reaction is likely to be one of exasperation. The reputation is toxic. The MDC Alliance might feel a strong attachment to the label, but it should know that it carries the costs of whatever nonsense goes on where the label is used.
The conflicts and split in the MDC-T led by Mwonzora do not surprise those who follow Zimbabwean politics. The nearest analogy is that of a gang of robbers. They might be united when they carry out the heist. Problems arise when it comes to sharing the loot. This is precisely what is happening in the small pseudo-opposition outfit. It is built on the loot appropriated from the MDC Alliance. The gang leaders are united by their common hatred of the MDC Alliance and its leader, Chamisa. They disagree on sharing their loot, leading to these problems.
For Chamisa and the MDC Alliance, the scene of their opponent bloodletting without provocation must be sweet news. They have not done anything except staying alive. The great Chinese war general and strategist, Sun Tzu would say regarding this situation that the greatest victory is that which requires no battle. The two opponents destroying each other presents a great opportunity to win without even fighting. They are destroying each other all by themselves. But I end with one more nugget from Master Sun, which is that when you have the enemy surrounded, always “leave a way to life”. In other words, always leave an escape route so that the enemy may run to safety. This means they avoid fighting which they would do if they were surrounded. As Master Sun says, no one benefits from prolonged fighting.
–Alex Magaisa is a law lecturer at Kent University in UK