Zimbabwe: How the opposition MDC Alliance lost its glitter, leaving civil society to shine

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Friday, 6 August 2021 11:09

Nelson Chamisa, center, head of the MDC opposition alliance greets supporters at his rally in Chitungwiza about 30 kilometres east of the capital Harare, Thursday, July, 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, is failing to push back against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government on major issues including gross human rights abuse, embezzlement of public funds, corruption by top government officials and a fragile health system. Instead, various civil society groups across the country are the ones making the noise. Will they foster the change that the opposition cannot?

In the 2018 general elections, the MDC Alliance – led by its charismatic leader Nelson Chamisa – won 64 parliamentary seats out of the 210 contestable seats in the country’s national assembly. The ruling Zanu PF party amassed a total of 144 seats.

Since then, the MDC Alliance has been suffering substantial defeats in Parliament, with controversial bills sailing through given Zanu-PF’s majority.

These new laws do not address the real situation at hand; a weak health system worsened by the pandemic, while 7.9 million Zimbabweans – over half of the population of 14 million people – continue to live in extreme poverty.

Exposing Mnangagwa

One such example was in May 2021, when a bill seeking to amend the constitution was easily approved.

  • The amendment raised the retirement age of Constitutional and Supreme Court judges to 75 from 70, giving Mnangagwa powers to extend Chief Justice Luke Malaba’s term of office by another five years.
  • Malaba, had confirmed Mnangagwa’s win in the disputed 2018 general elections after Chamisa challenged the results at the Constitutional Court. He is seen a key ally of Mnangagwa and critical ahead of the 2023 general elections.

The extension, which came in a few days before Malaba’s 70th birthday, was later ruled invalid by the High Court after it was challenged by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum executive director Musa Kika.

Such efforts on the part of civil society groups, rather than the opposition, continue to play a significant role in exposing Mnangagwa’s command politics, top government officials’ corrupt activities as well as gross human rights violations.

Void filled by civil society

At the formation of the MDC in September 1999, both civil society organsations (CSOs) and the opposition party performed more or less complementary functions within their different spaces, Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst, tells The Africa Report.

“The two started developing strains and stresses during and after the Government of National Unity [put in place in 2009 by former President the late Robert Mugabe and MDC founding leader the late Morgan Tsvangirai] especially in the latter period”.

“Today, while they are not silos vis-a-vis each other, they seem to have separated functionally. With the opposition increasingly looking comatose, CSOs have stepped into the vacuum and are acting as a counterweight, raising human rights and other governance issues”, he adds.

But civil society organisations can never supplement the role of an opposition party in Zimbabwe, says Alexander Rusero, a political analyst.

“The civil society has never supplanted the MDC Alliance. Civil society is doing what it is supposed to do. The civil society’s role is the collective mobilisation of the people to register displeasure on certain issues they feel there are some misgivings of governance. Maybe they can complement,” he says.

If MDC Alliance capitalises on those efforts and push for the political change they want, says Maxwell Saungweme, a political analyst, the dynamic will be genuinely one of partners.

MDC Alliance leader’s silence

There have been growing concerns from Zimbabweans about the silence from MDC Alliance and its leader Nelson Chamisa.

Political analysts believe the President and the ruling Zanu PF had a hand in the seizure of the party name MDC-T, the seizure of the party headquarters and the recall of Chamisa’s members of parliament and councillors in a bid to weaken the MDC Alliance leader.

To date, Chamisa is considered to be the most sought-after alternative outside Mnangagwa.

Rusero says the opposition needs to prove it is a better alternative than the current government.

“It is not always the case that the opposition should be making noise. The opposition should actually proffer alternative policies that are sound. But as for the MDC Alliance we have not seen them, we have just seen some rhetoric, some tweets and press statements masquerading as policy positions,” he says.

It appears we are back to the 1990s where we had a prostrate opposition and a robust civil society. History is uncanny tendency to repeat itself.

He continues: “The portfolios of the MDC Alliance are actually in rupture, they are bereft of policy ideas and prescriptions. What is MDC Alliance’s policy on Covid-19 rather than just accusing Zanu PF? What is MDC Alliance’s policy in terms of lockdown measures? What are the alternative policy prescriptions of the MDC Alliance to deal with poverty, unemployment and inequality?”

Rusero believes that the MDC led by Tsvangirai was far much better than the current MDC led by Chamisa in terms of ideas and policies.

“Unlike the MDC of Tsvangirai, which had some modicum of some technocrats and academics who would craft policies, the MDC Alliance by Chamisa is full of lawyers,  they just make some brilliant legal arguments which at the end of the day do not appeal to the ordinary people. People want policies,” he says.

Masunungure says it is not clear what is happening to the MDC Alliance and its leader, but the most charitable interpretation is that it is in a phase of incubation from which it will presumably emerge stronger and geared for the big fight in the next watershed elections.

But he does see Chamisa’s deafening silence as deeply concerning to his large following who, sooner rather than later, may become disillusioned and join the ranks of disinterested voters.

“The strategic silence is too silent and many do not appreciate the strategy especially when it is not communicated to the party’s political and electoral base. It appears we are back to the 1990s where we had a prostrate opposition and a robust civil society. History is uncanny tendency to repeat itself,” he says.

At a time of a health pandemic, endemic corruption, gross human rights violations and bad governance, an opposition party that keeps mute has no strategy says Saungweme.

“Silence in the midst of a pool of multi-pronged crises is never it strategy. Instead, it exposes dearth of strategy”.

But MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere does not see Chamisa as silent.

“President Nelson Chamisa has been anything but silent. At the start of the year, he set out the party’s annual strategic plan in the Zimbabwe Agenda 2021 address. He highlighted that we are pursuing a People’s Agenda, a Reform Agenda, a Broad Alliance Agenda and a Global Agenda,” she tells The Africa Report. “That is how the MDC Alliance will lead the charge to win Zimbabwe for change.”

Mahere adds how the MDC Alliance has been at the forefront of fighting the major issues plaguing the country.

“Most of our senior leadership has been arrested, jailed and is currently before the courts for challenging the human rights abuses by the State. The MDC Alliance youths conducted protests against hunger and in support of electoral reform. This has led to intense persecution,” she says.

The MDC Alliance has stated repeatedly that a broad coalition of opposition politicians, the church and civic society are the party’s best option in the fight for democracy in Zimbabwe, adds Mahere.

Efforts to defund civil society groups

In late June this year, the government issued a directive to NGOs, private voluntary organisations, faith-based organisations and civil society organisations to get clearance from Provincial Development Coordinators and also submit their work plans and information on planned workshops.

Harare Metropolitan Province development coordinator Tafadzwa Muguti accused the NGOs of working outside their mandates stated in their respective Memorandum of Understanding.

For years, the Zimbabwean government has accused NGOs of working with the US and its allies to push for anti-government agendas under the guise of civic education.

Most of the over 3,500 registered NGOs in the country receive their funding from the West and the US.

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