While President Robert Mugabe is on annual leave in China, Zimbabwe’s acting president has changed twice. In a one-party state that has seen the same leader for 30 years, this temporary see-sawing is an annual pattern that is part of the country’s increasingly complex leadership terrain.
A secret history
Unbeknownst to many, Zimbabwe has had two presidents since gaining independence on 18 April 1980. Canaan Banana was the country’s first black president and served as head of state for seven years between 1980 and 1987. His memory has been relegated to the dustbin of history partially because the real authority was exercised by Robert Mugabe as prime minister. Equally important were speculations about Banana’s alleged homosexuality. Zimbabwe is not known for its acceptance of the LGBT community, with President Mugabe having stated that gays and lesbians are “worse than pigs and dogs” in 1995.
In 1998, Banana faced 11 charges of sodomy and sexual assault amidst a growing national debate about whether or not homosexuality should continue to be a criminal offence. Banana subsequently fled the country out of fear that Mugabe was plotting to have him killed. However, at Nelson Mandela’s behest, he returned to Zimbabwe where he served eight months in prison.
Notably, Banana was from the minority Ndebele ethnic group. It was during Banana’s presidency, with Mugabe as prime minister, that the Gukurahundi massacres occurred against Ndebele people regarded as dissidents. Roughly 20,000 people lost their lives between 1982 and 1987 in Zimbabwe’s unacknowledged civil war—fought between Zimbabwe’s two main post-independence parties and former liberation movements, ZANU and ZAPU.
Banana played a role in brokering the 1987 Zimbabwe National Unity Accord which resulted in the formation of a government of national unity (GNU). The 1987 Unity Accord merged the two parties, resulting in the formation of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
Zimbabwe’s post-independence politics have been characterised by GNUs that have failed because they did not address Zimbabweans’ real socioeconomic grievances, particularly those of the Ndebele minority. The 1979 Lancaster House Constitution inherited by Zimbabwe safeguarded 20 parliamentary seats for whites and curtailed land redistribution. Banana’s presidency was merely titular and created the veneer of inclusivity by having a Ndebele man serve as the country’s first president.
Subsequent speculation about Banana’s sexuality and misdemeanours, accurate or not, highlights the multifaceted nature of identity formation in post-independence contexts. The nation-building project in Zimbabwe has fostered divisions along class, ethnic, and gendered lines, including sexuality.
Elections or a GNU?
With the 2018 general election fast approaching, Zimbabwe’s leadership terrain remains complex. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which emerged in the late 1990s under Morgan Tsvangirai’s leadership, is fractured. Additional opposition parties have emerged, including Ndebele-led ones. A nascent secessionist movement is underway in Matabeleland. Compounding this is ZANU-PF factionalism—war veterans previously loyal to the ZANU-PF regime and Mugabe have abandoned the leader and party. Two main factions, G40 and Lacoste, are engaged in a fierce confrontation to succeed Mugabe. The former is allegedly led by Professor Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s minister of higher education, while Lacoste is led by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Despite these fractures, ZANU-PF has endorsed Mugabe as its preferred presidential candidate for the 2018 elections. MDC, led by Tsvangirai, refuses to entertain the idea of another GNU given the failure of the previous effort in 2009. Some opposition leaders are hoping to merge the opposition parties into a united coalition to improve their electoral chances. What is clear, however, is that a deep sense of entitlement to the presidency characterises each of these leaders’ ambitions.
All of this is happening amidst a worsening economic crisis and increasing civil unrest. Peaceful protests and government repression are now regular occurrences. Many Zimbabweans, particularly youths, believe that violence is an option. The El Niño-induced drought and typhoid outbreak have not helped matters. Furthermore, at the 2016 ZANU-PF Conference, President Mugabe adamantly stated that there would be no regime change.
Given the chaos characterising Zimbabwe’s political landscape, elections will further destabilise the country. Civil war is not a far-fetched reality if democratisation continues to be falsely equated with token elections and multipartism. However, would another GNU be viable if a ruling party successor is chosen and opposition parties form a coalition? First Vice President Mnangagwa, leader of the Lacoste faction, presents the most stabilising option to succeed Mugabe within ZANU-PF. But who would lead the opposition coalition?
In Mugabe’s absence, Mnangagwa was the first acting president, he was recently replaced by Second Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko. This see-sawing occurs each year. Mugabe does not allow anyone to get too comfortable in the leadership position. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has experienced strong leadership for 30 years. Whilst such leadership has come at the expense of human security, it made Zimbabwe a stronger state. The country reveals that strong statehood is simply a government’s ability to mobilise state apparatuses to safeguard regime security. The more resources a government has to deploy to do this, the weaker the state becomes.
Recent spikes in mobile data prices highlight the ZANU-PF government’s last ditch efforts to maintain its grip on power. ZANU-PF is not prepared for a post-ZANU Zimbabwe, nor would it concede an electoral loss. A disunited ruling party, a fractured opposition, a yet-to-be formalised economy and increasing transnational crime all point to a countrywide leadership crisis.
Weak leadership makes a weak state. Weakened state apparatuses present an opportunity to build a more inclusive political system. However, a lack of foresight can result in protracted conflict situations. Another GNU is the only way to address Zimbabwe’s leadership crisis and to prevent the country’s short-term destabilisation and descent into civil war.
Elections are a failed dream. However, a GNU must avoid the failures of its predecessors and address people’s real socioeconomic and political grievances. It must also be seen as a means to a future without divisive party politics and as a process that outlines a roadmap for the country’s future prosperity.
Tinashe Jakwa is a master of international relations student at the University of Western Australia.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.