What had started as seemingly well calculated manoeuvre by Robert Mugabe to split the Zanu PF votes became a public relations disaster for the opposition MDC Alliance particularly when the old former leader was left at the mercy of journalists’ questions. It became an unexpected positive PR for the ruling party. For his actions today Mugabe is likely to be viewed now as a ‘sell out’ by hardcore Zanu PF supporters rather than the icon he views himself to be and those in the opposition associating with him will be viewed with renewed suspicion.
Mugabe fancies himself as a kingmaker in this election derived from the belief that Zanu PF supporters were not happy by his ouster. This is the line that has been peddled by Professor Jonathan Moyo and some of his supporters. So Mugabe set out today to appeal these ‘disgruntled ‘ Zanu Pf supporters and possibly galvanise them against voting for Mnangagwa
But Zanu PF’s rural stronghold which needs to be split to achieve this objective will not hear what Mugabe said. Radio Zimbabwe will black out this interview and VOA will be the only radio station carrying it but with very limited reach. It simply won’t have any takers. What ever message he may have for the rural folk has no takers now and cannot be spread in time for tomorrow.
He started by playing the ethnic card hoping to galvanise Zanu PF on ethnic grounds. By throwing in Dr Sydney Sekeramayi’s name in his speech, Mugabe was trying to provoke the emotions of Zanu PF supporters particularly the Zezurus. He portrayed his ouster as an ‘injustice’ to Sekeramayi who he believes stood a chance at congress. The Sekeramayi card was meant to incite the Zezurus and invoke in them a sense of being ‘robbed’. Mugabe has always mobilised supporters along tribal lines and it has served him in the past. There seems to be no appetite for tribal politics in Zanu PF at the moment and Sekeramayi himself was campaigning for the party last week.
The initial throwing in of Joyce Mujuru’s name in the fray as a credible candidate he had ‘worked with’ was calculated to split the Mashonaland Central vote. He is hoping Zimbabweans have a short memory after previously dismissing Mujuru as a ‘simpleton who lacked state craft’ when he fired her in 2014. He hopes that the heavily disfranchised Mashonaland Central vote base which was an epicentre of G-40, Lacoste factional politics will latch on to her and hang Zanu PF to dry in the province. If Zanu PF fails to perform well in the Mashonaland regions where it has previously maintained a tight grip Mugabe hopes this will hurt their power ambitions. It is a plausible deduction but which is not guaranteed to succeed.
He initially tactfully refused to endorse Chamisa and stated only that he would ‘not vote for Zanu PF and Mnangagwa.’ However after probing from journalists he discounted all the other candidates and says Nelson Chamisa is the only credible candidate. This is what his audience from both sides were waiting for and for different reasons. Chamisa’s supporters hope this will split Zanu PF vote and hand it over to Chamisa. On the other side the Mnangagwa government was desperate to link Mugabe to Chamisa to discount Chamisa’s message of change and also to put him in bad standing with international community.
Mnangagwa’s administration welcomes it with open arms because it represents a detachment with Mugabe and his disastrous past that they craved. They also wanted it to confirm that Mugabe may have been working with Chamisa after all. This is damaging to Chamisa on two fronts. Firstly there are supporters of the original MDC- T who have zero tolerance for Mugabe. These may be lost. His message of change that delivers is affected as well. Secondly any association with Mugabe is disastrous on the international front. It is the international community that will endorse this election and they will have doubts with anyone associated with Mugabe. Mugabe represents a past that needs to be forgotten. Most people converge on this idea. The pro-Chamisa on the other hand welcomed the endorsement on the mistaken belief it will provoke some sort of a ‘bhora musango’ splitting Zanu PF’s votes. Bhora musango is a big ask in any harmonised election especially against an opponent that relies on coercion and patronage.
Mugabe contradicted himself a lot and did unwitting PR for Mnangagwa’s government. He denied the military had propped him up in 2008 effectively absolving Mnangagwa and the army on their role in the violence during that period. There is consensus that what happened in 2008 was terrible particularly for the opposition who lost close to 200 supporters. By going to bed with Mugabe, Chamisa now has a PR nightmare even within his own party and opposition forces in general who suffered under Mugabe.
He sounded like a man longing for a restoration of what he says ‘the old Zanu PF’. The Zanu PF of Jonathan Moyo, Ignatious Chombo, Patrick Zhuwao and Saviour Kasukuwere. Zimbabweans and even the international community hate this coveted Zanu Pf by Mugabe. Zimbabweans were happy to see the backs of these individuals and Chombo, Kasukuwere and Moyo tormented opposition forces with amazing gusto. Who can forget what Chombo did to MDC-T led councils?
The final point is that Mugabe becomes a dangerous contradiction to any message of change that both main contenders are selling. It is not in the best interest of either to be assosciated with the discredited statesman. Whoever seems closer to Mugabe may lose out.