The successful intervention of Zimbabwe’s army, which is controlled by Zanu-PF cadres, to oust president Robert Mugabe has made it the new power broker.
It raises the perilous question whether the army would intervene if an opposition party wins a coming national election.
Few African liberation movements - especially those who had armed wings during the struggle for liberation and which, when the party comes to power, become the new liberated country’s army - have peacefully given up power in elections they lose.
The problem for Zimbabweans dreaming of change is that Zanu-PF’s buoyant military wing could end up like its sister liberation movement, the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria, which similar to Zanu-PF in power proved autocratic, corrupt and mismanaged the economy.
The FLN, under pressure from Algerian citizens demanding freedom, allowed the first multiparty parliamentary elections in the post-liberation era in 1991, which the opposition Islamist Salvation Front (ISF) won.
However, the Algerian military, dominated by the FLN’s former military wing, staged a coup against the ISF, sparking the bloody Algerian Civil War.
A precedent has been set in Zimbabwe whereby the army intervenes in politics. The country is also on the path of the familiar post-independence African pattern which has caused much harm: the army stepping in to push out autocratic leaders, the public then initially welcoming the intervention, and the army eventually become the long-term arbiter of the country’s politics, becoming the de facto power.
The former military leaders of Zanu-PF’s armed wing have turned into a powerful political faction within Zanu-PF, with the ability to decide who should be party and therefore country leader, while Zanu-PF is the governing party.
Zanu-PF and the military wing’s removal of Mugabe was not a battle for democracy, but a battle between two factions of the same party over control of the state, public resources and who should succeed the ailing Mugabe as leader of the party and country.
One faction was led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former Zimbabwean deputy president and now the new president. The other was led by Grace Mugabe, with Mugabe’s support.
Mnangagwa was fired by Mugabe, clearly influenced by Grace Mugabe and her allies, who saw him as her main threat to take over from her husband. Mnangagwa won the leadership battle because the military wing allied with him.
Zanu-PF and other African liberation movements keep leadership succession in the government within a tight circle of leaders who were the core of the leadership during the struggle for liberation, until these leaders die out, or the party splits or dies out with the demise of the original liberation leadership core.
With Mugabe gone, the original liberation leadership core of Zanu-PF remains firmly in control of the government and society, only with a different faction, under Mnangagwa dominating power, public resources, and the sources of intimidation, violence and patronage in Zimbabwe.
While Mugabe was a key element of Zimbabwe’s stagnation, Zanu-PF and the military (dominated by former Zanu-PF military cadres), were others.
Remaining in Zanu-PF’s governance culture is a small liberation elite centralising power of the country and party, selectively using democratic practices when it suits the leadership and a lack of accountability remains.
Mnangagwa represents a different face of Zanu-PF and the party’s military wing, albeit one that will seek to be more conciliatory with foreign donors, allowing a little more political freedom to citizens and being more welcoming to outside input.
To finally foster democracy, the army must withdraw from active politics. The army must defer to democratic, civil society and civilian oversight.
For now, it will be important to establish a transitional government, consisting of all significant political parties, to ensure the transition from Mugabe to elections is free, fair and inclusive. Elections will have to be called as soon as practically possible thereafter. Civil society, the media and citizens must play an active part in such a transition to democracy.
Clearly, Zimbabwe, like many other post-independence African countries is in desperate need of fresh leadership, ideas and policies.
Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF’s liberation struggle era leadership, grown during the times of snail mail, is not what the ailing country needs to overcome its complex challenges in a period of technological changes, where the country’s commodities might become obsolete and where even agricultural production might be taken over by robots.
Furthermore, if Zanu-PF remains the governing party, it needs to democratise itself, bring in fresh leadership and ideas, or risk its undemocratic party governance system continuing to undermine the consolidation of democracy in the country.
Zanu-PF desperately needs new, capable and imaginative leadership outside the traditional liberation struggle inner circle, their clones and mini-me’s.
But perhaps, all of this might ultimately be academic, as the
great purge has begun following the ousting of Mugabe, with Grace’s supporters being violently pushed from positions of power in the
government, the military and the party.
The fallout over the purge might cause Zanu-PF’s split, and most certainly accelerate the liberation movement’s demise, if there is a free and fair national election - if of course, the army withdraws from politics.
* William Gumede is associate professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times.