Will the Zambian winds of change blow in Zimbabwe?

August 23, 2021

Tawanda Majoni

If the opposition in Zambia wins the elections this year, then the Zimbabwean opposition will win the elections in 2023. The Zambian opposition won the elections. Therefore, the Zimbabwean opposition will win in 2023 when the country holds its next elections.

This is the kind of reasoning you tend to hear a lot about these days. A pretty emotive and ungrounded kind of syllogism, if you like.

Zambia went to the polls on 12 August to elect the next president and a new national assembly. Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) beat the incumbent, Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF). HH got 2 852 348 votes, against Lungu’s 1 879 789. The UPND bagged 82 national assembly seats—a rise of 24 constituencies from the previous elections in 2016—while the PF slumped by 17 to this year’s 63.

Voter turnout was awesome this time around. Slightly more than seven million people registered to vote and the turnout was 70.6 percent. In the previous polls, 6.67 million people registered to vote and 56.45 percent cast their votes.

The huge turnout this year was mainly attributed to people’s appetite for change, with an unprecedented number of youths going to vote. The Zambians were increasingly getting frustrated with Lungu and the PF for huge debts, unemployment and an arrogant leadership that was learning too many things on heavy-handed rule from Zimbabwe.

The appetite to vote for change—and, therefore, the big turnout—is an extremely important point here. The Zimbabwean opposition and ordinary citizens who are hungering for change are, evidently, hoping that the Zambian effect will repeat itself in 2023. But more about this in a short while.

A lot of people in Zimbabwe took to Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and all other sorts of media to celebrate the win by HH and UPND. They said winds of change were blowing across southern Africa. They used lots of energy to declare that those winds would blow in Zimbabwe, come 2023 when Zanu PF and President Emmerson Mnangagwa would be as dead as a dodo.

Come 2023, they also said, Nelson Chamisa, an unarguably popular opposition leader, would be the one going to State House. Chamisa himself spared no chance to join the frenzy and shouted through Twitter: “Our turn as Zimbabwe is coming. We won’t disappoint!”

Hmmm, wait a moment. Outside the hope and excitement, what else is there to show that Zimbabwe will be next?

The hope and faith are understandable. Zimbabwe needs change for real. We have been in the doldrums for such a long time. Millions of Zimbabweans favour the opposition taking over from the ruling Zanu PF.

The truth of the matter, though, is that any kind of change will do. For as long as these Long Johns who think the sun shines through their bowels for having fought on the war of liberation are removed from power. In this case, it wouldn’t be much of a big deal if Zanu PF could reform itself into a progressive party that is led by modern-thinking heads. But who says that’s not a long throw, considering how these old madalas are frustrating internal renewal in Zanu PF?

Anyway, back to political hope and faith. The optimists are saying the opposition will win in Zimbabwe because the opposition in Zambia has won. That, of course, will not be easy, if, as lots of people are hoping, it will happen. Consider this to start with. From 1991 when Fredrick Chiluba and the Movement for Multiparty Democracy beat Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party, the opposition has won on a couple of occasions.  

If we consider this at the narrow level, the current reasoning of hope and faith in Zimbabwe would lead us to the conclusion that opposition wins in Zambia led to opposition wins in Zimbabwe. But that’s not true. While Kaunda—just as Lungu did when HH beat him—was among the first people to congratulate Chiluba, Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF, then under Robert Mugabe, was digging in. Zanu PF was using all tricks from Machiavelli’s book to switch off the lights of democracy.

In 2008, for instance, Morgan Tsvangirai’s initial win in March was like a pot of steroids for Zanu PF, which went on such a violent tangent ahead of the presidential run-off in June of the same year. The self-anointed stockholders were not prepared for change, worse if that was going to come with the opposition getting into power.

And you wouldn’t say anything has changed even with Mugabe gone. Just like week, President Mnangagwa had a word for the hopefuls. If the opposition thinks that what happened in Zambia will happen in Zimbabwe, its members must wake up from their slumber and brew beer for the ancestors, he said. That wasn’t all. His spokesperson, George Charamba, vowed that war veterans would never allow the opposition to rule in Zimbabwe. It’s not clear if he had talked to the war veterans or just one veteran, his boss.

But, whatever the case, the so-called war veterans may not be the readiest source of comfort. These are the chaps who hold the centre of power in just about every department of government. They are in the presidium. They are in cabinet and the ministries. They are in the police service, prisons and central intelligence. And they are in the military. The very guys who vowed in 2002 when we had the bruising presidential elections that they would never salute someone who didn’t participate in the war of liberation.

Talk about the military. The difference between our army and the Zambian army is as big as the Atlantic Ocean. The Zambian army is that one that will resist orders from the executive to crush protests or beat up critics of the government. You won’t be able to say the same thing about the Zimbabwean army. As Patrick Chinamasa put it the other day, the military and Zanu PF—same same.

So, it’s easy for you to guess what the Zimbabwean army will do when Zanu PF power is threatened. Because, going by Chinamasa’s reasoning, if Zanu PF is defeated, the military—to read the military leadership—will also be defeated. But then, who says the army enjoys being defeated? They are part of the stockholding brigade.

The same applies to the judiciary and the police. While the Zambian police and the Zimbabwean police are similar in their love for bribes, the Zambian police is a saint when compared to its counterpart here when it comes to dealing with the opposition and ruling party critics. That Augustine Chihuri who had no shame about conflating Zanu PF and the police service is out doesn’t make a difference, because the “stockholders” are still holding sway there.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle ahead of 2023 is the power transfer that took place in late 2017. If you believe that a coup is a power transition that involves the army, then you can comfortably call the removal of Mugabe and his replacement with Mnangagwa a coup. Because, you see, the army was heavily involved in that scheme.

Now, coups a very tricky thing. Those that take power through a coup are a restless lot. They never want to readily surrender power, unless they are confronted by another coup. Which means that, when we talk about elections, chances are high that the current administration will not be too cozy handing power over to the opposition if the latter wins. And you know all too well that there has never been a coup in Zambia.

So, how can the opposition win the 2023 elections? Maybe the opposition must consider rigging the current establishment out of power. This is not without precedence. You heard Lungu right. He was rigged out by the opposition. But jokes aside. For the prevailing situation to change, there must be a big deal of effort around reforms. Electoral reforms, media reforms, reform of the military et cetera.

But even here, there is hardly anything to smile about. The opposition failed to force meaningful reforms between 2009 and 2013 when it was part of the coalition government. Nothing has changed. The opposition doesn’t have any clue how to ensure reforms. You would be asking for too much from an opposition that doesn’t even have a shadow cabinet to talk about.

Here is an opposition that is so fractured because of power hunger. An opposition that has no idea on how to effectively harvest the youth bulge and ensure that people go out in numbers to register to vote and then vot,e outside lame noises on Twitter and Whatsapp. In Zambia, it was always going to be hard for Lungu to rig because of the sheer numbers that went out to vote. But that’s something you can’t say Zimbabwe is guaranteed of.

A clueless opposition and a heavy-handed a regime that is not in a rush to surrender power are certainly not what it will take for the Zambian effect to repeat itself in Zimbabwe.

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on tmajoni@idt.org.zw 

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