The death of Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s longtime opposition leader, has left Zimbabwean civil society in limbo – and his party now has to manage a precarious leadership transition ahead of landmark presidential elections. How does this speak to his legacy and message of peace?
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By Edward Chinhanhu
A man of the people
The death of Morgan Tsvangirai who led Zimbabwe’s main opposition party since 1999 – the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – has left Zimbabwean civil society in limbo, but with a ray of hope for the future.
Alongside Tsvangirai, Zimbabwean civil society had suffered harassment, arrests, abductions, extrajudicial killings as well more general restriction of their space to operate, especially during election periods. In addition, they were branded “regime change agenda” pushers, and thus were called “sell-outs” by former President Robert Mugabe and his militant supporters.
Zimbabwean civil society gravitated towards Tsvangirai not only because they suffered at the hands of a brutal dictatorial government, but also because he fought relentlessly for peaceful democratic change. After winning a narrow majority in the first round of the general elections against President Mugabe in 2008, the presidential run-off ran the risk of escalating into violence. Rather than plunge Zimbabwe into a major constitutional crisis, Tsvangirai opted to avoid an open confrontation with the regime, and willingly handed the election to President Mugabe. Indeed, he refused to mobilize his supporters because he feared that many would be killed by security forces.
This is the mark of a true peacebuilder, and this is why Zimbabwean peacebuilders identify with him.
A funeral disturbed
During his funeral procession in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, the cortege made a stop at Freedom Square, the scene of many civil society protests which were met by heavy-handed responses from the government. Even his opponents in government paid tribute to the leader’s ideals for peace, praising his unmatched quest for peace, human rights and democracy. This happened despite the fact that Tsvangirai was regularly beaten and abused by state security agents while preaching nonviolence to his followers.
It was therefore ironic that on the day that he was laid to rest, his supporters – members of his own party – engaged in violent acts against their fellow members. This struggle stems from a succession crisis among Tsvangirai’s deputies that began during his hospitalization in South Africa. Zimbabwean civil society has equally admonished the violence that broke out on February 20th during Tsvangirai’s burial proceedings in his rural home. They called for an immediate stop to the violence and asked to have a seat at the negotiating table for the political party’s deliberations.
After the burial local civil society had called upon the three MDC deputies to come together, put their house in order, and agree, in line with their party constitution, to elect Tsvangirai’s successor. At present there is fear of yet another split within the MDC along tribal and gender lines, and this is a scenario that is unacceptable to Zimbabwean civil society.
Zimbabwe’s watershed moment
Zimbabwean civil society expects from the incoming opposition president is a leader who has the support of the people and can establish a fair electoral playing field by demanding electoral reforms before the upcoming elections take place in 2019. More specifically, they are calling for the repeal of two draconian acts, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Among other things, these acts have tightened restrictions on opposition parties, the independent media and human rights activists, all whilst concurrently giving the security apparatus sweeping powers.
Zimbabwean civil society is complaining that there is no equal access to the national (public) media between the political parties, and this should be corrected. They also want the electoral register audited independently more than a month before elections, and want the African Union, SADC and the United Nations to verify at the end that the elections were free and fair once all is said and done.
In addition, they do not want the military involved in the electoral process (except by voting as individuals). The fact that the military intervened in the internal squabbles of the Zanu-PF party but does not do the same when other parties have internal squabbles, has raised questions about the nonpartisan nature of the army. The fear is that if Zanu-PF lose the elections, the army might intervene, and Zimbabwean civil society are calling on the international community to ensure this does not happen. If it does, violence cannot be ruled out.
Zimbabwean civil society are also calling for means by which they can help people in the even that violence breaks out. Both presidential candidates in the election – President Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa (the interim leader of MDC) – are confident that they are going to win. Statistics revealed by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission show that more than 60% of those who have registered to vote are between 18 and 40 years old. This could be read that the majority of voters are young and want change; Chamisa is 40 years old, while Mnangagwa is 75. So this could be a gruesome fight for the contestants.
Overall, the ascension of Mnangagwa to the presidency, the death of Morgan Tsvangirai and the ascension of Chamisa to the opposition apex, have provided a new lease of life to Zimbabwean civil society and the population at large. Hope for democratic change is high, but there is every need to make sure the process is free, fair and credible. There is also every need to heed to Morgan Tsvangirai’s legacy of peace, and its achievement through peaceful means.
Edward Chinhanhu is Peace Insight’s Local Peacebuilding Expert for Zimbabwe. A peace activist and fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, he has an MA in Peace and Governance, and also studied for a postgraduate diploma in governance and public policy in the Hague. Edward is a Rotary Peace Fellow of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.
This piece was originally published by PeaceInsight and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.