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Former ZANU-PF Heavyweight Prepares to Challenge Mugabe

The decision by Zimbabwe’s former finance minister, Simba Makoni, to oppose President Robert Mugabe in the upcoming elections has sparked tremendous interest in the southern African nation’s polls. Although many analysts still feel the ballot will not be free and fair, they’re also seeing in Makoni a true challenge to Mr. Mugabe’s hegemony. The 84-year-old president has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and has presided over an economic collapse that has led to widespread food shortages, mass unemployment and the highest inflation rate in the world. On Saturday, Zimbabweans must decide between Makoni, Mr. Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. In the second of a series examining the elections, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses upon Simba Makoni’s challenge.

Before Makoni, 57, was expelled from the ruling party and branded a “prostitute” and “traitor” for daring to go against President Mugabe, he was regarded as a moderate in ZANU-PF.

Unlike many of his former government colleagues, Makoni did not participate in the 1970s war of liberation against the forces of the Rhodesian white minority government. At the time the bush war raged, Makoni was studying chemistry in Britain. Those who know him say he is no firebrand, preferring soft-toned discussions to populist outcries.

In 1980, after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain, Mr. Mugabe appointed Makoni as a deputy minister, and he soon became a key ally of the president’s, rising to the post of finance minister in 2000. But in 2002, Makoni fell out with his boss over state policy and Mr. Mugabe sacked him. Makoni, though, remained a member of ZANU-PF’s all-powerful decision-making politburo…until, that is, he decided to oppose President Mugabe as an independent candidate in the forthcoming elections.

It has soon become clear that the ruling party – or elements within it, at least – feel threatened by Makoni. The War Veteran’s Association has warned him, “Traitors should know ZANU-PF has a history of dealing harshly with their kind.”

Michelle Gavin, of the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations, attributes such threats to a “set of conflicting cultures within the ruling party, and Makoni’s clearly not a part of one, which is the more militant culture born out of the liberation struggle. It’s a question in some ways of generational change; it’s a question of a different culture and it cuts both ways in that perhaps this makes him seem more moderate, easier to come to compromise with, easier to negotiate with. But it could cause some real risks to him, going forward.”

Sydney Masamvu, a Zimbabwean political analyst at the International Crisis Group, says, “The entry of Simba Makoni into the presidential race and the [corresponding] implosion happening in ZANU-PF has actually added a new dimension and injected some excitement into a race which until then had been considered a shoo-in for Mugabe.”

According to Brendan Murphy, chief of VOA’s Zimbabwe Service, which broadcasts to Zimbabwe, there are various schools of thought in the country with regard to Makoni.

“One is the group that is anxious to believe that Simba Makoni can be a unifying national leader, can bring real solutions and offers an alernative to the deadlock between the opposition and the government and ZANU-PF," he said. "The next group is the opposition formation led by Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai. That formation sees Makoni as either somewhat of an opportunist or – under the worst case scenario – a ruling party mole or surrogate. And then the third group would be the ZANU-PF. hardliners who simply see Makoni as a traitor to Mugabe.”

In the build-up to the elections, Makoni has repeatedly cast himself as a great reformer who will save Zimbabwe and a voice of reason in contrast to President Mugabe’s confrontational politics and the infighting in the MDC.

“We’re offering the people of Zimbabwe national re-engagement, national reconciliation, national healing. We’re offering the people of Zimbabwe the opportunity to get the country working again,” he told VOA.

“[Makoni] represents the progressive element within ZANU-PF, an element that feels that this intransigence which we’ve seen in the past seven years is only hurting themselves as individuals and hurting the country as a whole,” says Briggs Bomba, a former student leader in Zimbabwe now working for the Africa Action lobby group in Washington, D.C.

Sydney Masamvu adds, “He represents the best of what had been left in ZANU-PF, insofar as reforming the country and leading the country towards political and economic recovery. It shows to a very large extent that ZANU-PF or Zimbabwe at large is not short of leaders, but it’s short of the political space that’s needed to express their views in an atmosphere in which they can freely challenge for political office.”

Gavin, who is also author of the Council’s Special Report on Zimbabwe, says Makoni is well known in the international community.

“He is one of the few in ZANU-PF that still has a great deal of credibility internationally. He has spoken out about some of the more disastrous economic policies, and he’s perceived as a very capable, sort of technocratic, competent leader,” he said.

Following his announcement in February that he would oppose Mugabe, Makoni voiced strong criticism of his former boss, directly blaming him for the economic hardships suffered by Zimbabweans.

“I share the agony and anguish of all citizens over the extreme hardships that we have endured for nearly 10 years now. I also share the widely held view that these hardships are a result of failure of national leadership and that change at this level is a pre-requisite for change at other levels of national endeavor,” Makoni stated.

Gavin maintains there’s a healthy “air of compromise about the idea of a ZANU-PF figure being the one conceivably to lead the way through some transition.”

Makoni’s emergence has been dubbed the “Third Way,” an alliance between reformists in ZANU-PF and the main opposition designed to rescue Zimbabwe from its political and economic crisis.

But skeptics point to the fact that Makoni himself was finance minister when the economic meltdown began and was unable to ease the crisis.

Gavin, though, is convinced that he has the skills, “particularly with regard to economic policy,” that will be needed to turn Zimbabwe around.

But she hastens to add, “There are other aspects obviously that are essential to being a successful president, and are essential to being a good leader during a difficult transitional situation. I think it’s an open question whether or not Makoni has the necessary qualities to bring to bear. I certainly don’t think he’s a superhero.”

Is Makoni truly a reformer?

Most reports concerning Makoni have ignored the fact that that he remained part of ZANU-PF’s politburo during a period when some of the worst excesses in Zimbabwe’s history were being committed, without voicing any disapproval or criticism.

“I think in some ways that speaks for itself,” says Gavin. “I certainly think it’s ridiculous to pretend that the man is a saint, that there wouldn’t be some bitterness among those who at great cost have been struggling against the ruling party for some time now. It’s a mixed bag. I am unaware of any perfect choices moving forward. Obviously it’s a decision for the people of Zimbabwe and no one else.”

As a result of Makoni’s failure to condemn, for example, the massacres in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, when Mr. Mugabe’s security forces allegedly killed thousands of people who were perceived to be opposed to ZANU-PF, many in Zimbabwe question Makoni’s credentials as a reconciliatory reformer.

“That [issue] is something that Tsvangirai has been exploiting to the full, to say that Makoni has not publically condemned brutal ZANU-PF. actions, such as the Matabeleland killings and Operation Murambatsvina,” says Blessing Zulu, a journalist with VOA’s Zimbabwe Service.

Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Drive Out Rubbish, began in 2005 as a state campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across Zimbabwe. The United Nations has described the operation as an effort to “drive out and make homeless” large sections of the urban and rural poor, who comprise much of the internal opposition to the Mugabe administration. But the government says Murambatsvina was necessary to “restore order” in “lawless” areas and “to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

In Zimbabwe, says Masamvu, suspicions also run deep that Makoni is actually being used by Mugabe to divide the opposition. Makoni himself, despite his criticism of the president, has insisted, “Robert Mugabe is like a father to me.”

But Masamvu feels Makoni’s critics are being “too harsh” on him.

“Let’s not condemn all people who’ve been in ZANU-PF and say they are bad and don’t know what needs to be done. Some people in ZANU-PF – if they are left alone, if they break away from the shackles of Mugabe, which people like Makoni have done – I think they know what needs to be done to move the country forward,” he emphasizes.

What pushed Makoni over the edge?

The “rot which has set in the country, which really amplifies the lack of national leadership, actually prompted people like Makoni to draw the line and say that the rot which Mugabe has presided over in the past 20 years should come to an end,” says Masamvu.

Blessing Zulu says Makoni felt compelled to oppose Mugabe when, at the ZANU-PF congress in December, members were told they had no choice other than to endorse Mugabe as president for yet another term. Up until this point, says Zulu, senior ruling party members had been hopeful that Mugabe would finally hand the reins of power to someone from a “new generation.”

Gavin says Makoni “had to act” when it became clear that the government was set on proceeding with the March 29 elections, no matter the outcome of mediation efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) aimed at reaching a compromise between the opposition and government.

The SADC process, led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, is widely regarded as a failure.

“Perhaps simply having that gauntlet [election date] thrown on the calendar, and the prospects for what comes next being a bit unclear, forced Makoni to move,” says Gavin.

She agrees that a recent amendment to Zimbabwe’s constitution, which changes the way a successor to Mugabe can be chosen, could also have spurred Makoni into action.

“Should President Mugabe be re-elected, and then he chooses to step down while in office, there now won’t be a new election; now because of that amendment the parliament will select the next president. This possible scenario is maybe affecting the way the various political actors in Zimbabwe are viewing the situation. They’re now questioning the wisdom of waiting much longer for change.”

Does Makoni have support?

Sydney Masamvu is clear in his conviction that “Makoni lacks the grassroots support” to boost his chances of election.

Zulu agrees that whether or not Makoni can muster support from the hordes of Zimbabwe’s poor is the “million dollar question.”

He says if one considers the rallies that have been held before the ballot, “then it’s Tsvangirai who’s still enjoying the support of the masses. Makoni’s support is in the middle class, the educated people in the urban areas. He still needs to do a lot of work to connect with the grassroots.”

Briggs Bomba concurs that Makoni’s “significant support” at this stage seems to be coming from “more affluent” members of Zimbabwean society.

“If you look at Makoni’s rally in Bulawayo, the one thing that was very obvious was that there was a record number of nice cars parked around the whole area. That shows that mostly your middle or professional class is also the class that is accepting Makoni’s message.”

Mlilo, who attended Makoni’s event in Bulawayo, confirms that there were “a lot of fancy cars” parked outside the venue.

“Inside, you had your doctors, your lawyers, your business owners attending the rally. These are Zimbabweans who ordinarily you would not see at a rally. But now that they’re also being hurt by the economic situation, they have joined the ranks of the poor,” Mlilo says.

Gavin adds: “The question has always been, can Makoni really muster the kind of political base that will be needed to challenge Mugabe or to challenge others in ZANU-PF who are interested in assuming leadership after Mugabe goes? And that remains an open question.”

Makoni, though, has repeatedly reiterated that there are a “large number” of people within the ruling party who share his vision of a “new Zimbabwe.” Most of these figures remain in the shadows, but speculation is rife that powerful ZANU-PF brokers, such as vice-president Joyce Mujuru and her former army general husband, Solomon, are backing Makoni.

Former interior minister, politburo member and war hero Dumiso Dabengwa recently became the first ZANU-PF stalwart to publicly endorse Makoni.

Bomba describes this as “highly significant.”

“Even people in ZANU-PF – their businesses, their personal lives are not going well. So I think his [Makoni’s] opposition to Mugabe and his desire to mark a new era is genuine. It’s clear that a very significant portion of the population is fully behind him and buying his message of unity, national re-engagement and reconciliation and moving forward,” says Bomba.

“The more Makoni’s backers inside ZANU-PF emerge in public and support him with their constituencies, the more it will help to build the grassroots support for him,” says Masamvu.

Bomba, though, says the electorate has its own standards by which it’ll judge Makoni: “They will be asking serious questions of him, such as about his past loyal support for a sometimes vicious and intolerant government. But, if what we’ve seen by the turnout in Bulawayo at his first big rally, and also at his events in Harare, then his support is growing.”

Brendan Murphy’s perception is that Zimbabweans have an “astute” understanding of the intricacies of the upcoming polls.

“Some of them might see Makoni as someone they wish will win, and they think he has a chance. Others see Makoni as someone who may…help Morgan Tsvangirai to win the presidency. Others still might see Makoni as a spoiler who’ll prevent Tsvangirai from winning. All of these are credible scenarios, and I think the average Zimbabwean is rolling them over in their minds and trying to figure out which one’s going to happen.”

Makoni’s rejection of a coalition

Some observers are of the opinion that Makoni doesn’t stand any real chance of beating Mugabe in elections unless he forms an alliance with Tsvangirai.

“He [Makoni] is a good leader, but I think for him to win this election, he (should have cooperated) with Tsvangirai,” says Blessing Zulu.

But Masamvu says Makoni’s rejection of a coalition against Mugabe is an “issue of strategy. Makoni is operating on two platforms: He’s working through the structures of ZANU-PF and also working through the support of the opposition. In the immediate short term he doesn’t want to attach himself to an entity; he wants to remain independent. For him, he wants to attract at the moment support from both formations. If he formed a coalition, he would lose support from the ruling party. But I think an alliance will happen if there’s a run-off, and where either of the two opposition leaders has to throw his weight behind the other. Then things could get very interesting indeed.”

However, according to Netsai Mlilo, the freelance journalist who is monitoring the election build-up from her base in southern Zimbabwe, Makoni’s entrance has complicated the race for many Zimbabweans who would have “preferred that things would’ve been simpler.”

Mlilo says, “There is confusion, I think, stemming from too broad a choice. People now don’t know who to vote for or what criteria to use to decide on a candidate.”