If there is anything that seems to define African opposition politicians, it is their penchant for degrading their chances of ever ascending to power. They seem incapable of long-term strategy, convinced that they can use “the people” as cannon fodder to “force” those they challenge for the presidency and lose, to abandon the seat for them to take over.
The latest casualty of this negative strategy is Zimbabwe opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, a youthful politician with boundless potential that he seems determined to destroy.
On July 30, Chamisa challenged incumbent President, Emerson Mnagagwa, for the top seat. He lost after Mnagagwa managed to just tip himself over the 50 per cent threshold to escape a runoff.
Then it all began heading south for Chamisa. First, as election results started rolling out, he declared himself the winner. His campaign was combined with a hate crusade against the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission to undermine its credibility as a prelude to rejecting poll results.
He further declared the “people” would come out and “protect” their victory. Sounds familiar? Well, the people did come out, and the electoral protests resulted in deaths as the army broke up the violent protests. Of course, Chamisa, who had incited them to protest in the first place, was the loudest in condemnation of “government brutality.”
Once beaten in the polls, he went ahead to challenge the results in court. No problem there. Unfortunately, the Constitutional court did not see things his way and declared they saw no reason to overturn the result. Chamisa would have none of this.
He dismissed the courts as biased. Such doublespeak is very confusing especially to supporters, who are left between a rock and a hard place—how can they be supporting leaders who only respect the law when it favours them?
Then the icing on the cake. Chamisa would now be inaugurated as the “people’s president,” whatever that means, and a date was set. He subsequently postponed his “swearing-in,” after the government banned public gatherings to contain a serious cholera outbreak that has hit Harare.
Of course, Kenyans can relate to these shenanigans. Kenya’s opposition chief Raila Odinga, a five-time presidential contender, is the master of negative strategy.
Chamisa has a lot to learn. The negative strategy might allow you to disrupt the life of your country, and keep you relevant as a rabble-rouser. It will never win you elections. It is unlikely that the two leading opposition leaders in Kenya and Uganda, Raila and Kizza Besigye, respectively, who have already sworn themselves in as “people’s presidents”, will ever lead their countries.
Secondly, rabble-rousing has its limits. You might find yourself on the front pages of every newspaper and receive dominant coverage on television, but that does not translate into votes. Citizens want a leader who contributes to peace and tranquillity.
Patience is a virtue. Chamisa is barely 40, yet he wants to be president now and cannot wait. Has he built the consensus network that would be an enabler rather than a hindrance to his ambitions? How would the army and the veterans in Zimbabwe view his presidency? He can be sure that without their support, or at least their no-objection, he is going nowhere.
Chamisa has thrown down the gauntlet and made a very impressive showing. The key right now is for him to build on that performance. He needs to reflect soberly on why his party, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance was whitewashed in Parliament, winning a paltry 52 seats against ZANU-PF’s haul of 122 seats! This severely weakens his claim that he won the elections.
He needs to endear himself to the rural population, and find a message that will be more uplifting than just being an opponent of the ruling party. He has so much going for him. First, President Mnagagwa is ageing and second, he has time on his hands. But time is a ruthless master, and Chamisa could well find himself a perennial contestant who loses every time.
Some opposition contestants have lost and come back to win, and he should pick a leaf from them. Kenya’s retired president, Mwai Kibaki and incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, and Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo have all lost and come back to lift the top seat. But their conduct after losing elections was dramatically different from those who will never win an election.
Chamisa must avoid the counsel he seems to be following now—to keep himself a negative and polarizing figure to keep the hardcore section of his support excited. It is the kiss of death! —[email protected]