‘Big Man’ politics and leadership succession in Zimbabwe

2009-11-24 13:03

Following the convoluted succession race in President Robert

Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party demands the patience of a seasoned marathon spectator.

As any Zimbabwean journalist will know, there exists an enormous

archive in the media spawned by ‘succession journalism’, dating back to the

early 1990s. The press created an industry out of announcing frontrunners and

spotting dark horses, crowning kingmakers and clowning ‘spoilers’ and


But in all of that frenetic future-scoping, one fact remained

constant: Robert Mugabe’s defiant fist at the helm of both Zanu-PF and the

Zimbabwean state. But there is a bigger, underlying challenge that has hardly

enjoyed media attention. The problem with Zanu-PF’s succession plan - if one can

call it that - is that it is being considered outside of a holistic framework of

reform. The centralised nature of the party is sustainable only under the

leadership of a ‘Big Man’, and ‘Big Men’ are usually the products of specific,

novel historical circumstances.

These circumstances range from leadership of the anti-colonial

movement (Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in

Tanzania, Sam Nujoma in Namibia), assumption of leadership following the death

or incapacitation of a founding leader (Paul Biya in Cameroon, Daniel arap Moi

in Kenya, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in Angola), leading a post-independence

‘liberation’ struggle against an internal dictatorship (Yoweri Museveni in

Uganda), to the classical coup d’ etat (Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, Muammar Gaddafi

in Libya, Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso, Ben Ali in Tunisia).

The political machine constructed by such leaders accords special

deference to the personality of the leader in such a way that he is allowed to

rival or even eclipse the party itself as an institution in his own right. Now,

the Big Man’s lieutenants are never allowed to grow to the kind of stature that

would lend them clear successor status. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, rarely has

a Big Man been succeeded by another in his lifetime in Africa.

The Big Man’s lieutenants are never in agreement as to who should

ascend to the throne as the next demigod. In the absence of a special historical

moment to swing one candidate to the indisputable position of ‘Big

Man-in-waiting’, it is hard to see why any one aspirant should relinquish his

power ambitions for the benefit of another, hence the dogfight.

The only way to proceed in a manner that secures internal consensus

is to deconstruct and reform the Big Man’s political machine.


redistribution of hitherto centralised powers within the party cannot be

complete without a corresponding redistribution of executive powers within the

state, for so often the personalisation of the ruling party under Big Man rule

also extends to the state.

The daunting powers of a near-monarchical executive

president inspire dread among the vanquished competition; hence losing is not an


But by reforming party and state and creating functional

institutional structures in both, the core lieutenants may cease to see the

succession race as a zero-sum game. However, as things stand in Zanu-PF right

now, the two leading factions see the success of the other in the race to

succeed Mugabe as heralding their utter decline or even demise. And so they

engage in mortal combat to the death, with their party appearing and acting less

as a unitary force than a creaking amalgam of disparate factions.

Of course, all this should be good news to Morgan Tsvangirai and

his MDC party. With former Zanu-PF stalwarts Simba Makoni and Dumiso Dabengwa

having jumped ship to form rival parties, the MDC will no doubt hope that

Zanu-PF’s denudation continues. All rosy then – except that the MDC itself does

not appear to be in any better position concerning its own future succession


A clause in the MDC’s constitution that made it mandatory to renew

the party presidency after a maximum of two terms was jettisoned in a rather

Nicodemus fashion in recent months in order to give Tsvangirai a free run. The

MDC has constructed its struggle for power in Zimbabwe around the personality of


Quite clearly, the MDC’s removal of the term limits without

congressional approval is a very blunt expression of Tsvangirai’s confidence in

his personal power within the party. Without a constitutional clause to back its

commitment to term limits, the MDC will now have to prove its credentials on

leadership renewal by actually running a transparent, accessible and

above-reproach internal electoral process.

Mugabe has continued to be returned as Zanu-PF president without

having to run against anyone. This process of selection by affirmation is of

course corrupt, elite-driven, and frustrates democracy by stifling internal

competition. The erstwhile ‘democratic’ opposition fares no better than Zanu-PF

in this regard. Ten years on from the formation of the MDC, Tsvangirai is yet to

face an election for the party presidency.

It is even worse in the breakaway MDC faction, where Arthur

Mutambara was simply imported from the diaspora into the leadership of the

party. The message this sends out is that a leader does not necessarily need to

be a product of the organic struggles and processes of his party or movement. A

party can scout for a leader in pretty much the same way a company recruits a

chief executive.

With the formation of the inclusive government following the

signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in September last year,

Zimbabwe’s democratic deficit has been further compounded. First, the GPA is a

creature of boardroom negotiations; therefore the resultant power-sharing

government is not a reflection of the popular will. Secondly, the GPA was signed

into effect by three principals who have never faced an open election in their

own parties.

Zanu-PF is preparing to hold its national congress in a few weeks’

time where Mugabe will be formally affirmed as leader for the next five years.

The sad reality in all this is that the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe has

also adopted and is now perpetuating the culture of leadership coronations as

popularised by Zanu-PF. It is a travesty of democracy when leaders fail to

subject themselves to that indispensable pillar of the democratic process and

the source of legitimacy for any leader – an election.

Innocent Chofamba Sithole is a Zimbabwean journalist based in


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