Home » Governance » How Biti Caught Tsvangirai Flat Footed [opinion]

“WE are going to do it differently from Welshman (Ncube) and others… We will get them out,” one of the key members of the leadership renewal team in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) told the Financial Gazette last month. He was referring to party leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his loyalists. At the time, it seemed the leadership renewal team was day-dreaming.

But the words came into being when Tsvangirai and six top loyalists were suspended from the party by the national executive council, which met and voted on April 26, at Mandel Training Centre in Harare. The suspensions, which have been met with counter measures from Tsvangirai’s camp, have set the MDC-T on a self-destructive path. Hardly a year ago, in July 2013, on the eve of the harmonised elections, the party was buoyant — bubbling with confidence and unity of purpose.

With its star rallies packing up and almost bursting chosen venues at the seams, the party looked like it was destined to defeat ZANU-PF. Seas of red dominated the political landscape in all provinces. The frenzy, the fever pitch of an imminent win, was enough to intoxicate even those outside of the party. But today all of that seems like a long discarded dream as the nightmare of splitting and re-splitting ravages the party.

For months, since the very first calls for leadership renewal were heard from treasurer general, Roy Bennett, hardly a week after the MDC-T lost to ZANU-PF, questions dogged the party on who else shared the same sentiments and whether or not other key members in the party also wanted Tsvangirai to step down. As the Tsvangirai-must-go chorus thickened in melody with increasing number of “singers”, many wondered where MDC-T secretary-general Tendai Biti stood.

Although he had at face value appeared a trusted lieutenant to Tsvangirai, speculation started swirling around him as his deafening silence on the issue of leadership renewal made more noise than those who actually spoke. With his name being bandied about as one of the possible people to take over should a leadership renewal agenda bear fruit, all eyes and ears were on him. But he kept mum. Never once revealing his leanings. At least not publicly.

He avoided the media like a plague and on occasion issued out thinly-veiled threats of taking legal action against newspapers that dared drag his name into the leadership debate. By the time deputy treasurer general Elton Mangoma wrote the damning letter to Tsvangirai urging him to consider stepping down in January this year, rumours were doing the rounds that Biti was in on it. Yet he denied. Flatly. But those that were aware of some camaraderie between him and Mangoma and also between him and Elias Mudzuri who had, before Mangoma, publicly expressed the need for Tsvangirai to consider stepping down, insisted Biti was part of the renewal agenda. Yet, he denied. Bluntly.

After Mangoma was dismissed and then expelled from the party, it was almost palpable that Biti’s fingerprints were in the melee as he publicly spoke against the disciplinary action, calling it a nullity. He remained closeted and appeared for a while to be double-crossing the two sides. Especially after he reversed the suspensions of people who had been suspended by the party on grounds suspected to be some sort of a purging spree of those elements who were pro-renewal — even as he continued to “sup” with Tsvangirai. He even appeared at a press briefing flanking Tsvangirai to announce unity in the party.

Indeed, Biti’s continued stay in the closet was a key component of the strategy. Yet the Tsvangirai group did not see it coming. The coup that is. “Honourable Biti is with us. He is still our secretary general and with us,” Mwonzora insisted just days before the coup was staged, when the Financial Gazette probed him of Biti’s engagement with them. “I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

The continued stay in the closet of Biti was so as to use and manipulate the access and powers bestowed upon him by his position as secretary general. “We need him to continue on in the party and not be expelled like the others,” a pro-renewal member told the Financial Gazette just two days before the coup. “We need his office for strategic reasons.” Indeed as events have unravelled, the office of secretary general has come in very central and handy to the renewal team.

Using weaponry such as the constitution and bandying about maxims such as returning to “democratic ideals”, and “the party’s founding values and principles”, the renewal team sought to oust Tsvangirai and allies two Saturdays ago at a meeting at Mandel Training Centre in Marlborough where 138 out of 176 national executive council members are said to have voted for Tsvangirai’s suspension.

Six others: deputy party president, Thokozani Khupe national organising secretary, Nelson Chamisa national chairman, Lovemore Moyo his deputy, Morgan Komichi and national spokesperson, Douglas Mwonzora were also suspended. In order to guard their gains and keep the Tsvangirai faction locked out, Biti last week sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, which read in part:

“The party itself is now clearly divided between the faction of fascists led by the suspended Morgan Tsvangirai and the renewal team that met at Mandel Training Centre on April 26, 2014. Effectively there are now two national councils and that if none of these has more authority than the other, the one with the secretary general is the superior.” The letter was meant to block the Tsvangirai faction from recalling from the august House Biti and 10 other Members of Parliament backing him. Whether Biti will succeed in staying the course is something that would be seen with the passage of time.

For now, what is not in doubt is that the Mandel meeting marked a turning point in Biti’s 15 year-long career in the MDC-T. Before the Mandel indaba, Biti used to play second fiddle to Tsvangirai who all along was the face of the opposition movement in Zimbabwe, a darling to the masses and luminary to Western governments for standing up to President Robert Mugabe. His strategy, which is still in its early days, is hard to decipher as Biti is not giving away much for fear of arming his nemesis. Conspiracy-hungry Zimbabweans, always in search of some of political intrigue, have speculated that the former finance minister may have gone to bed with ZANU-PF, a position that has also found sway in the narrative given by the faction controlled by Tsvangirai.

“It is clear that this (Mandel) meeting was a culmination of a sustained programme of both overt and covert operations involving ZANU-PF, state security agents, Welshman Ncube and the Zimbabwe Institute,” said Mwonzora. The ruling party has, however, distanced itself from the ongoing turmoil in the MDC-T having its own hands full with its pressing succession conundrum and with how to revive the economy.

Political observers suggest that Biti’s strategy may be to force the Tsvangirai faction into a long winding legal battle, buying time for his group to stabilise and win more backers.

Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst from the University of Zimbabwe, said the factions should not expect a quick solution from the courts as to which faction was recognised as legitimate by law.

“Cases like these take long to settle and even to appear before the courts. We have had in some instances cases filed in 2000 only to be heard five years later. Most recently there was the issue with (Arthur) Mutambara and the smaller MDC over the leadership of the party. That case dragged on until the expiry of the unity government,” said Masunungure. At the time of going to press, there was meeting after meeting for both factions as strategies and counter strategies were being mooted and sharpened. The night is still young, yet. –

Source : Financial Gazette