Is Tsvangirai a leader?

Mugabe's challenger is a man of more substance than his critics admit, but he has made strategic blu

South African president Thabo Mbeki used to privately sigh that the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was just "another Frederick Chiluba". Chiluba, a former bus conductor and trade unionist, swept to power on a pro-democracy wave in Zambia in 1991, ousting the independence leader Kenneth Kaunda, who had clung to power since independence in 1964.

Kaunda at least left when he saw the writing on the wall, unlike the 84-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, and who is seemingly prepared to hold on until death. Chiluba was hailed as a breath of fresh air, but once in power soon dashed the democratic hopes of those who elected him. In a final backsliding act, he tried to change the country's constitution so he could run for president for a third time. He lost.

The comparison is unfair. Tsvangirai, a burly former trade unionist, is a man of more substance than his critics admit. The son of a bricklayer, he rose from humble roots to become plant foreman of the Bindura Nickel Mine, while pursuing a parallel trade union career that saw him elected as general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988. Under Tsvangirai, the ZCTU bucked the African trend whereby trade unions become mere appendages of governments once the liberation movements to which they were linked assume power.

It took guts for Tsvangirai, a former senior Zanu-PF official, to oppose Zimbabwe's slide into dictatorship by forming the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999, turning his back on the liberation movement to which he was dearly attached. Even if they concede Robert Mugabe is a disgrace, Mbeki and other African leaders still cannot countenance Tsvangirai in power. For neighbouring leaders such as Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Tsvangirai has committed two crimes: one in 1999 when he formed the MDC to oppose a sitting liberation movement; and, before then, by cutting his political teeth as a civil activist rather than as a Zanu-PF guerrilla.

Tsvangirai was born in 1952, in the small town of Gutu in central Zimbabwe. The eldest of nine children, he had to leave school at 16 to support them. Mugabe, who prides himself on his seven degrees, gets palpitations about the fact that Tsvangirai, with his lack of formal qualifications, may yet become Zimbabwean president. Many African independence and liberation leaders claim to represent "the people", but most come from elite backgrounds.

Zimbabwe has a central place in the mythology of African liberation movements. Its decline, under Zanu-PF, into dictatorship, has damaged the almost sacred idea of the liberation movements being on the side of the people. Could the MDC under Tsvangirai forge an alternative path by becoming Africa's first real grass-roots-based movement: the first to split from a liberation movement, achieve power and then govern democratically?

Learning from his mistakes

First, Tsvangirai will have to win the presidential run-off. After the 29 March polls, Mugabe gerrymandered the results to give the opposition less than 50 per cent, forcing a second presidential run-off. Mbeki and other African leaders are making feverish behind-the-scenes efforts to stop the run-off and cobble together a coalition government similar to the one negotiated by Kofi Annan in Kenya after the disputed election of December 2007. But Mugabe insists he will only agree to cancel the run-off if he becomes the head of any coalition government.

After recounting the ballots in areas where he lost, Mugabe now has all the information on those who voted for the MDC and has unleashed a targeted terror campaign to stop them voting again. In recent weeks, South African generals returned from Zimbabwe with reports of Zanu-PF brutality on such a horrendous scale that even Mbeki - who made the infamous declaration that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe" - is said to have been shaken. Tsvangirai must now mobilise his supporters to go on in the face of sustained violence. He has been largely prevented from campaigning - on 6 June police detained him for the second time in a week. The day before, Mugabe indefinitely suspended all work by aid groups and police held a group of US and British diplomats for several hours after they visited victims of state-sponsored violence. African leaders and the west have done shamefully little to help ordinary Zimbabweans face up to this intimidation.

And Tsvangirai himself has made strategic blunders. Those who had reservations about his leadership must have felt vindicated when he went against a democratic decision by his party's national council to contest the 2005 senate election. Partially as a result, a dissident wing, under former student leader Arthur Mutambara, formed a rival MDC to contest the disputed senate poll. Just at the moment when Mugabe had his back against the wall, the Zimbabwean opposition split into irreconcilable factions.

Tsvangirai has made other mistakes. In 2000, when Mugabe launched his land grab and terrorism against the opposition, Tsvangirai sought help in South Africa. Mbeki, then, as now, did not know how to respond, and took the safe option of doing nothing. Instead of lobbying ANC figures who had been critical of Mugabe, Tsvangirai turned to the predominantly white conservative Democratic Alliance and white business leaders. But the white opposition in South Africa tried to frame the Zimbabwe meltdown as a case of blacks fighting whites; rather than as the actions of a dictator against his people - black or white.

It took the MDC almost five years to regain the confidence of those within the ANC who opposed Mbeki's closeness to Mugabe. And Tsvangirai has found it hard to dispel Mugabe's propaganda that he is a pawn of Britain and the United States. Nor has the MDC leader been able to articulate a coherent strategy on how he is going to resolve Zimbabwe's skewed land and wealth distribution - which is not going to disappear once the MDC comes to power.

Since the disputed 29 March elections, Tsvangirai has been either in hiding or outside the country. His strategists say it was to prevent him being assassinated by Mugabe's thugs: last year his bloodied face was beamed across the world after he was beaten by police following a peaceful march. Some years earlier an assassination squad tried to push him out of the tenth floor of a building after beating him over the head with metal bars. Ahead of the 2002 elections, he was accused of planning to assassinate Mugabe. The case dragged on for almost two years. If he had been found guilty, he would have faced the death penalty.

Some of his supporters wonder why, knowing Mugabe would not relinquish power even if he lost, Tsvangirai did not launch a Ukraine-style peaceful revolution to oust Mugabe when he refused to release the results of the presidential elections. Instead, Tsvangirai opted for petitioning the courts to force Mugabe to release the poll results. Some MDC members urged Tsvangirai to grab power last week, when Mugabe left the country to attend a UN summit in Rome on the global food crisis. He refused.

Yet his travails have matured Tsvangirai. He appears presidential, surer of himself, choosing his words with more care. When Mugabe petulantly decided to stay put in Harare in April while regional leaders were discussing the Zimbabwean turmoil in Zambia, Tsvangirai took his place. This is a far cry from the naive politician I met in Johannesburg a decade ago. The fact that he proactively lobbied African leaders one by one during this stand-off showed a man who appears to have learned from his earlier mistakes.

If Tsvangirai sweeps to victory, there will not be time for on-the-job training. He will inherit an economy in freefall, with inflation at 165,000 per cent, and unemployment at 80 per cent. He will need that organisational flair fostered in the trade union movement to heal divisions in Zimbabwe, but also to bring in western governments and businesses to commit money to the country's long-term reconstruction.

William Gumede's book "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" is published by Zed Books (£16.99)

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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