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11 February 2008

Taking on the lion king

We profile Simba Makoni who has emerged to challenge Robert Mugabe from within ZANU-PF and who may b

By Stephen Chan

On 5 February 2008, one day after the leaders of the two opposition parties in Zimbabwe failed to agree upon a single presidential candidate to oppose Robert Mugabe, Simba Makoni – a Leeds University-trained chemist and former minister of finance – announced he would stand against Mugabe as an independent.

It took the failure of the opposition parties to tip Makoni innto a decision he had long dithered in taking. As recently as 16 January he had, face-to-face with Mugabe, declared he would not enter the presidential race; and Mugabe had, in any case, earlier refused to accept Makoni’s resignation from the high echelons of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

Since the early 1990s, Makoni has been the darling of western diplomats stationed in Harare. Technocratic and economically pragmatic, he was also neither corrupt nor disliked by any faction of the ruling party. Even now, it is hard to find sworn enemies of Makoni outside the president’s tight circle – and the leaders of both opposition parties are on friendly terms with him. Morgan Tsvangirai, the longer-serving opposition leader, has publicly said he could work with Makoni; and Tsvangirai’s opposition rival, Arthur Mutambara, is said to be more open to discussions concerning a union with Makoni than with Tsvangirai.

For now, Makoni will need the protection of ex-army boss, Solomon Mujuru. The question is, since Mujuru has his own presidential aspirations, whether Makoni is merely a stalking horse.

Meanwhile, a curious alliance seems to be developing within ZANU-PF between the much-touted ‘third force’ advocates – the ZANU-PF intellectuals who are enamoured by neither Mugabe’s leadership nor the prospects of opposition victory – and the ‘muscle’ represented by increasingly-dissident ZANU-PF barons such as Mujuru.

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But it is a tricky alliance. Mujuru is not noted for his modest lifestyle, and nor is he reputed to be a man of democratic inclinations. He has opposed Mugabe, though not to the extent of other internal dissidents such as Dumiso Dabengwa. If, now, Mujuru and Dabengwa could together throw their weight behind Makoni – and if Makoni can make a deal with Arthur Mutambara – then that is as close to a ‘dream ticket’ as is possible in Zimbabwe. It would mean the marginalisation of the brave Morgan Tsvangirai, but also allow a proper, if flawed, challenge to Robert Mugabe.

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For Makoni has neither political base nor organisational machinery of his own. Outside the group of party intellectuals he is unknown in the wider ZANU-PF constituency. He will need Mujuru’s protection first of all. Otherwise the risk he is taking in finally defying the aged Mugabe will be a dangerous one indeed. Both Dubengwa and Mutambara can deliver him a fair slice of the western region’s Ndebele vote; and Mujuru himself can deliver a small but meaningful chunk of the eastern Shona vote.

Even so, Makoni will have to rely for critical voting mass upon the urban disenchanted who must be persuaded that he stands, not only in opposition to Mugabe, but that he can fix the mess left behind by Mugabe. It is this second credential that he must persuade voters is real.

Although he has been a preferred or compromise candidate in the imaginations of both internal and external actors in the Zimbabwean drama, Makoni has not established a public record of sustained dissent to Mugabe. He has certainly stood up to him in private, and been sacked from the cabinet for his pains. But, in December 2007, he made a public speech in which he made his first open criticism of the president, saying: “the old Zimbabwean leader I knew was there for service, the new one is only there for privilege.”

Then he was edging nearer to a decision to stand. In January he shirked back. In February, alarmed at the failure of the opposition to unite, and no doubt with some powerful persuasion by Mujuru and possibly other ZANU-PF barons, he took the leap. It has been like watching a cub make his first steps away from his mother. But Mugabe is a very powerful old leader of the pride. There will be vengeance to come. Makoni knows he has to win, and he knows the chances are high he will not. Finally, whatever the dithering, this is an act of courage – no more than what Tsvangirai and Mutambara have demonstrated before him – but those opposition leaders were not intimates of the ruler of Zimbabwe. This is the lion cub taking on the lion king – and the unpalatable people upon whom he must now rely for protection had better not let him down at the first opportunistic moment.

Professor Chan of the School of Oriental & African Studies is preparing the second edition of his book: Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, London: I.B. Tauris 2003