HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsTime to remove military’s presidential straitjacket

Time to remove military’s presidential straitjacket


“The lack of imagination in South Africa’s leadership is even more disturbing than its ignorance. The country has become a one dimensional universe held together by little more than the anxiety it generates”, wrote Gareth van Onselen in the Financial Mail of August 10-16 2017. He was referring to the last few rudderless months of Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

By Tapiwa Nyandoro

He might as well have been referring to Zimbabwe in the last decade, or two of Robert Mugabe’s rule. Eventually the anxiety became too much for the ruling party to bear. In fury, or blinded by it, it staged a coup with the help of the army leadership last November 2017. The act opened the doors to general elections on July 30, 2018. Hopefully, the election will bring to an end the anxiety that has lingered on post the coup.

The election provided it is credible, free and fair, is supposed to be Zimbabwe’s re-entry ticket to the global community of nations, ending an era of uncertainty, ignorance, corruption and destructive isolation. Self-imposed isolation, due to the aforesaid ignorance and lack of imagination, may have cost the country as much as $25 billion in lost foreign direct investment and $65 billion in lost gross domestic product growth over the past two decades.

Behind this huge loss was a chaotic land reform programme that violated the law, in particular as regards upholding of property rights. It also badly under-estimated the importance of capital, knowledge, experience, disciplined markets, and good international relations, all needed for a genuine agrarian revolution; one that has an objective to increase both output and productivity tenfold, and thus transform lives.

The result was a positively innovative coup that ousted Mugabe, bringing in a “new dispensation”. The entire world welcomed the change of guard in spite of the unorthodox way of its assumption of power, ushering in sanitised, but same old leadership. The genius of the operation lay in the timing and sanitisation. The flaw was in the self-serving nature of the outcome.

A government of national unity would have been a masterstroke, but that trick had been tried before. Sadc and the rest of world were in no mood for it, lest the new dispensation, be a clone of the old monster. It took some time for the opposition to discover that the coup had not been to its direct advantage. It cheered wildly as Zanu PF renewed itself.

After the first signs of innovative thinking, the world wants, and awaits a few follow ups for validation that the fog that has kept the country backward, has clearly lifted. An opportunity to demonstrate imagination arose when primary elections had to be held to select candidates for the national plebiscite. It was missed.

The two leading parties represented in Parliament dodged open presidential primary polls altogether. They stuck to an old and well-known formula of grabbing power.
Change, they find a fierce proposition that breeds uncertainty, rather than efficient methods that help generate new data and ideas.

The primaries that were held were for seats in the legislature and in local government.

The process was chaotic and a national embarrassment. Both parties gave themselves too little time for campaigning and preparation, in desperate attempts to rig the polls in favour of incumbents.

With resources and time short, you would have thought the polls would be run from province to province to avoid overwhelming whoever was coordinating the polls. But no such innovative thought ever came to either party. It was a stamped as usual.

The primaries were soon followed by the President proclaiming the date of the general elections. The adrenalin rush that the proclamation induced in the opposition led it to dust its claim for reforms and table it again, this time in hysteria. The pernickety bunch of reforms wanted, should present no major problems to a genuine democracy, and indeed to President Mnangagwa, leader of the new dispensation, given his vocal position in support of good governance post the seismic change of steward last November. But is a Zimbabwean President his own man?

The Presidency, contrary to what the Constitution may imply, is a captured institution. An unelected cabal, most likely from within Zanu PF, and claiming to be in cahoots with the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), and, or its retired corps, calls the shots from behind the curtains. It was clearly stated once at State House, when the then ZDF commander read an infamous statement on behalf of service chiefs, in which he described the presidency as a “straitjacket”. It still is to this very day. The power lies elsewhere, where imagination and innovation may be in short supply due to bureaucracy and emotions. The so-called President is only the public relations manager of that parallel government.

The coup confirmed the relationship. For progress’ sake, there is need for clarity of roles. Then perhaps leadership and its innovative solutions may rise to the surface. Otherwise there will be a widening gap between presidential rhetoric and action, as beginning to be apparent to all. A case in point is the small matter of the bunch of reforms that has ignited an unnecessary argument.

As Head of State, the President should have intervened in favour of a compromise solution. Those in the Diaspora must have a chance to vote, if necessary electronically. The printer of the ballot paper must not be a secret.

The voters’ roll, in electronic form or as printed, must be on sale to anyone who wants a copy, priced at the cost of production plus a small profit.

As he indeed is aware, no stone should be left unturned to ensure that these polls wash away the shame, and huge curse, of past elections held in the past decade or two. Those nasty elections are the reasons for the paranoia in opposition ranks, and observers from the West.

But due to his limited powers, the President probably dares not disturb sleeping dogs. Or he may have been overruled by the unelected, but powerful. Perhaps Sadc and churches should come out of hiding and assist him?

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) is best advised not to repeat the parties’ mistakes in primaries. If data and evidence suggest so, it should roll over the general elections over a week to 10 days, concentrating on two or three provinces for two days, skipping one or two days as necessary, and progressing to the next two or three provinces. This is to ensure that human and material resources, the police included, are not stretched to breaking point.

Ballot papers must be at the poling station by midday before the polling day. No stone should be left unturned to ensure that the polls are without violence, are credible, indisputable, free and fair. If there is not enough time for reforms and resource mobilisation, the plebiscite must be postponed and an appeal for help issued. That, too, is innovation. It saves resources and time in the end.

Zec needs to abandon one dimensional universal thinking to ensure Zimbabwe’s re-entry into the global community of nations. Otherwise the imagination or innovation shown in operation restore legacy would have gone to waste.

Time has come for an imaginative culling of the parallel government, and the removal of the presidential straitjacket crafted by the military.

That should herald the return to constitutionalism as monitored by the legislature and interpreted, when necessary, by the judiciary, bringing an end the nightmare of ignorance, uncertainty and limitless anxiety. It would be nice to see the civil society organisations tucked in bed, as the rule of (good) law takes centre stage.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading