Do Zimbabweans really trust Mugabe?


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ZIMBABWE –  studied the published results of a July 2015 survey carried out by the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI), a Harare-based research and polling organisation, I was left with the distinct impression that if it were a person, his weakness would be that he tries too hard to be all things to all people. The problem with this is that in the end, no one is really sure who that person is.

The MPOI report is such a mixed bag, with some results pointing in one direction and others pointing in the opposite direction. Consider this for a start: a majority of Zimbabweans think their country is going in the wrong direction and that this will get worse, but at the same time, a majority of Zimbabweans trust the man in charge of that country!

Taken separately, each of the results means something positive to the different political actors. Propaganda chiefs will simply take out parts of the survey that suit their agenda and run with them. But that approach would be a misleading way of reading the results. A better would be to understand each component in the overall context of the entire report. That way, some of the apparent contradictions might begin to make sense.

I have a great deal of respect for MPOI and the work they do, but perhaps in addition to the figures they present in their results, it might be worth adding a more detailed explanatory narrative that gives some nuances that might otherwise be obfuscated by the bare numbers. In this article, I look at the part of the MPOI Survey which relates to Zimbabwean’s views on political leaders and political freedoms. This is one part that demonstrates competing results, which, taken at face value, are going in completely different directions.

Mugabe’s high ratings

According to MPOI 2015, Mugabe is the leader that is most highly ranked by Zimbabweans in terms of leadership traits. All his ratings on the 5 leadership traits over which opinion was sought is over 60%. In this regard, 63% think he is qualified to govern, 71% think he is hard-working, 60% think he is honest while 72% say he is peace-loving. 64% say he cares for the people. These are high approval ratings compared to all his rivals, with Morgan Tsvangirai and Joice Mujuru ranked second and third respectively.

In addition, the MPOI report says 47% of Zimbabweans said they would vote for a Zanu PF presidential candidate if an election were held the next day. Tsvangirai has a 20% approval rating on this point. According to the report, Support for Welshman Ncube, Mavambo.Dawn.Kusile and ZAPU-Dabengwa approaches zero.

As for trust in leaders and institutions, Mugabe has a 62% approval rating, similar to what he got in the last major survey by Afrobarometer at the end of last year. Religious leaders also remain the most trusted, with a 71% approval rating. Zanu PF earns a 54% approval in the poll. By comparison, 52% said they did not trust opposition parties, with the MDC-T earning only 31% approval rating. Among the opposition leaders Tsvangirai has the highest at 34%, while Mujuru comes second on 29%. Biti is on 10% with Dabengwa, Makoni, Ncube, Madhuku earning 7% or less. Mangoma has just 3%.

In a nutshell, the figures are very positive for Mugabe and Zanu PF and don’t look good for the opposition parties. This would be an easy case if this was the only data coming out of the MPOI survey. The trouble is that we have more results in the same survey which point in a different direction and command us to remain on guard over the extent to which we can rely on the above data.

Lack of Political Freedoms

The first important result is that there is generally no political freedom in Zimbabwe and in particular, freedom of expression, which compromises people’s opinions, especially over Mugabe.

Firstly, asked whether they were free to criticise President Mugabe, an overwhelming majority at 90%, said they were not free. In addition, 79% said they were not free to criticise Zanu PF. Only 20% said they felt free to criticise Zanu PF. Furthermore, 73% and 64% said they were not free to criticise the army and police respectively. The army and police are closely associated with Mugabe. By contrast, more people indicated greater freedom to criticise the opposition.

Furthermore, nearly half of Zimbabweans in the survey (49%) said they were not free to express themselves generally. In other words, almost half the population felt it does not have freedom of expression. Strangely enough, two thirds said they felt free to vote, but at the same time two thirds said they were not free to participate in demonstrations or marches. Overall, even taking into account the freedom to vote, the general message from this is that a majority of Zimbabweans lack freedom of expression.

What does this mean in the context of the survey? An important observation that must be made is that despite Mugabe, Zanu PF and state institutions seemingly getting high approval ratings, this must be viewed against the result that Zimbabweans are not free to express themselves, and in the case of the President, overwhelmingly not free, to criticise him. We are not told why people feel they do not have freedom to criticise him, but we might reasonably assume that one cause is fear.

Margin of Terror

The question that one must ask is: if people are not free to express themselves and if so many people felt that they did not have the freedom to criticise the President, how reliable is the data that shows high approval ratings for the President and state institutions like the army and police? How do they trust the same police that they say in the corruption survey is ineffective and corrupt? It must raise questions over the manner in which people respond to questions regarding the President, the ruling party, and state institutions such as the military and the police.

Here, one is reminded of the cautionary term used by the late Professor Masipula Sithole, himself the founder of MPOI. He called it the margin of terror in survey results in conditions of fear and intimidation in Zimbabwe. Thus, in addition to the conventional margin of error in traditional surveys, for surveys in contexts such as Zimbabwe, where fear is a prevalent factor, one must also factor in the margin of terror.

Wrong direction for country

Another set of results from the survey which seems to run contrary to the high approval ratings for Mugabe and Zanu PF is in respect of questions regarding the direction that the country is taking. Let us look at the results:

67% of Zimbabweans in the survey sample said the country was going in the wrong direction. This sentiment was reflected both in the urban (75%) and rural (67%) areas, where people felt the country had taken the wrong direction. Further, 66% said the country’s present economic condition was fairly/very bad. When comparing with the same period last year, 58% said the country is now in a worse condition, while 51% thought the country would be in a worse condition in 12 months time. In addition, 57% said their current living conditions were fairly/very bad.

These results reflect a dire state of affairs in the socio-economic conditions of the people. They reflect badly on the leadership of the country. They also demonstrate lack of hope that the current leadership will turn things around in the foreseeable future. Yet against all this evidence, somehow, the same people said they trusted the President and the ruling party, which has presided over this demise and does not offer hope for the future. These same people are supposed to have indicated that they would vote for Mugabe and Zanu PF if an election were held the next day. In other words, they would trust the same leadership that has failed them. This defies sense.

How is this apparent contradiction to be reconciled?

Is it because people, in fact, do not blame Mugabe and Zanu PF for the problems that the country is going through? Or is it because when it comes to answering politically-charged questions, such as their opinion of the President and the ruling party, they are not feel free to state their true opinions, with 90% and 79% having already stated that they are not free to criticise the President or the ruling party respectively? MPOI doesn’t give us answers to these questions. We must try to make sense of this rather contradictory data.

What should opposition parties do in the face of such seemingly grim news delivered by the MPOI survey?

As I have stated before, the easiest thing to do would be to adopt a dismissive approach toward the survey and say it’s based on unreliable data. But this too, would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because it ignores the most important factor which is confirmed by the survey: that political freedoms are still severely limited and people are not free to express themselves and that this has a negative effect on the making of political choices.

Therefore, even assuming that the results apparently favouring Mugabe and Zanu PF are a circumstance of distortion caused by the lack of freedom of expression and fear of criticising Mugabe, it doesn’t mean the results are to be dismissed as false. Rather, they are to be acknowledged as confirmation of an environment in which fear and lack of freedom impacts negatively on voter choices and therefore in need of reform.

The Missing Data

Finally, a remarkable aspect of the MPOI survey is something that it did not cover: indicators on the succession race in Zanu PF. While the interest in the Zanu PF/opposition party’s dynamics is understandable, the most important dynamic at present is the Zanu PF succession race. The question of how Zanu PF deals with transition from Mugabe to his successor is the one issue that currently captures the imagination and therefore, requires polling agencies attention. By way of example, a question on succession might be posed thus:

Who among the following do you think would be a suitable successor to President Mugabe? (with a list of candidates).

This is such a general question on suitability of potential presidential candidates that the political party allegiances of the respondents wouldn’t really matter. In fact, a question similar to the one asked about political party leaders, where traits of leadership are measured, would be equally useful in the context of the Zanu PF succession race. A question on succession would give some useful indicators on whom Zimbabweans think would be a suitable replacement for Mugabe.

The story of Mugabe is not new. There is nothing new emerging from that ruling party/opposition dynamic. What would really be new, would be an insight into the succession dynamics: who among the potential successors has the favour of the people? I offer this by way of suggestion. Maybe MPOI, being the leading polling agency that we currently have in Zimbabwe will consider this in its next survey.

Finally, while interest will focus on the relevance of the survey results in the traditional contestation between Mugabe and Tsvangirai or Zanu PF and the MDC-T and other opposition parties, one aspect that warrants attention is what this data means for the Zanu PF succession race itself. In my view, some Zanu PF presidential aspirants will be horrified. In their view, Mugabe is past his sell-by date and it’s time that he considers retirement.

But with such surveys suggesting he still has high approval ratings, the poor performance of the economy notwithstanding, it will give him reassurance that he can continue. There will be no need for him to retire regardless of how poorly the economy is performing. His advisers, those who want him to stay will be waving the MPOI survey results as yet another independent confirmation that he can carry on. So if anyone was thinking Mugabe might be feeling the pressure, news from this survey will only offer him more reassurance. Impatient aspirants will have to wait a little longer.


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