Morgan Tsvangirai is a courageous man with a historic achievement to his credit. Despite being assaulted, locked up, threatened and endlessly vilified, he did more than anyone else to dismantle Zimbabwe’s one-party state and force Robert Mugabe to contend with serious opposition.
When Tsvangirai founded the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) 14 years ago, Zanu-PF held all but three parliamentary seats. Mugabe had swept 93 per cent of the vote in the presidential election of 1996. However disappointing the MDC’s performance in this latest contest, the era when Mugabe reigned supreme and unchallenged is over forever – and that is largely because of Tsvangirai.
It’s all too easy to criticise from the safety of London. But Tsvangirai must now do the decent thing: he must resign his leadership of the MDC and retire from politics. The case for his dignified departure is twofold.
First of all, Tsvangirai has lost three presidential elections in a row. True, each of those struggles was shamelessly manipulated and – even according to the official figures – he won the first round of the last poll in 2008. But life is not fair. In the normal run of politics, a three-time loser would stand down. That is particularly true if, like Tsvangirai, the politician in question has led his party for 14 years. Mugabe, power-hungry and self-obsessed, wants to be an eternal president; Tsvangirai can show grace and wisdom by demonstrating that he has no wish to be an eternal opposition leader.
This leads us to the second reason why he must go. I will be blunt: Tsvangirai has shown time and again that he lacks the qualities of leadership. Anyone bidding to remove a politician as ruthless and determined as Mugabe must be an exceptional figure. In particular, his words must carry weight. Friend and foe alike must take him seriously. Put simply, he must mean what he says. Does Tsvangirai fit this mould, or has he always been a man of empty words? Sadly, the latter is true.
I could quote the many occasions, stretching right back to 2000, when he has promised to lead “mass action” or “resistance” or a “winter of discontent” – and then done nothing at all. I could recall the time in 2006 when Tsvangirai shamelessly urged Zimbabweans to “come out in your millions” to protest against Mugabe – and then failed to come out himself. I stand to be corrected, but I don’t believe that Tsvangirai has led a single street demonstration against Mugabe since the foundation of the MDC (he has addressed some illegal rallies, notably in 2008 when he was horribly beaten, but that is something different).
And, most tellingly of all, I must cite the dismal ritual whereby Tsvangirai threatens to boycott every election – and then (almost) always contests anyway. As a consequence, Tsvangirai has torn his personal credibility to shreds. Everyone knows there is rarely a link between what he says and what he does.
Before this election, after all, Mugabe had agreed a series of reforms. In particular, he had signed up to the creation of a truly independent Electoral Commission. Suppose Tsvangirai had said to Jacob Zuma and the other African leaders ‘if Mugabe breaks his word and fails to carry out these changes, I will boycott the poll and urge my supporters not to vote’. Suppose his interlocutors had actually believed him. Then the pressure would have been on Mugabe to deliver the reforms. Instead, a wearily familiar sequence played out: Mugabe broke the deal, Tsvangirai threatened a boycott, no one believed him – and he duly contested the election anyway.
When not making empty threats, Tsvangirai can say things that are plain foolish. I could cite the occasion in 2000 when he talked of toppling Mugabe “violently”, thereby handing the regime an opportunity to charge him with treason. I could recall the time in 2002 when he fell for an obvious ruse and was filmed discussing Mugabe’s “elimination” with a shady “political consultant”, who turned out to be in Zanu-PF’s pay.
In the end, leaders must take decisions, stick to them – and rally their colleagues behind them. For all his personal warmth, Tsvangirai just cannot do this.
Most seriously of all, it was on Tsvangirai’s watch that the MDC split in two. Think of the consequences of that divorce. First of all, there was the sordid violence that accompanied the schism, with Tsvangirai’s supporters assaulting his rivals.
Then there was the fact that the anti-Mugabe vote has been split at every subsequent election. If Tsvangirai had been the only opposition candidate in the 2008 election, the fabled tidal wave of support, big enough to overwhelm any system of rigging, might actually have swept him to victory in the first round. But the presence of a third contender, Simba Makoni, who was endorsed by the rival wing of the MDC, stopped that from happening.
And what about Tsvangirai’s performance as prime minister from 2009 onwards? Sadly, his period in office – if not in power – showed up all his shortcomings. A few MDC ministers made an impact, but Tsvangirai personally made almost none. Despite having a majority in parliament (if the two MDCs could have worked together) and a majority of ministers in the cabinet, he failed to use these levers of power. Mugabe outmanoeuvred or ignored him time and again.
Tsvangirai is a man of many qualities, but he has failed as a politician. He should have the wisdom to admit as much – and to leave the scene with honour.