Charles Rukuni

Essay | How the West Helped Mugabe Win the Elections

Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgement.

In the movie Godfather III, Mafia don Michael Corleone tells his protégé, Vincent Mancini, never to hate his enemies: “It affects your judgment,” he says. This is the lesson that the West should have learnt about 89-year-old Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front leader Robert Mugabe. Western governments hated the man so much that it clouded their judgment and, as a result, helped him win the 2013 elections instead.

The thinking at the time was that Mugabe was too old to win another election and that, after 33 years of his rule, Zimbabweans would now be fed up. Additionally, it was assumed, Mugabe would not deliver the jobs and better life Zimbabweans wanted. And then the old dictator won 61 percent of the vote to clinch another five years in office, while his party walked away with a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The opposition alleged that this massive victory was due to rigging, but rigging alone could not have delivered such a resounding victory. Western observers and the Western-backed opposition had tragically misread the political and economic climate in Zimbabwe for a long time. Their judgement affected by hate, they failed to see that many people in Zimbabwe, rallied around narratives of colonialism, racism and foreign exploitation, actually appreciate the fact that ‘the West’ dislikes their leader so much. The negativity in and from the West turned the old caudillo into a national hero, an icon, revered not only in Zimbabwe but across Africa as ‘the only one with the guts’ to stand up to Western ‘bullying’.

It all starts with the fact that many Zimbabweans are slowly starting to enjoy a better life than before. Farming, selling airtime, providing services and driving taxis are proving to be activities with which one can maintain one’s family. Even if there is still fear of being met with violence if one is seen to be against the government – Zimbabwean voters remember how more than 180 people lost their lives during Operation Makavhotera Papi (‘Who did you vote for’) in the aftermath of the 2008 elections - the mood is, on average, more content than before.

More importantly, those who have experienced oppression because of their political views don’t have a credible movement or party to flock to. The Movement for Democratic Change, in spite of a promising start and earlier electoral victories, has failed terribly in that respect.

It was only a few years ago that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai appeared to be the only solution for Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe had allowed expropriation of white farms and was damaging the economy to such an extent that it led to the hyperinflation years from 2005 to 2008. Not coincidentally, 2008 was the year in which Tsvangirai’s party won 100 seats and entered the coalition government. Zimbabwe was a place where there were no goods in the shops, people carried bags of worthless currency and everything was in short supply. The 2008 vote was a resounding vote from very many Zimbabweans against Mugabe.

But, and herein lies the rub, it was not in its entirety a vote for Tsvangirai’s MDC. It had never been easy for voters to identify with a party whose support base ranged from black workers and civic activists to white farmers and white capital. Perhaps out of a necessity to keep the whole from falling apart, from very early on, decision making was centralized around Tsvangirai and a trusted few. This in itself created problems, which first became apparent in 2005, when law professor and MDC stalwart Welshman Ncube publicly branded Tsvangirai as a ‘dictator’ and split off to form his own rival group. These internal squabbles cost the MDC-Tsvangirai, MDC-T for short, 16 seats in that year’s parliamentary elections. In spite of the 2008 electoral victory, the internal disintegration would continue unabated. In 2013 there would be three MDC’s: Welshman Ncube’s MDC, Tsvangirai’s MDC-T and a third one, MDC99.

Massive hand-holding

The occasional Zimbabwe-based diplomat noted even then that the MDC had problems. Then outgoing United States ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, wrote to his government in July 2007 to say “Zimbabwe’s opposition is far from ideal and I leave convinced that had we had different partners we could have achieved more already. (…) The current leadership (…) will require massive hand holding and assistance should they ever come to power. (…)Tsvangirai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.  He is the indispensable element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power.”

But no one paid attention to Dell’s advice when the MDC won the 2008 elections eight months later, or when Tsvangirai became Prime Minister in February 2009. Instead of mentoring him through “massive hand holding”, Western governments merely pumped in massive amounts of money to boost the salaries of the people in his office, which then led to renewed internal squabbles about who could work in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Meanwhile, what the West did not do was trust the MDC with their development aid money. All Western aid to Zimbabwe was channelled through non-governmental organisations, and not through the government. This badly hurt the MDC, which headed the key service ministries finance, health, labour and education. Finance Minister Tendai Biti, the second most powerful man in the MDC, voted the best Finance Minister in Africa in his first year in office by Euromoney magazine, was seemingly not trusted to handle Western donor money. Credit for improving people’s lives that could have gone to the MDC went to the civil society organisations that were disbursing funds, for example, in the fields of education and health.

The move also had the psychological effect of saying to the MDC that they were, actually, mere pansies. They might be in government, the donor nations seemed to say, but ZANU-PF was still in control and the MDC wasn’t, so they were not going to get their hands on the donor money.

Holidays in Monaco

Perhaps ironically, and to add to voters’ disillusion, when it came to money its leaders could lay their hands on whilst in government, the MDC did not behave as a role model for good clean politics either. Zimbabweans observed how, in five years, opposition leaders became as susceptible to quick enrichment as ZANU-PF officials had ever been. Tsvangirai’s lavish lifestyle prompted the New York Times to carry a front page story on 13 April 2013, three months before the crucial elections, entitled: ‘Tasting Good Life, Opposition in Zimbabwe Slips off Pedestal’. The story described Tsvangirai’s extravagant wedding to Elizabeth Macheka - the daughter of a high-ranking ZANU-PF official.

The MDC leader, the hope for a new Zimbabwe, was now travelling abroad regularly with a big entourage, had a honeymoon in London and holidays in Monaco and lived in a US$3 million government mansion. The newly acquired wealth, flaunted publicly and regularly, provided plenty election fodder for ZANU-PF in the 2013 campaign.

Rather than learn from the loss of popular support over wealth and lifestyle issues, the MDC party leadership continued to alienate themselves from the common members. Political candidates that were selected by members on the ground were rejected and the leadership would appoint its own. This would cost them the election in Manicaland, where grassroots candidates defied the leadership and ran as independents. The MDC, which had 24 of the 26 seats in Manicaland in 2008 ended up with only four in 2013.

The feeling that Tsvangirai’s party (or parties) were now a disconnected, self-enriching bunch that could not be trusted by the average Zimbabwean, was put in words by ZCTU leader Japhet Moyo, who told MDC leaders at their retreat in May - just two months before the 2013 elections - that the party had deviated from its pro-poor foundations and that this could cost it the elections. Moyo warned that it was the people that voted; not investors. “You are destroying the party uchiti urikupliza ma investors (thinking that you are pleasing investors). But vanhu vanovhota (the people that vote) are the poor, not the investors,” Moyo said.

Scepticism all around

Without popular trust or credibility, Tsvangirai now only had one thing to offer the voters: his promise of one million jobs in five years. But this promise was met with scepticism by a public that was well aware that foreign investors had not exactly flocked in when the MDC joined the coalition government in 2009. Furthermore, having lived through hyperinflation, Zimbabweans had learned not to rely on fixed employment or promises of such. A majority of working Zimbabweans had worked independently, and creatively - as taxi drivers, caterers, airtime sellers and farmers - for some years now.

Ordinary working people were also getting a bit tired of the MDC-aligned civil society organisations, of which there is one per 3000 citizens in Zimbabwe (to compare: there is one doctor per 6000). The donor-funded NGO’s, even if many of them did useful work, had over the years formed a class of ‘donor babies’: individuals paid with dollars and euros, driving around from workshop to journalism training to voter education class, often rewarded in cash for merely opinionating against Mugabe. Oxford-based researcher and Guardian columnist Blessing-Miles Tendi quotes an academic saying ‘I tell NGO’s what they want to hear. I tell them Mugabe is bad’. The academic explains he does this in order to make some much-needed extra money.

Real cases of illegal imprisonment, abuse and torture notwithstanding, it was also true that NGO-activists could build a career on the number of times they were arrested. In his book ‘Making history in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe’, also quoted above, Blessing-Miles Tendi further wrote of the “competition between activists in civil society over who gets more badly treated, beaten or imprisoned by the state. The greater the degree of one's history of ill treatment at the hands of the state, the greater one's legitimacy as an actor in civil society."

Most events in the arena of anti-Mugabe-activism, however much supported and publicized worldwide, had little impact on the daily lives of the Zimbabwean people. The average voter observed, more or less sceptically, how certain people were rewarded by the West, just like certain other people were rewarded for their loyalty by the state and ZANU-PF.

Land reform and indigenisation

Most importantly however, Mugabe’s election themes did resonate with the public. The land reform programme, sold as a disaster by independent media, NGO’s and foreign governments, was rather successful in the eyes of many black Zimbabweans (1). ‘Land reform’ farming had ended up providing a livelihood to about two million people, who mostly were making more money than they were in their previous jobs as teachers, drivers, security guards and farm workers. ZANU-PF had also, shrewdly, used land to lure urban voters in Harare, a former MDC stronghold. MDC policy advisor Eddie Cross blamed his party’s loss of Harare on the resettlement, by ZANU-PF, of 250 000 people in the peri-urban areas to farm land. This had indeed worked like magic.

Promises of indigenisation of the economy also resonated with the 3.7 million people who, working informally (such as the above mentioned taxi drivers and airtime vendors) are generating about US$1.7 billion a year. These were the people Mugabe was targeting with his promise to ‘indigenise’ 1 138 foreign companies if he won. Given a choice, most Zimbabweans would rather be entrepreneurs themselves than be employed by someone who will pay them starvation wages. Hyperinflation, from 2005 to 2008, taught Zimbabweans that you could starve even with a full-time paying job.


But the key thing that worked in Mugabe’s favour has been, without any doubt, his demonisation by the West, which turned him into a national, regional and continental hero. Even ‘Westernised’ youngsters were using Facebook and other social media to ask why the West hates him so much. On social media, in bars and on markets, the MDC has increasingly been equated with white, foreign, capitalist interests. In the same narrative, Robert Mugabe has become the saviour of Zimbabwe’s Africans on the farms, the villages and the streets. Even other African leaders and structures, such as the SADC, in lieu of gradually abandoning their loyalty to him, seem to become ever more supportive.

Mugabe’s renewed image as the radical African leader who won’t bow to the West is, incidentally, why the (often very sleepy-looking) 89-year old was standing for President again. It was not that he, at his age, didn’t want to go home and have a real rest: it is that ZANU-PF wouldn’t let him. This was a do-or-die election and, from a liability in previous years, the man had now become an asset: the one black leader the West hated with a passion. The legitimate leader of black Zimbabwe. A unifier in Africa.

With the narrative now firmly in place, it has even become doubtful whether Mugabe’s eventual passing would change anything. ZANU-PF is a shrewd party with a long record in government. For the foreseeable future, there is no other force in Zimbabwe realistically challenging it.

(1) ‘Zimbabwe Takes back its land’, by Joe Hanlon et al., Kumarian Press, Sterling, Virginian, 2013

Charles Rukuni (61), editor of the Zimbabwean online publication The Insider, is a veteran journalist, mentor and journalism trainer. His kindle book on Mugabe and the West can be accessed and purchased on

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