On December 1 last year, Yahya Jammeh, the strongman of The Gambia, lost an election to an unheralded opposition leader, Adamma Barrow, to mark an end to 22 years of iron fist rule in the tiny West African country.
Jammeh’s defeat is both historic and significant, not only for The Gambia but the whole continent. After celebrating the fall of colonialism and the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, the continent has found itself with life leaders, who have a disregard for democratic principles and maintain a hold on power in the name of a pan-African and anti-imperialist agenda.
Most of the strong men have been using fear, violence and illegitimate elections, in the process relegating opposition parties to mere spectators as they continue to rule using terror. Controversial electoral outcomes have become rituals across the continent, with regional blocs failing to bring member states to account and encourage losers to uphold democratic norms and values.
In fact, the continent is overburdened by liberation war cults.
Jammeh’s fall brought a sense of hope for democracy in Africa, in that despite the unevenness of the playing field, characterised by fear and violence, dictators can still be defeated by a people united for a cause.
Despite earlier pronouncements accepting the outcome, Jammeh made a somersault, disregarding the electoral outcome to utter amusement from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who stood firm in cornering the beleaguered dictator to submit and surrender.
The swiftness and the subsequent intervention of ECOWAS as well as the threats to invade The Gambia to flush out Jammeh should rather be commended and it shows how much we are progressing to finding solutions to our own challenges as a continent.
Without a doubt, the Gambian scenario was a test for the upcoming 28th summit of the African Union Head of states to be held in Ethiopia at the end of this month.
Many times the regional bodies have been condemned in failing to call errant dictators to order.
The shortcomings of the African Union, have resulted in western intervention by former colonizers, however, compromising the sovereignty of the African people.
As the rest of the continent celebrated the fall of Jammeh, it was ECOWAS which was rather given a gun salute for their firm position in safeguarding the will of the people in The Gambia, as expressed by the December 1 election.
From this background, there are a lot of lessons to learn from The Gambia, which can assist us in understanding the role of SADC in the context of the 2008 election in Zimbabwe. That election was quite significant in the sense that it was the first time that President Robert Mugabe was defeated, despite all the State machinery at his disposal. Now, some quarters are trying to hypothesise The Gambia scenario and comparing it to Zimbabwe, saying that the regional body, SADC, should have gone the ECOWAS way after Zanu PF was defeated on March 29, 2008.
In my opinion, I have three points to buttress my argument against such postulations. I would argue that SADC did all in their capacity, despite the opposition trashing the regional body left, right and centre for what they deem a failure to intervene and drive Mugabe out.
For starters, it is not and it will never be the business of SADC or any regional body to undermine processes in member states without enough justification and, let alone when the participants of the said elections have failed to win elections.
Firstly, March 29, 2008, election was inconclusive. The votes polled by MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai were not enough for him to be declared winner and subsequently assume the presidency from Mugabe. The Constitution was clear on the threshold 50% plus one vote for a candidate to be declared duly the winner; however, Tsvangirai had just polled 47.9%, therefore, triggering a presidential election run-off. Equally, we must not forget that it was the same period that the electoral commission withheld results for five weeks and no-one knows what kept them for that longer period.
Those who still recall will reminisce August 2, 2013, press conference held at Meikles Hotel by the by then MDC-T secretary-general Tendai Biti, who announced that the MDC had won the elections hands down. He was later to be arrested and charged for contravening the electoral act by announcing the ‘results’ of the elections. Brave chap he was!
This brings me to my second point, on how Tsvangirai shot himself in the foot by encouraging his supporters to remain patient, as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was going to announce the results. What a wait it became ‑ five weeks.
The momentum was lost, and still, how could SADC intervene in that case? I vividly recall a meeting held one early Sunday in Harare, were Tsvangirai begged with civil society to be patient with ZEC.
Thirdly, as if that was not enough, the MDC-T leader did the most unthinkable political gesture; his rushing to seek refuge at the Netherlands Embassy was a heavy snub on SADC and the rest of the African countries.
In essence, he showed them the middle finger, basically confirming that his party was not seeking African solutions but those from outside our borders. Hence it would be naïve to blame SADC for initiating a dialogue to discuss a power-sharing arrangement to break the political impasse after the sham June elections.
In all fairness, The Gambia scenario is different from the Zimbabwe case in 2008, and such an example cannot, therefore, be used to point at the inadequacies of SADC for allegedly protecting Mugabe. Worse still the opposition in Zimbabwe created conditions that would not have made it possible for SADC to intervene.
However, Sadc’s “inadequacies” should be understood from the background of a shared sense of history rooted in liberation movement solidarity. West Africa has a very differentiated political ruling classes, which do not have very strong links.
At the same time, Mugabe presented somehow of a dilemma to South Africa because he had “successfully” presided over the fast-track land reform programme and in West Africa, the “colonial masters” stayed in the background, unlike in Zimbabwe, where they were very vocal. Consequently, through the former South African President Thabo Mbeki papers, the African National Congress was actually advising Zanu PF, they blocked the release of the judges’ report on electoral violence. Ultimately, democracy, democratisation and its consolidation in Africa can never be secured by the threat of water cannons and bullets, but by the self-organising initiatives of its people.
With the 2018 beckoning, the opposition parties seem clueless, with some boycotting by-elections, but hoping to participate in the polls. The Bikita by-election brought with us many lessons, and the MDC-T will pay dearly for that. The biggest lesson learnt is that by boycotting, they strategically demobilise their own structures and even the potential voters.
How does one boycott a dictator?
It will revel in such pitiful actions because a boycott is a moral statement meant to delegitimise the political class. Given our objective concrete balance of forces, what will a boycott serve or achieve in a political project of altering permanently, the balance of forces in favour of the political project?
For Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First, they may have lost, but now, they know what to do next time. Losing is important. In the United States, the Democrats got used to winning and they went to sleep and got Trumped. In the first place, it was wrong for the Tsvangirai group to approach Parliament to have Biti’s group of MPs expelled from the august House. The talk of reforms is a far-fetched affair and one wonders how the parties are going to achieve something they failed to change during their stint in the inclusive government?
For the opposition, the solution is the people, the people are the last bastion and natural garrison to defend and expand a democratic sort of politics which secures their material transformation. Everything else not rooted in the concrete material reality of our people melts into thin air and the lecherous political calls will entrench its illicit accumulation project unchecked.
From my own assessment, the opposition in Zimbabwe does not have the experience and know-how of building a people’s movement and everyone seems obsessed with rallies.
Rallies are only a public display of social and political power gained, built and galvanised in the everyday lives of people based on their concrete material demands.