In the latest installment of the Popular Protest and Social Movements project for ROAPE David Seddon profiles the case of Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is currently facing a new kind of protest movement, and recent developments in the DRC where President Kabila has just been enabled to run for a third term.
By David Seddon
The first piece in this series (no. 1) ended with a comparison of three countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Burkina Faso – in which the president had recently tried to extend his period of office and there had been significant popular protest against this move from democracy towards dictatorship. In the second piece (no. 2), we examined more recent events in those three countries – DRC, Burundi and Burkina Faso – in particular and then began to consider the wider implications of the erosion of democracy where elected presidents have extended – or attempted to extend – their term of office beyond the limits defined by the Constitution, while drawing attention to the large number of African heads of state who have remained in power for far longer than anticipated, often by authoritarian and repressive measures.
In the third piece (no. 3) in the series, we returned again to the three countries initially considered, to examine the very different trajectories followed by them over the last six months, and extended the comparison to include two others – Congo (Brazzaville) and Rwanda – also in Central Africa. In the fourth piece (no. 4), we extended the comparison still further to three more of those Africa countries or territories in which the head of state has exceeded two decades, and consider the political dynamics that have allowed this to occur – in The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.
I am particularly interested to examine the dynamics of the widespread slide in recent years once again towards de facto one party states and dictatorships in Africa (even if many of them retain the façade – or charade – of a notional multi-party regime), and in particular I am concerned with the role of popular protest in sustaining or opposing these trends and its relationship to class struggle.
In this piece (no. 5), I shall examine the case of Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is currently facing a new kind of protest movement, and recent developments in the DRC where President Kabila has just been enabled to run for a third term.
Zimbabwe: A Summer of Discontent
Robert Gabriel Mugabe, born on 21 February 1924, is still the president of Zimbabwe at the age of 92, having been in power for nearly 30 years, since 22 December 1987. He has experienced opposition to his regime from various quarters over the years he has been in power, including of course from the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and has generally managed effectively to co-opt and/or suppress those who acted against him and his ruling party, ZANU-PF. But for how much longer can he maintain his dominance over politics in Zimbabwe?
The 30 July 2016 issue of the Economist carried a piece on Zimbabwe in which was discussed ‘a fresh round of challenges to Robert Mugabe’s deadly grip on power’, referring in particular to ‘the sudden rise of a protest movement led by a previously unknown clergyman, Evan Mawarire, whose hashtag #ThisFlag has caught the nation’s imagination’.
What some, like the Economist, have heralded as the start of a new wave of protest against the regime of President Mugabe began in effect in March 2015, with the one-man demonstrations against Mugabe’s regime at African Unity Square in Harare staged by journalist-cum-activist Itai Dzamara – who was subsequently arrested and ‘disappeared’. As Simukai Tinhu (a journalist based on London) suggests, in his piece of 17 June 2016 in the Zimbabwe Independent:
Instead of watching from the sidelines as the country collapses, it appears Zimbabweans are now prepared to try something new to address various problems facing the nation… it would be incontestable to suggest that until recently social activism had become moribund and thus something that was pretty much alien to Zimbabweans. But with a slew of several social protest movements that have sprung up in the last few months, Dzamara’s demonstrations appear to have set the ball rolling.
Though not headline-grabbing as those of his brother, Itai’s younger sibling Patson has since picked up from where he left. In April this year, in an act of considerable bravery, the younger Dzamara also staged a lone demonstration against the regime and its leader during the Independence Day celebrations. Holding a banner emblazoned with “Independent – But Not Free. Where Is My Brother Itai?” his protest was seen as a direct challenge to the nonagenarian who was due, on that day, to address thousands of supporters at the National Sports Stadium in Harare. Patson was roughed up by state security agents and forcibly removed from the event. But Dzamara brothers have not been alone in this new defiance. Tinhu suggests that:
The most interesting mini social protest movement that galvanised the social media has been #This Flag, orchestrated by clergyman Evan Mawarire. The precipitous rise of this energetic pastor’s movement took many by surprise and even prompted threats by establishment figures. Information technology minister, Supa Mandiwanzira, accused the pastor of subverting the state and made unspecified threats. However, despite such threats Mawarire seems not to be giving up. Others have since joined the pro-democracy movement from unlikely quarters. Most notable is former Zanu PF youth leader Acie Lumumba, who recently quit the ruling party alleging corruption and mismanagement by the regime. With his ‘Dig Deeper’ slogan, the youthful politician revved up a contingent of anti-regime dissenters on the social media with threats to unearth corrupt deals by government officials, including his former boss, Indigenisation minister Patrick Zhuwao.
In July 2016, the German Development magazine D+C (Development and Co-operation) carried a piece on the #This Flag movement in Zimbabwe, which remarked that ‘tens of thousands of responses and retweets nationally and internationally show that Mawarire has voiced the pent-up frustration of his fellow citizens with their government.’ The Economist also suggests that the #ThisFlag campaign ‘has caught the nation’s imagination’ and that ‘bolstered by the clever use of social media, has drawn support from churches and the middle class which had hitherto tended to keep clear of street politics. When Mr Mawarire, whose trademark is the Zimbabwean flag wrapped around himself, was arrested earlier this month (July), a large crowd, including many lawyers, converged on the court-house where he was being held, until he was freed amid triumphant cheers the next day’.
It also noted that a general strike organized by #ThisFlag and taking place on 6 July 2016, ‘was heeded by an unusually large number of people’, and that ‘many Zimbabweans, especially the legions who eke out a living by petty trading, have been infuriated by a ban on the import of basic household goods’. This had provoked demonstrations and the torching of a warehouse at the Beit Bridge border with South Africa. This was not all. Minibus drivers, frustrated by the mushrooming of roadblocks where the police demand bribes have also protested violently this month. So, it was not just in the social media that the expressions of dissent were voiced, but in the street and on the ground.
President Mugabe was probably most shaken, however, by the recent growth of highly personal hostility among the ‘war veterans’ (many of whom are in fact too young to have seen action in the civil war of the 1970s), one of whose associations condemned Mugabe’s ‘bankrupt leadership’ publicly on 21 July 2016: ‘we note with concern, shock and dismay’, it declared, ‘the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle’. A spokesman for a rival veterans’ group, the Zimbabwe Liberators’ Platform, that has long derided those who have recently turned on President Mugabe as ‘thugs’ who have supported him in the past, commented that ‘they have been benefiting from the system, but now they’ve been kicked off the gravy train, they’re seeing the light’.
The #This Flag Movement
As far as the #ThisFlag movement is concerned, the D+C article wonders ‘whether it will have a real impact on Zimbabwe’s acrimonious politics’ and concludes that ‘it is too early to say’. ‘Real democracy’, it observes, ‘will not magically appear from merely re-tweeting a hashtag. Social media channels are vital to address issues, but on their own, they are not powerful enough to effect political change. Real changes require action on the ground and not mere desk-top or mobile screen political activism’. It is true that while internet access and mobile use has grown rapidly in Zimbabwe (as in other parts of Africa) in the past decade, social media users remain largely urban and middle class, or those in the diaspora, which is largely comprised of expatriates who left because they opposed Mugabe.
The main criticism leveled against such movements of popular protest and dissent by many on the left has been an alleged failure to yield tangible results; in particular, the overnight removal of an entrenched regime (see the recent piece by Firoze Manju to which I have written a Rejoinder – both published on roape.net). A ‘lack of essential ingredients’, said to be required for a successful movement, such as compelling ideas, an ideology and the financial resources, have been cited as the reasons for their ‘failure’. Those who support the regime in Zimbabwe have expressed the view that the whole ‘wave’ of protest is nothing other than a ripple that will soon disappear and fade into oblivion. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, for example, has colourfully dismissed the #This Flag movement as nothing more than ‘a pastor’s fart in the corridors of power’.
It remains to be seen how far the movement is simply ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’ and how far it serves to mobilise a deeply frustrated population in more ‘grounded’ demonstrations of popular protest and lead to ‘real’ political action. But some, like Tinhu, believe that these small initiatives have already changed the way the opposition, anti-regime dissenters and pro-democracy forces approach the ZANU-PF government’s repression and mismanagement of the nation’s affairs:
a close inspection shows that they might have given birth to the beginning of mass activism in Zimbabwe. In particular these movements have been a success in two respects: firstly, they have gone beyond a threshold that has never been breached before. Whereas in the late 1990s, the main protest movements of labour unions was against International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-instituted economic austerity policies, today, protests are a direct challenge to Mugabe’s rule…
He notes that ‘recently, as Mugabe addressed his supporters from a trip abroad at the Harare International Airport, an unknown elderly woman heckled him. Mugabe only just about managed to contain his anger and asked the woman to put her grievances in writing. This woman represented a different form of social protest, one never seen before from a member of the public — direct attack’. He asks whether these small ripples might, in the fullness of time coalesce or combine to create a genuine wave of social protest. But as he also comments: ‘time will tell’. He argues that these initiatives might, at the very least,
provide the springboard for future protests. With the issues that spawned the social movements, such as unemployment, bond notes, repression and liquidity crunch, not going anywhere soon, the protest movement is here to stay. It might have tapered off as it services its engines, but is likely to return probably with a vengeance. Not only have the protests opened up new paths for successor movements, but they have also provided lessons for activists who have participated and those who continue to participate in these movements.
At the forefront of those whom he sees as becoming restless are the war veterans, a group that has been the backbone of Mugabe’s rule since the 1990s.
The Veterans and Other Discontents
Historically, in return for political muscle in the running of the affairs of the party, the veterans as a whole have campaigned and waged a war of violence on behalf of the regime (and themselves) against both the opposition and the electorate as a whole. But, arguably, that period has ended. The veterans are seeking alternatives. One way in which they may renew themselves is through the anointment of a man who is more likely than any other potential successor to protect their interests. In their attempts to have Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa succeed the frail Mugabe, some of the war veterans have opted for a slash-and-burn approach against anyone who might be perceived as a threat to that ambition. Recently they threatened war against Mugabe’s franchise, the Generation (G40) camp fronted by First Lady Grace Mugabe.
This is not the first time that this group has used such a hostile approach against the president. In 1997 they confronted him over their welfare, a politically marginal issue that the president dealt with by unlocking the safe to the central bank and dishing out huge sums of once-off packages. But what war veterans are demanding this time has inevitably set them on a collision course against Mugabe. Their attempts to influence the direction of the succession race in the former liberation movement have led to counter threats by Mugabe and his supporters. Indeed, recent explicit utterances by veterans endorsing Mnangagwa as heir apparent and criticising Mugabe and ‘his cohorts’ must have been the last straw. Mugabe threatened to carry out another “Gukurahundi” against dissident war veterans.
The other group that seems to have permanently joined the list of anti-Mugabe dissenters within Zanu-PF structures is the Midlands province where Mnangagwa is regarded as the godfather. Having abandoned the president, the Midlands party leadership has become a fair play for Mugabe’s politics of manipulation and oppression. Through his political surrogate, the ruling party’s political commissar and Local Government minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, Mugabe has attempted, on several occasions, to reconstitute the Midlands’ provincial party structures so that its make-up reflects allegiance to his leadership. Kasukuwere even attempted to have Mnangagwa’s close confidant, July Moyo, defenestrated from the party. However, all these strategies have failed dismally. It appears that Mugabe has resigned in his attempts to have this region within his sphere of influence.
On the surface, the Youth League appears firmly in the hands of the nonagenarian. However, its membership shares a different vision to that of its leader. The youths are strongly in defiance of him. Forget about the “million-man march”, which was made up of mostly elderly men, women and children for that matter. The “Save Zanu-PF” group that was disbanded after defying the president, after it had repeatedly lashed out at his wife, represents the position held by most of the youth wing’s membership. Even the current youth leader, Kudzai Chipanga, has a reputation for switching allegiances depending on the direction of the contenders’ political fortunes.
Having been installed as youth leader by the then vice-president Joice Mujuru’s faction, which controlled the commissariat department prior to 2014, Chipanga was a known strong ally of Mujuru’s political group only to chant “Down with Mujuru” when he realised that Mujuru’s political group was losing ground to Mnangagwa and G40 forces in the run-up to the December 2014 congress. Political behaviour is repeatable. Will Chipanga jump overboard when Mugabe’s ship starts sinking? Most likely.
This leaves Mugabe with only the Women’s League reliably in his camp. However, this group is also deeply divided, with some supporting the First Lady and the others resisting Grace’s ascendancy. Though symbolically the First Lady is the leader, there is significant resistance simmering among its rank and file.
It is significant in this regard that Zanu-PF heavies have already been deployed to identify and root out those ‘veterans’ responsible for the declaration of discontent with the president and his cronies. Kasukuwere, a leading backer of the president’s wife, Grace, to succeed the old man, has warned disgruntled war veterans that their farms could be confiscated if they continued to express such sentiments, and newspaper ads summoned all veterans to Zanu-PF headquarters on 27 July to prove their loyalty to Mugabe. After anti-government protests earlier in July thousands of Zanu-PF youth were bused into Harare from the countryside to march in support of Mugabe and his ruling party, with loose promises that they would be given plots of land in Harare and Bulawayo.
But while opposition grows and the regime (and the named heir apparent Mrs Mugabe) adopts its countermeasures, there are voices for a ‘transitional authority’ to take over. Joice Mujuru, for example, who was vice president until she was ejected from Zanu-PF in 2014, is hoping to lead the opposition against whoever takes over her old party. As he nears the end of his regime and his life, President Mugabe must be suffering from sleepless nights, but he is almost certainly unwilling to cede power before he is obliged to do so. ‘We are reaching a tipping point’ commented Eldred Masungungure of the Mass Public Opinion Institute in Harare (according to the Economist), ‘but don’t underestimate the capacity of Zanu-PF to recreate itself’. ‘There could be blood on the floor’ said Pedzisai Ruhanya, described as a pundit, ‘Mugabe is very vindictive. He will not let go’.
How will Mugabe respond?
There are three options for Mugabe. First, he could give in to pressure and offer significant concessions in the form of reforms — another government of national unity on the pretext that the nation wants to solve a national crisis while he is buying time to regroup and consolidate his position within the party. Or, he could opt to resign from the party. But permanently possessed with the spirit of his own political invincibility and immortality, this seems unlikely. The second is to resist the current opposition to his continued rule, until it wears itself out. However, he may feel that these recent small, and seemingly innocuous protests risk assuming a different life form that might result in their getting bigger and more threatening. This is why he is most likely to opt for the tried and tested option — and move to crush anything or anyone threatening his hold on power. Indeed, in recent days he has sharpened his rhetoric against the most vocal and most threatening of these protest movements, the war veterans, threatening them, as we have seen, with a Gukurahundi-style backlash.
For now, he seems safe. The anti-regime dissenters, opposition and indeed anyone outside the ruling party are unlikely to be successful. This is because two ingredients which are almost always crucial in the success of social movements are absent in Zimbabwe. First, the general feeling that the regime is vulnerable and that there is little that it can do to contain social protests without consequences to its existence. Second, a major movement of social protest is not an event that happens suddenly. It is a process that takes months, if not years. The current social movement in Zimbabwe can barely count a few months of existence.
Equally, the resistance movement in the ruling party has little chance of toppling him. The most significant of the constituencies fighting Mugabe within ZANU-PF, the war veterans, are banking on the support of the military. The removal of their ally, army chief General Constantine Chiwenga, would mean that their political stock will immediately crash. Also, the incarceration of its leadership might paralyse it.
Generally, Mugabe’s current handling of social protests and the troubles in his party indicates that he is confident that he can weather the storm. The only real threat will come when the pro-democracy forces on one hand, and the resistance movement within Zanu-PF on the other, realise that their common concern is to see Mugabe depart from the political scene. It is likely that only when these two parallel and currently opposed groups coalesce into one grand alliance will a real threat to President Mugabe emerge. Or, alternatively, he could just die.
The Democratic Republic of Congo
As we have discussed in previous issues of this roape.net series on popular protest, social movements and class struggle, political unrest has affected the DRC for several months over concerns that President Kabila intends to extend his rule beyond the second term, which comes to an end in November 2016. Police and demonstrators clashed again towards the end of May amid growing fears that the presidential elections scheduled for November will be postponed, and that this will be because of Joseph Kabila’s intent to remain in office as president beyond the two-term limit.
At least one protester died and two more were wounded by gun-fire during running battles in Goma, the largest city in the east, while security forces in the capital, Kinshasa, fired teargas at an opposition march consisting of several thousands. There were also reports that a police officer had been killed by protesters throwing stones, but these could not be verified. At least 59 people were arrested.
Demonstrations planned in other cities were banned by the local authorities. A particularly heavy deployment of riot police was visible in the streets of the southern mining hub of Lubumbashi, where supporters of the opposition presidential candidate Moise Katumbi have repeatedly clashed with police in recent months. Katumbi, a former governor of Katanga Province in the south-east of the country and owner of the football team TP Mazembe, has emerged as a major presidential candidate and a potential threat to Kabila. On 13 May, the attorney general issued an arrest warrant for Katumbi, who was accused of ‘threatening the internal and external security of the country’ by recruiting mercenaries to support his cause. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters who had gathered outside the Lubumbashi courtroom to support Katumbi.
Katumbi left the country the next day, ostensibly to receive medical treatment in South Africa for injuries sustained during a demonstration in Lubumbashi earlier in the month. With Kabila’s powerful rival, effectively driven into exile in South Africa, many feel generally disgruntled. Katumbi supporters in the Citizen Front have recently defied the ban on protests in North Kivu and Lubumbashi. Opposition parties and civil society groups had called for nationwide demonstrations to protest against the ruling earlier in the month by Congo’s Constitutional Court that would allow President Joseph Kabila to remain in power if presidential and parliamentary elections due in November are not held. Western nations, including the US, have warned Kabila to stick to the election calendar.
Kabila took office less than two weeks after his father was shot by a bodyguard in the presidential palace in 2001. He was elected president in disputed polls in 2006 and again in 2011. A third term is barred by Congo’s constitution. Though he was given a boost when allies won more than two-thirds of the elections for governors of newly created provinces in March 2016, he has so far not tried to push through constitutional changes to allow him to stand for a third term, in contrast to other leaders in the region; nor has he expressed a desire to continue after his second term of office expires in November. A court ruling, however, has expressed the view that Kabila could remain in power if elections slated for November are not held.
Government officials deny that the president is seeking to remain in power. His supporters argue that major logistic shortcomings need to be overcome and a ‘secure environment’ established across Congo before the scheduled elections can be held. This may take up to four years, they say. They have a point. The DRC is nearly two-thirds the size of Western Europe and has a population of more than 79 million. The registration of voters has always been a problem and, particularly given estimates of the rate of population growth in the DRC – about 2.7 per cent per annum – it is likely that the current registered numbers seriously underestimate those eligible to vote in any forthcoming elections.
But the opposition remains skeptical of such explanations, and is wary of what is widely interpreted simply as a manoeuvre to enable Kabila to hold on to power for another term. Travel disruptions were reported in Kinshasa, including along Boulevard Lumumba, on 27 July 2016, as tens of thousands of supporters awaited the arrival at N’Djili International Airport of Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), who has spent the past two years in exile. On his arrival, his supporters accompanied him to the UDPS headquarters in the Limete municipality of Kinshasa. On the same day, two people were injured and seven others arrested as police used violence to disperse an opposition gathering in Lubumbashi and Tshikapa, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office in DRC.
Both pro- and anti-government protests were planned to take place in major urban areas throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the end of July and into August. A large demonstration in support of proposed talks on the electoral process and of the president, Joseph Kabila (called by the ruling coalition, the Majorité Présidentielle), was scheduled for 29 July at the Stade Tata Raphael in Kinshasa. On 31 July, two days later, large opposition rallies were expected at the Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa, where Tshisekedi was due to speak, and at the Grande Place Tshombe in Lubumbashi, organised by the opposition coalition known as the Rally of Forces for Change (Rassemblement des Forces du Changement), to demand that the presidential elections be held on schedule in November, as required by the Constitution.
There were concerns about the possibility of violence, and Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Muthoni Wanyeki, demanded that ‘the authorities … facilitate the right to peaceful assembly for all, including opposition supporters protesting election delays that they regard as a tactic to prolong President Joseph Kabila’s stay in power’ and that ‘police and other security forces …refrain from using force against peaceful protesters’. Opposition parties are likely to call for larger, more frequent demonstrations through the coming months to bolster their support base and to highlight fears of attempts by Kabila and his supporters to extend his period in office into a third term. The cities of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma are likely to be focal points for anti-government demonstrations.
In the meanwhile, the UK Minister for the Middle East and Africa, Tobias Ellwood, visited the DRC on 8-10 August 2016. In a series of meetings, including with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice, he pressed the government to make more progress towards holding timely elections. The Minister also met with opposition figures, and emphasised the importance of elections to the DRC’s continuing development. The UK Foreign Office advice to travelers (online) warns that ‘the political situation in DRC in late 2016 remains uncertain. There are calls for a political dialogue ahead of elections due in 2016 under the constitution. A previous electoral calendar scheduled the Presidential election for 27 November 2016, although some national and international organisations have said this will not be possible given delays in electoral preparations. Opposition parties have publicly called for elections to be scheduled by 20 September 2016 for elections to take place before 20 December 2016’.
On 20 August 2016, it was reported that the next presidential election will be delayed until at least July 2017, according to the Election Commission, allowing Joseph Kabila to stay in power beyond the end of his mandate in December. A campaign to register more than 30 million voters that started in March will inevitably take some time – an estimated 16 months – to complete, Election Commission president, Corneille Nangaa, told representatives of political parties in the capital, Kinshasa. Democratic Republic of Congo’s highest court ruled in May that Kabila could remain in office if his government failed to hold an election due in November. “The issue before us today in Congo is how to reconcile the electoral cycle … with the technical constraints we face,” Nangaa said, referring to the logistical challenges of holding elections in a nation roughly the size of Western Europe.
Many anticipated this outcome, but it is likely to fuel further anti-Kabila street protests.
David Seddon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher and scholar who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.
Feature photograph: Demonstration against Robert Mugabe’s regime next to the Zimbabwe embassy in London, on August 12, 2006
 This section largely paraphrases Tinhu’s argument.
 ‘Gukurahundi’ is a term used to refer to the 1980s atrocities carried out by the predominantly Shona Zanu government and its forces which led to deaths of thousands of civilians, mainly Ndebele, who tended to support ZAPU and Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe’s main political rival and were thus identified as a threat to be eliminated.