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Opinion

When cabinet has become redundant amid a growing securocratic culture

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By Ibbo Mandaza

AT least two references in the media last week – “Mnangagwa’s cabinet hiatus highlights Zim leadership crisis” (The NewsHawks, 5 February, 2021); and presidential spokesman George Charamba’s assertion that President Emmerson Mnangagwa was back at work to a “very hectic start that includes taking far-reaching decisions”.

The “far-reaching decisions” by Mnangagwa were obviously on his own and, by implication, without cabinet which had not met for months (The Herald, 3 February 2021); from 8 December 2020 until this Tuesday 9 February 2021 – basically two months.

This will have helped the students of governance and politics towards a closer understanding of the nature of the current state in Zimbabwe and its politics.

First, while shocking, the revelation that cabinet had not met for almost two month, is no longer a surprise to those of us familiar with how efficiently that apex institution of government operated in the 1980s (and even well into the 1990s), and have witnessed the gradual decline and demise of cabinet rule ever since the rise of the securocrat state in the 2000s.

What was glaringly new is the spectre of Covid-19 and the about 1000 Zimbabwean lives it took while Mnangagwa was away in January 2021.

Otherwise, the last 20 years — particularly the last three since the coup in 2017 — betrays a frightening disdain for constitutionalism and the rule of law.

It underscores the reality of the military-security state apparatus: the antithesis of democratic governance; the abrogation of the principle of the separation of powers; and, therefore, the blatant reliance on the military-security apparatus for the maintenance of law and order.

In the Zimbabwean context, this is euphemistically described as government on autopilot!

Second, this state of affairs reflects not only on the nature of the securocrat state, but also the style of the man at the helm, Mnangagwa, as the typical securocrat himself, with security functions having been his obsession all of his adult life.

That is why it is difficult for him to fully embrace democracy and democratic governance based on the tenets of constitutionalism, good governance, rule of law, human rights and accountability.

Like Jose dos Santos of Angola or even Abacha of Nigeria, such securocrats are wary of and uncomfortable with democratic politics and the social interactions associated with the latter.

Their power is derived from a contrived (physical or securocratic) invisibility, bordering on a mystique that instils and a combination of fascination and fear on the part of the citizenry.

For dictators instil both terror and awe among their followers and victims. That is their model of governance: fear-driven arbitrary rule.

Many scholars have researched and investigated dictators and their henchmen.  They have studied their lives, personalities, their rise to power and how they governed once achieving that power.

The one common theme in their theories and practice of governance is fear. It is easier to govern and dictate to citizens through fear than good democratic governance. At least that is what they think.

And whether it is Nigeria under Abacha, Angola and Dos Santos, or Zimbabwe with Mnangagwa at the helm, the common denominator and enduring feature is securocracy and/or the dominant role of the military-security infrastructure, the perfect lair for an authoritarian strongman. And the common strand in their rule is fear and arbitrariness.

That is what makes them think constitutional and good governance institutions like cabinet are virtually superfluous.

They think they can meet as and when they want, sometimes as a mere formality to rubberstamp decisions made at home and at farms.

In Zimbabwe, the relegation of the cabinet system to the whims and caprices of dictators in favour of the monopoly of power and decision-making by the “Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of Zimbabwe Defence Forces” became the pattern during the last decade or more of the Robert Mugabe era.

Even during the period of the Government of National Unity (GNU) of 2009-2013, “far-reaching decisions” and key issues on policy were made outside cabinet, often after cabinet meetings, as ministers queued outside Mugabe’s office to have their proposals, which ought to have been discussed, debated and concluded in cabinet, approved by the President arbitrarily.

So marked the gradual but eventual retreat from the good old days when ministerial decisions were the outcome of considered and researched processes within the ministry itself; and when cabinet committees, of officials and then ministers, would scrutinise proposed policies and programmes before submission to the cabinet secretariat for the subsequent tabling on the agenda of cabinet.

In short, both the collective policy-making framework and (therefore) the principle of separation of powers in the state, appear subverted beyond recognition in contemporary Zimbabwe.

But even at the level of politics, we have under such circumstances the inevitable – but in the medium term, self-defeating and perilous – retreat to ethnic collusion, in a vain attempt to scaffold the tribal laagar.

Ethnicity has always been a pervasive feature in Zimbabwean politics, as in most African societies.

However, under the conventional and charismatic nationalists of which Mnangagwa is certainly not one, it was a problem to be managed and mediated to the extent that it was always in the background in countries like Tanzania and Zambia under Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, respectively.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe was far less successful in managing the National Question as the “Ndebele” factor and its Gukurahundi corollary is living testimony today. Otherwise, the ethnic issue was managed and mediated with some success across Zimbabwe throughout most of the period from independence till the coup of 2017. Mistakes were definitely made, but there was some attempt to manage the situation.

Significantly, the heady and internecine and tribal conflicts that characterised Zanu in exile had become almost a thing of the past in post-independence Zimbabwe.

Those of us who were engaged in nation-building and state-craft in those early days recall fondly the unwritten guidelines to use the compass when appointing and promoting civil servants, establishing national institutions or boards of state enterprises, and including the favourable ethnic-balancing within government ministries and departments.

There were serious efforts to manage the ethnic dynamics within the bureaucracy.

Regrettably, there has been the gradual, but increasingly discernible retreat from a pattern given to nation-building in previous decades, towards crass ethnic collusion, crude clanship, or what Tendai Biti once described as the “Sibanda, Moyo and Associates” with reference to the “Midlands” or Mberengwa “mafia” that characterises the post-coup dispensation.

The rise of ethnocentricism – belief in inherent superiority of one’s ethnic or sub-ethnic group; what some anthropologists call cultural ignorance – under the Mnangagwa administration is too brazen and is sabotaging whatever progress had been made in nation-building.

The defence on the part of the proponents of this new ethnic collusion and dominance is that this is a logical reaction to the “Zezuru” hegemony during the Mugabe era. Yet this is not only false, but also self-serving. If any ethnic group was short-changed during the Mugabe era, it is certainly not the Karanga factor in general, let alone the “Midlands” or “Mberengwa” factor.

There are groups that were genuinely marginalised. Yet for the latter – Karanga – will have had so far a disproportionate share of the “fruits of independence”, certainly much more than the “Western” and “Eastern” regions of Zimbabwe; Ndebele and Manyika areas respectively.

Of course, there were a few elites from the marginalised groups who also benefited, which tells us that there are many factors to be considered in this analysis: political party, positions, status, class and ethnicity, among others.

The framing and level of analysis cannot be in binaries: Shonas versus Ndebeles, or Zezurus versus Karangas – if we only do that we miss a lot of issues and nuances. It is far more complex yet the main dimensions and fault-lines of the complicated problem are also clear at the same time.

In this regard, the hegemony that Mugabe will have exercised during his era at the helm was less to do with the “Zezuru” ethnic factor than the political elite and security-related one in which Mnangagwa was integral.  

Mnangagwa and his associates, whether his homeboys or not, benefited from Mugabe’s rule in a big way.
Third, the “state of the nation” in Zimbabwe explains and highlights the deficits to which Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni made reference in “Exploring the idea of re-inventing the intractable Zimbabwe into the future” (The NewsHawks, 5 February, 2021): “Zimbabwe needs to revisit its state-building, nation-building and institution-building to rebuild a firm foundation for a new progressive nation.”

Yes, Ndlovu-Gatsheni, we are in a mess and far, far away from even the pre-requisites for commencing the process towards the restoration of constitutionalism and the rule of law, of recovering and strengthening the national institutions, and thereby resolving the National Question itself.

For even those in society – like the judiciary and the media – that should be leading the fight back against the shrinking democratic space, appear captured. And, likewise, civic society generally, the church and even academia, seem exhausted, afraid or resigned to the status quo.

And all this, against the background of an assertive external factor – the former coloniser, Britain, and likewise the United States and European Union – having to remind both the rulers and the ruled in Zimbabwe, that all is not well in their country.

So, what is to be done?

In the first instance, it is to continue doing these kinds of analyses, through organised academia and media, laying bare the political and economic realities; and thereby making our contribution to the fight against the predatory and anti-democratic state.

But in doing so, we need to return to the drawing board, as we did as the technocrats of the Patriotic Front under the UN/Patriotic Front-sponsored Zimbabwe: Towards a New Orderprogramme in Geneva in 1979, begin to produce the policy blueprint for the recovery (researching, analysing and interpreting society is part and parcel of that effort) and rebuilding of a new Zimbabwe that we all desire in the months and years ahead.

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