Mutambara falls from grace

Watching Arthur Mutambara being heckled into silence by MPs in Parliament recently, one would have been excused for thinking the Deputy Prime Minister was an unwelcome intruder in Zimbabwe’s pro-democracy politics.


Recently, Mutambara managed to infuriate MPs twice in the House of Assembly in one afternoon. First, during Question Time, he proved out of sync with the wishes of Zimbabweans when he defended President Robert Mugabe’s decision to expel the Libyan ambassador Taher El Magrahi after the latter defected to the new government in his country.

Then Mutambara further incensed MPs from both MDCs by attempting to introduce debate on the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission before the legislators had an opportunity to study it. Even Zanu (PF), to which Mutambara now looks for support, did not back him. In embarrassment, he backed down.

Coupled with his refusal to step down after voluntarily handing the baton of president of the smaller MDC formation to Welshman Ncube, Mutambara has come to be seen as a stumbling block in efforts to dislodge Mugabe from power.

Yet a history of student activism in Zimbabwe, published by Africa Watch recently, places Mutambara at the centre of a movement that first cracked dictator Mugabe’s decades-old stranglehold on power.

Violent repression

It was Mugabe’s violent suppression of peaceful protests by students led by Mutambara in 1988 that spurred the then labour leader Morgan Tsvangirai and others to launch massive strikes which eventually brought the Mugabe government to its knees.

Many are bound to ask what went wrong for the formerly bold student leader and fiery orator.

Has Mutambara been bought? Has he been threatened? Is he being blackmailed? Has he lost faith in the ability of Zimbabweans to shake off the shackles of Mugabe’s tyranny and misrule? Or does he have a better plan? So many questions. Too few answers.

Titled ‘Academic Freedom and Human Rights Abuses in Africa’, the Africa Watch report gives an important insight into the events that shaped Mutambara. Perhaps as a strategy in those dangerous times, Mutambara and his colleagues vowed that they were fully behind Mugabe, but were against the corruption practised by those around him. Read in the light of recent events, many would accuse Mutambara of always having been a Mugabe protégé.

Seeds of revolution

In the late 1980s, as the euphoria of independence waned and the reality of independence set in, senior Zanu (PF) officials embarked on a massive looting spree, grabbing for themselves and their families commercial farms bought with British funds for resettlement. They also started parcelling out state firms and entities in the name of privatisation.

In 1988, students at the University of Zimbabwe and the Harare Polytechnic tried to organise a demonstration against government corruption and blatant moves to entrench Zanu (PF)’s one-party rule The UZ students led by Mutambara, who was the Student Representative Council (SRC) president were tear-gassed and beaten with batons.

Strategically, the students had affirmed their support for Mugabe but were shocked when he returned from a foreign trip to endorse the brutal police action.

Mugabe ordered the Kenyan political exile and law lecturer Shadreck Gutto deported for helping the students draft an anti-corruption manifesto.

Mutambara, along with five other students and four lecturers were charged with inciting public violence. The criminal charges did not stick but Mutambara and 14 other members of the SRC had their state grants withdrawn by the authorities.

“To cut off the students’ means of livelihood was a harsher penalty than anything the courts were likely to impose. Also, the criminal charges were unlikely ever to succeed in court, whereas the withdrawal of the grants was an administrative measure for which the authorities were not required to give a reason,” the Africa Watch report says.


The public humiliation of Mutambara and his colleagues as they were first banished and then hauled before disciplinary councils to apologise for leading the protests was to have lasting effect on the public mood and the national psyche. In anger at the continuing attacks on the students, firebrand lecturer and Acting Dean of the law Faculty, Kempton Makamure criticised the authorities. Mugabe ordered him arrested and he spent a week in detention under the country’s emergency laws. This only worsened matters.

On September 29, 1989, UZ students tried to hold a seminar to mark the first anniversary of their aborted anti-corruption demonstration. More than 200 heavily armed riot police and CIO agents descended on the university to disperse 300 students. Mutambara issued a statement on behalf of the SRC denouncing the police action.

“In the early hours of October 4, police again came onto campus to arrest Mutambara and Enoch Chikweche, the organising secretary. Mutambara was injured while trying to escape arrest,” Africa Watch says.

Mutambara was imprisoned and suffered intolerably after being accused of instigating violence that led to the university’s closure.

However, today Mutambara is a pariah. His first big mistake, according to political analysts, was to try and upstage Morgan Tsvangirai following the MDC’s disastrous 2005 split. Having failed to gain control of the main MDC, Mutambara tried to get into Parliament but was thrashed in Zengeza in the 2008 plebiscite by the MDC-T.

Mutambara’s biggest gaffe, however, appears to be the decision to refuse to step down as deputy premier after resigning as MDC party president. With no party to back him, Mutambara is not expected to have any meaningful impact on the forthcoming elections.

Worse, some now accuse him of being Mugabe’s mole. His anti-Western rhetoric has helped to reinforce that view. It seems history is already judging quite harshly one of the founders of the anti-Mugabe revolution. And Mutambara has only himself to blame.

Post published in: News
  1. Limnothrissa Miodon

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