Why do Zimbabwe’s opposition parties split so much? (Part 2)

In the last article, we discussed the first set of factors in an effort to explain the frequency of splits and breakaways in the opposition parties. The MDC family, as I will call it, is the primary point of analysis. A brief summary for the less familiar reader will be useful.

Biti and Tsvangirai
Biti and Tsvangirai

The original MDC was formed in September 1999. Since then there have been two major breakaway formations, starting with the split of 2005 and another in 2014. They in turn have experienced their own cracks, leading to splinter formations. The first split led to a formation led by Professor Welshman Ncube but it later split into two, with another referred to as MDC-M, led by Professor Arthur Mutambara. Before that split, there had been an earlier fracture, leading to a new formation called MDC-99, led by Job Sikhala.

In 2014, senior MDC officials, Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma broke away from the MDC, forming the MDC Renewal Team. And this week, hardly a year after it broke away, the MDC Renewal Team also split, with Mangoma announcing the formation of the Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe, the newest kid on the block.

Apart from these members of the MDC family, there is a plethora of other smaller parties that have emerged over the years. I recall sitting at a political parties meeting hosted by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission prior to the 2013 elections and seeing that there were more than 40 political parties, many of which it seemed were announcing their existence for the first time.

In describing the state of the opposition in Zibabwe, the general view held by many is that the opposition is severely divided particularly by comparison to their main adversary, Zanu PF. The question that we have been dealing with in these two articles is why the opposition and in particular the MDCs tend to split so frequently? Why are opposition leaders so keen to form their own small parties?

In the last article we dealt with a number of factors, including the issue of factionalism, the low costs of leaving, lack of disciple and loyalty, frustration with lack of opportunities for advancement. In this piece we look at the remaining factors.

Benefits of Leaving

Some 15 years ago, a Kenyan friend described to me a problem that he called MyNgo-ism, which he said was prevalent in Kenya in the nineties. In the same discussion, a Nigerian colleague chipped in and said their version was called INGO-ism. The Kenyan MyNgo-ism was short for “My Non-governmental organisation” and the Nigerian one was the “Individual Non-governmental organisation”. These were terms used to describe the phenomenon whereby individuals simply created their own NGOs. Forming NGOs had become fashionable. With so much donor funds floating around in those countries, everyone wanted to have their own NGO. At the time, we did not have that many NGOs in Zimbabwe so this was not a familiar problem.

However, 15 years later, with the scores of NGOs that have been formed over the years, I perfectly understand what my Kenyan and Nigerian friends were talking about. Now Zimbabwe is home to hundreds of NGOs. The civil society sector has, until recently, been a growth industry and a much sought after zone of lucrative employment. Things are little bit quieter now with donors tightening their purse strings what with the global economic crisis and austerity measures in their home countries and the frustrations with the slow pace of movement in Zimbabwe.

But in previous years, when there was a boom in funding, it seemed to have been the case that if anyone was not happy with an NGO, he or she simply went off and formed his own outfit. It went on like that until you had scores of NGOs, many doing the same thing, and then coming together into coalitions and then later, coalitions of coalitions. The presence of donor support has been helpful to the growth of civil society but it has also unwittingly fuelled wayward behaviour, including corruption. Just as there are GospelPreneurs, there is also a breed of NGOpreneurs.

Not surprisingly, this problem in the NGO sector is also mirrored in the opposition sector, and often for the same reasons. In fact, for many, forming a new party might actually bring more opportunities and benefits especially if there is donor support. We might call it the problem of MyParty-ism, a phenomenon whereby an unhappy member of a political party splits off to form his or her own political party. It will go on like this until there a million opposition parties!

The donor community needs to be a lot wiser and avoid unwittingly fuelling this kind of behaviour. NGOs and parties still need support from all sources, but this support must be properly channelled to support viable structures with a long-term future. We must avoid the problem of Politico-preneurs.

Lack of Ideological Fluency

There is something to be said about the lack of ideological fluency within the opposition parties. People are very passionate. They work very hard. But ideologically, there is a challenge. People rally around causes – such as the need to end injustice, to promote human rights, to remove a leader, etc – but without the firm ideological base upon which the traditional political party is often built. Parties are not formed around firm ideologies that people believe in. They are formed around individuals or the need to remove individuals. Therefore, when there is frustration with a leader, people find a new person and they form another party.

Zanu PF’s ideology might be criticised but at least there is something they can hold on to. There are ideas like indigenisation, land reform, pan-African solidarity, liberation, black empowerment, that they can hang on to. It has an identity and its people rally around that pillar. There might be a domineering individual like Mugabe, but there is also an ideology in there, which its members believe in and holds them together.

The opposition came together with the primary mission of removing Mugabe and Zanu PF. It was that object that united otherwise disparate groups with different, sometimes colliding interests – farmers, farm-workers, workers, capitalists, domestic workers and their domestic bosses, etc. It was the big umbrella which united all those seeking “change” from Mugabe and Zanu PF.

There was no firm ideological standpoint that brought these disparate interests together. Consequently, when someone or a group thinks it has better ideas to pursue the same object, they will simply go away and form a party. There is no strong ideological line holding the party together. People follow people, not ideas and when their person leaves, they leave too, even if that person is going nowhere.

Fatigue & Frustration

Tiredness and frustration are contributing factor. As I have said in the last section, the MDC was formed to remove Mugabe and Zanu PF, to pursue change. Unfortunately, this has not happened, 15 years after the dream began. The party has been very close, especially in 2008, when Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the first round of the elections before the sordid acts of violence that forced him to withdraw from the run-off election in June. Each time, the party has been thwarted, largely through unfair means. People have been killed, some have disappeared and homes and livelihoods have been broken. All this has taken its toll on the members.

Then there is the curse of July 31. It was not just an unfair and controversial election defeat, it broke spirits. It broke hearts and minds. It has been said some leaders were almost suicidal. It inflicted substantial trauma on the opposition and its leadership. After all that had been done, after all the promise and the expectation, it dawned on most that it seemed almost impossible to take power from Zanu PF. Hence the thought that perhaps, it was time to change the formula and that this should necessarily involve leadership change. Rather than blame Zanu PF, they began to question themselves and their leadership.

This fatigue and frustration led to impatience, serious friction, recklessness and poor judgment, which eventually resulted in the split.

Low Costs of Forming Parties

If Zimbabweans formed business enterprises in the manner they create political parties, the country would probably not be struggling economically. Zimbabweans love to form political parties. When a person is fired from a company, he fights hard to regain his place or to get compensation. In politics, when a person is suspended or fired, he simply goes off and announces his own new party. The difference is it takes a lot to form a new business venture compared to forming a new political party. There are very little, if any costs in forming a party. The actual business of building and running a party s of course a different matter altogether. And few parties have gone beyond their announcement. But this bleak future does not deter them. They just form parties – what happens later is the future’s business!

Sponsored Parties

Conspiracy-theorists among Zimbabweans have long speculated that some opposition political formations are sponsored by the ruling party. The theory is that The System, which includes Zanu PF, sponsors individuals and groups to form puppet political parties for a number of reasons.

First, puppet political parties are created in order to give the impression of a multi-party democracy, particularly when there is a risk of a boycott of elections by the opposition. The political parties will always contest, whatever the circumstances, and even of the main opposition boycotts elections, Zanu PF can always say there was competition. Hence the small parties are sponsored to create a façade of democratic competition.

The second reason is that the small opposition parties are sponsored to divide the opposition vote. In this regard, these parties look credible and are often fronted by respected individuals, even better if they are emerging from the main opposition. Such parties can attract enough numbers to split the opposition and favour Zanu PF.

The third reason is that the small parties are created to facilitate the vote rigging system. The theory here is that it is easier to rig elections with multiple parties that with fewer parties.

Recall the way The System works – it has presence everywhere, even in the opposition political parties. The System will “buy” the loyalty of individuals in the opposition, including powerful members of the leadership. It might entice them with a large bag of benefits or it might have files on their illegal activities.

This carrot and stick approach is used to capture individuals in the opposition. The System can make a great offer to a powerful but poor opposition politician. This price for this bait would be to destabilise the opposition to the extent of leaving to form a splinter party. Likewise, the System might threaten a powerful actor in the opposition, but with a promise of clemency if the politician behaves. This good behaviour might include going out and forming a political party.

There is no evidence that this has ever happened, but there is abundant speculation in political circles that these things do happen. I don’t know but it might be a factor.

Big Egos and Delusions of Grandeur

This might sound harsh but some characters are quite simply delusional or have huge egos. The trouble is everyone wants to be a leader and no-one wants to be led. There is nothing particularly wrong with ambition – after all a teacher should aspire to one day be a headmaster just as the trainee employee hopes that one day he will be the boss of the company. But it is also easy to be ambitious and impatient at the same time and to be delusional about one’s prospects. People start positioning themselves but in so doing they might clash with their counterparts. If they lose out in a contest or think they are not getting a chance, they think the solution is to go off and form their own political party. They do this because they believe, often wrongly, that they are bigger than the party. They do not realise that the party made them.

Agency Costs

When someone asked me about the breakaway of the MDC Renewal Team last year, I explained it partly by way of the notion of agency costs. I said what had happened was an example of the costs of agency that the MDC leader was incurring. Lawyers and economists reading this may be familiar with the notion of agency costs but let me explain the application in this context.

When someone (a principal) appoints another (an agent) to act on his behalf, the advantage for the principal is that he does not have to do all the work. His agents do it for him. But there is cost that he has to pay for this work. It might be monetary payment, which is easy to identify. But there are other, less obvious costs. Let’s take a few examples. One risk is that the agent will become the face of the principal in all his dealings. This might place the agent in a situation where his personal interests conflict with those of his principal. The agent might be very loyal which would be good, but he might also choose to prioritise his own interests over those of his principal. When that happens, the principal might end up losing out to his agent. This is a cost in the agency relationship.

The other problem is that the agent might end up substituting himself for the principal, believing that he is the principal or that he is better than the principal. This is compounded when those who deal with the principal through his agent on a regular basis end up believing that the agent is actually better than the principal.

When these things happen, we might say that the principal is incurring heavy agency costs. He would not have these costs if he dealt directly in his affairs. Now applying it to the political context, a leader who relies too heavily on his subordinates in his dealings risks incurring heavy agency costs. His subordinates might end up prioritising their own interests, above his own. His agents might end up building better profiles and reputation among key stakeholders, above his own. His agents might end up believing that as they do all the work, they are better than their principal. And the agents would also have built up a powerful constituency and support group, within and outside the group giving them confidence that they can stand on their own feet away from the principals shadow.

My theory is that this is partly what happened leading up to the split of the MDC Renewal Team. The two leading members of the MDC Renewal Team, Biti and Mangoma, were Tsvangirai’s key agents during the GNU. They becaame the face of the leadership and the MDC in all its dealings with the external actors – GPA negotiations, SADC negotiations, JOMIC, constitutional negotiations, finance, control of party properties, etc. They were the key representatives of Tsvangirai in almost everything. They had enormous power. The agency costs for Tsvangirai grew and not surprisingly, in the end, his key agents believed they could be principals and they ran off to establish their own entity. Some key external actors also began to believe that they could be principals and some may have encouraged it. The result was the split. There were other factors, but agency costs were critical in driving the split.

But this issue of agency costs was not unknown to the leadership and there were ways by which these costs could have been reduced. Agency costs had also played a role in the 2005 split but lessons were not learnt. I suspect Mugabe knows this problem of agency costs, which is why he regularly chops and changes his agents. The result is that his agents are never really able to feel too comfortable enough to think they are principals. For Mugabe, the aim in dealing with his subordinates is always to minimise agency costs. This is important because with high costs of agency, the risk of those agents running off to create their own formations is increased.


The conclusion that we can draw from all this is that there are multiple and diverse reasons for and causes of splits in opposition political parties and specifically in the MDC. We have tried, in the course of these two articles to cover some of these reasons and in some cases suggested how they can be minimised.

It is important for the MDC and other opposition parties to take a good look at themselves and plug those gaps that contribute to fissures and splits. It is important to have fair dispute resolution mechanisms. The opposition must build a strong ideological base and educate its members on party ideology. There must also be strong foundation for discipline and ethics within the party. Members have to be loyal to the party and to the leadership structure. To do this, the party and leadership must be fair and impartial. They must treat members well, without bias.

The leadership must also be firm and strong, without necessarily being dictatorial. It must make firm decisions and guide the party, and not be guided by majorities alone. Leaders must make decisions that make sense and are for the good of the party in the long-run. Leadership is not always about putting issues to a vote and a show of numbers.

Importantly, there must be a mechanism of protecting the rights and interests of minorities against the tyranny of the majority, because it is often the frustrated minorities who leave and decide to form their own small parties.

And critically, the leadership must be alive to the problem of agency costs. They cannot entrust all or most of their functions with one or two individuals in the party. They must spread the functions and change responsibilities from time to time to prevent the creation of multiple centres of power.

There are some factors here that probably the opposition can do little about, but those that they can, they must attend to them, as suggested.

The problem of splits for the opposition is that they give the impression to the public of a confused and unsettled opposition. When opinion surveys are carried out, it is the splits and divisions that cause people to say they cannot trust the opposition. And when people lose trust, it is very hard to win it back.

Alex Magaisa can be reached on [email protected] You can visit his blog Alex Magaisa.com

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