Morgan Tsvangirai’s “Fierce Urgency of Now”!

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / February 15, 2009
Zimbabwe Saved From the “Brink of a Dark Abyss”

A year ago, Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of presidential elections in Zimbabwe. He refused to participate in the run-off calling it a “violent sham” for which his supporters risked death by voting for him. Last week, Tsvangirai became prime minister in a power sharing agreement fabricated by southern African regional leaders. In his inauguration speech, Prime Minster Tsvangirai spoke of the fierce urgency of now for the people of Zimbabwe:

For too long, Zimbabwe has endured violent political polarization. This must end today. For too long, our people’s hopes for a bright and prosperous future have been betrayed. Instead of hope, their days have been filled with starvation, disease and fear. A culture of entitlement and impunity has brought our nation to the brink of a dark abyss. This must end today. Economic collapse has forced millions of our most able to flee the country... This must end today."

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s Tyrannosaurus Rex (tyrant king), had publicly ridiculed Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change party as “shameless stooges of the West” and vowed never to talk to them. For over a decade, Mugabe’s thugs had routinely beaten, imprisoned and harassed Tsvangirai and his supporters. But last week Mugabe stood under the towering figure of Tsvangirai and administered the oath of office to him. The iron fist that had ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980 was finally unclenched to shake Tsvangirai's hand in the spirit of reconciliation to help the suffering people of Zimbabwe. It was truly a wonderful sight to behold: Sworn adversaries making an uneasy peace to save their country from the “brink of a dark abyss.” Mugabe called on all parties to support the “unity” government “by turning our swords into ploughshares”. Tsvangirai offered a road map to get Zimbabwe out of its frightening mess.

Zimbabwe has been in deep trouble for several years. The world looked with horror as Mugabe plunged Zimbabwe into his Ninth Circle of Hell. Like Nero who played his violin when Rome burned, Mugabe kept on pounding his drumbeat of allegations of conspiracy between Western governments and their local “stooges” as Zimbabwe went into total economic meltdown. Today billions of Zimbabwean dollars are needed to buy a loaf of bread. Unemployment stands above 90 percent. One-half of the 12 million Zimbabweans are starving, and a cholera epidemic continues to kill tens of thousands.

Tsvangirai’s Road Map for Zimbabwe

Tsvangirai struck a clear note about Zimbabwe’s future in his inauguration speech. He said there are three things that need to be done immediately: “Firstly, we must implement our democratization agenda.” That includes enactment of laws to “restore the people’s freedoms, create the mechanism through which a people’s constitution can be created, reestablish the rule of law and promote the independent media.” He said the “second priority is tackling the humanitarian crisis with every means possible.” Zimbabwe must deal with the cholera epidemic by reducing outbreaks, community transmission and the high mortality rates. Third, the economy must be “stabilized” by creating an “educated and healthy workforce.” He said that requires building schools and hospitals and taking care of the “professionals in our civil service [who] are the backbone of our government.” He promised that “every health worker, teacher, soldier and policeman [payment] in foreign currency until we are able to stabilize the economy.” He promised to “ensure that every Zimbabwean has access to emergency food aid regardless of tribal or political affiliation.” Zimbabwe will no longer be an international basket case; rather it will once again be Africa’s breadbasket.

Tsvangirai as a New Breed of African Leader

Tsvangirai took on a distinctly Obamaesque-style to his leadership in rebuilding Zimbabwe. He promised accountability, transparency, openness, separation of party and state and clean government. “As your Prime Minister, I will ensure that there is a clear distinction between the party and the state. I will be open and honest with you.” He called for reconciliation of the opposing factions and urged them to “work together to restore our pride in our people and our country.” He was conciliatory towards the international community and humanitarian organizations. He asked them “to engage with us to rebuild our nation and to work towards reestablishing a relationship that is not based on humanitarian assistance alone.” He declared his ultimate trust in the people of Zimbabwe and called upon them to unite in facing the enormous challenges: “People of Zimbabwe, we face many challenges but we are brave and resourceful. By uniting as a nation and a people we can succeed.” He urged them to “match our dreams for Zimbabwe with your own”, and reminded them that “at each point in our proud history we have looked forward not backwards, we have stood for hope not fear, we have believed in love not hate, and we have never lost touch with our democratic values or sight of our democratic goals.”

Two Lessons From Zimbabwe

Two lessons could be drawn from Tsvangirai’s accession to power in Zimbabwe. The first is that all African dictators will spare nothing to cling to power. Neither soaring unemployment, stratospheric inflation, mass starvation, epidemics nor the tears of their citizens will cause these calculating and stone-cold butchers to show compassion for the suffering of their people. But they all fall in the end. As Gandhi taught: “There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always.” Some may have wished Mugabe’s end to come with a bang and not a whimper. But his dictatorship has effectively come to an end. There is no going back. Soon the 84-year old Mugabe will join in the dustbin of history Africa’s bygone dictators -- Idi Amin, Milton Obote, Joseph Mobutu, Charles Taylor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Hissène Habré, Jean Bedel Bokassa, Sekou Toure, and Peter Botha, among others.

But the real lesson comes from Tsvangirai who is making history. Even as Zimbabwe teeters on the brink of economic and humanitarian disaster, Tsvangirai declared that the most important task for Zimbabwe is restoration of the people’s freedoms, establishment of the rule of law and the full functioning of the an independent media. This realization makes Tsvangirai truly a new breed of African leader. The future of Africa and the dream of an African Renaissance will depend on leaders like Tsvangirai who recognize the vital importance of democratic rights, the indispensability of the rule of law and the necessity of an independent media as quintessential prerequisites for the success of African societies. Tsvangirai’s message is very clear: Unless every Zimbabwean is guaranteed basic freedoms -- freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention and extrajudicial killings -- the economic problems can not be solved. Unless there is the supremacy of the rule of law, the problems of injustice and lack of legal accountability of those who have abused their power and the public trust will continue unabated. Unless there is a fully functional independent media, corruption will reign supreme in the halls of power and democracy will be unable to flourish in Zimbabwe. He is absolutely right!

A Time for Justice

Few expect Mugabe to honor his word about a unity government and work in good faith to make it succeed. He agreed to a power sharing deal under pressure, not out of genuine interest in reconciliation. Mugabe is already plying his old tricks. Within days of the agreement, he jailed Roy Bennett, a major ally of Tsvangirai and charged him with terrorism and treason. He also tried to swear in more than 20 ministers from his own party at the last minute, instead of the 15 agreed upon by the two sides. No doubt, Mugabe will try every trick in the book; but nothing will save him and his henchmen from their rendezvous with the dustbin of history.

If Mugabe lives long enough, he will certainly be held to account for his many crimes against humanity. During his first term as president, his thugs massacred more than 20,000 Ndebele, the rivals to his Shona tribe. Zimbabwean human rights activists and lawyers have documented thousands of cases of torture, illegal arrests and detentions, excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings by the Mugabe regime. Be that as it may, it is exhilarating to imagine Mugabe and his brother Mengistu riding out into the sunset of oblivion.

Unity Freedom Train Crossing the African Continent

There is a Unity Freedom Train crossing the African continent with whistle stops at all places where Africans are united. Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s new railroad conductor, has made it plain to his passengers: “People of Zimbabwe, I call upon all of us to put aside our differences, to begin a process of national healing within every community, to work across party lines and look forward together with hope, while learning from a sad past that has so devastated our nation and our people.”

Next stop for the Unity Freedom Train:

Ethiopia. ALL ABOARD!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at