Tsvangirai death and strange world of opposition politics

The late MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai

Zimbabwe opposition stalwart Morgan Tsvangirai died on February 14, after a battle with cancer. What followed was not exactly expected.

By Charles Onyangabo-Obbo

Described as “a man of immense personal courage”, Tsvangirai, who formed the influential Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, took on now-ousted President Robert Mugabe when the fellow was at his most dangerous.

It’s unsettling reading how many times Tsvangirai was arrested, beaten, tortured and humiliated in the most egregious ways.

He never gave up or gave in.


In 2008, Tsvangirai won the presidential election but was robbed of his victory by President Mugabe and his goons.

In the end, he settled for what Kenyans famously call “nusu mkate” (half a loaf) in an unhappy national unity government marriage.

As happens with many high-flying opposition parties in Africa, however, it all ended in heartbreak.

The MDC has in the past 12 years split into four little things with Tsvangirai leading the biggest, but still ineffectual, rump.

He endured criticism and ridicule, partly because his own high-handedness contributed to the opposition split.


By the time he was taken ill, he had fallen from grace — or so it seemed.

However, the scenes in the capital Harare this week were awe-inspiring.

Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in the MDC’s red, turned out to honour him.

Zimbabweans, clearly, recognise that he sacrificed a lot and took blows for democracy that few men and women can.

Looking at the crowds, one couldn’t help but wonder how come, even if the Mugabe machinery unleashed violence and stole the vote, Tsvangirai didn’t overcome it all to triumph.


My own reading is that there are some peculiar things about opposition politics in Africa for which we still do not have the tools to analyse properly.

One of them is that many people support the opposition parties not primarily so that they can unseat and replace incumbents.

They do so because they want them to only be an irritant; to give the governments hell and to exact some form of political revenge on rulers whom they hate.

But, most of all, the people who benefit most from a strong opposition are constituencies allied to the ruling parties.

Let’s illustrate. In the 1990s Uganda, though President Yoweri Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement was deeply entrenched and popular in the eastern, southern and western parts of the country, it was battling a long-running rebellion in the north.


The intelligence services, however, kept running into indications that financial and logistic support for the rebellion was coming from the south, from sources that had done well from Museveni’s rule and supported him.

They considered this illogical and a betrayal. It wasn’t.

To keep the rest of the country behind it in the face of the rebellion, the government made it worthwhile for them by giving elites in their strongholds more patronage and being generally nicer to them.

Demonstrations in these regions were, for instance, handled gently by police.

The moment the northern rebellion was defeated at the start of the 2000s, the goodies ended.

These areas now face brutal suppression when they challenge Kampala.


Now that it could compensate vote loss in the south with new sources of support in the north bought by reconstruction expenditure, the government had fewer incentives to shower old strongholds with patronage.

A strong opposition allows supporters of the government to extract a higher premium for their loyalty.

As Kenya has historically proved, opposition politics creates its own currency.

Where divisions are deep, and electoral margins wafer-thin, betrayal is lucrative business.

A high-profile crossover from the opposition during the Kanu days, for example, to the government side would, invariably, result in a juicy appointment or a lot of money.

In Uganda, crossovers from the independence party, Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), to the NRM became so prized that a commentator in the weekly newsmagazine The Independent wrote that the Museveni government had been “taken over by the UPC”, as an unusually high number of them had been rewarded with plum State jobs.

In many of these polities where crossing over from the opposition to the government side is very profitable, standing up to the State can be very costly.

Only a few can take the heat. Tsvangirai was one of them.

He will be heartened from his grave to see that it was not in vain.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africa data journalism site Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3. This article was first published by National Nation.