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British Professor Diana Jeater speaks on Chamisa address at Chatham House

In this Thursday, March 8, 2018 photo, the leader of MDC-T, Zimbabwe's biggest opposition party, Nelson Chamisa gestures during an interview with the Associated Press in Harare. Ahead of Zimbabwe's crucial elections this year, the biggest opposition party has selected a charismatic lawyer and pastor to challenge the military-backed president in the first vote without former leader Robert Mugabe in decades. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
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The MDC Alliance is undergoing generational renewal. I had heard great things about Chamisa as an orator. So I arrived expecting to be impressed and encouraged. Alas, I left unimpressed and discouraged.
*By Diana Jeater*
Chamisa did make some significant points. He observed that Zimbabwe has been a nation without ideas, and needs to regain the sense of vision and purpose from the liberation struggle era. He wants to build on the liberation struggle, moving from liberation to transformation.
Chamisa mapped out the five pillars of his programme: governance (devolve, decentralise, decorrupt); economy (depoliticise,); social rights (women, children, disabled, weak); infrastructure (‘lines of civilisation’); and international relations (rejoin ‘family of nations’).
I like the call for Big Ideas not Big Men. But I didn’t get a strong sense of the transformation Chamisa promises. Much of the programme seems reactive and retrogressive, boiling down to ‘we’re not Zanu’. As one questioner pointed out, it’s hard to identify MDC distinctives.

Diana Jeater is Professor of African History at University of Liverpool
More importantly, though, some things just didn’t add up. A call for Big Ideas is not in itself a Big Idea. Chamisa’s only Big Idea seems to be changing the government. There were a lot of technocratic fixes, but most of them are in Zanu-PF’s programme as well.
Economy proposal: Value Added. Yes, it makes sense. Don’t export raw, but process. Mining, specifically. But this has been Zanu policy for a decade! And Zanu’s 2011 ban on chrome ore exports was lifted in 2015 because there wasn’t processing capacity & the sector collapsed.
That doesn’t mean that the policy is wrong-headed. But it’s wrong-headed to present it as your Big Idea, rather than as an already-existing difficult problem to be *resolved*. What is MDC’s solution to the lack of processing capacity in the chrome industry? That’s the issue.
Economy proposal: Get rid of the bond notes and have a proper currency “within” the multi-currency regime. No explanation for why anyone would use this local currency or how its value against the dollar would be fixed and sustained.
Economy proposal: Produce more within the multi-currency system (unclear how) and focus on technology to develop ‘smart’ agriculture. Means what? As I observed to Chinamasa at Chatham last year: if it’s not serious about climate change, any new agricultural policy will fail.
Economy/governance proposal: Revisit all existing partnership deals with government to make sure they are not ‘shady’. ‘Shift relationships with foreign investors’. Yes, but speak *carefully*. Mishandled, this sounds like ‘Chinese Go Home’.
Economy/governance proposal: If Zanu-PF wins, will MDC Alliance continue to call for sanctions? It’s a nice sound bite to say that Zimbabwe ‘can’t be open for business if it’s open for corruption’. But it’s not a Big Idea for getting DFI. I didn’t hear that Big Idea.
Social rights: Lots of stuff about caring for the weak and what, again, seems like a sound policy: get migrants in UK back working in Zim health sector. But it’s presented as a voluntarist aspiration, not a strategy. How will MDC create these jobs? AND replace lost remittances?
Governance: very thin, mostly about elections, not what happens after. Questioned on what MDC Alliance will do if electoral process reforms don’t meet all their demands. Response: we won’t boycott but we won’t accept result. How?
There are few peaceful ways to *refuse* to accept an election result. Chamisa said EU, UN, GB could intervene. An audience member asked, in all seriousness, whether there would be an invasion “as happened to Saddam Hussein” if the election wasn’t agreed to be free & fair.
I’m sure Chamisa doesn’t want external invasion. But there was no sense of strategy behind this absolutist posturing, and that feels dangerous. It encourages those who prefer military solutions to Zimbabwe’s political problems.
Gender: That ‘Joke’ and Chamisa’s failure to apologise for suggesting that speaking of women as chattels is a ‘funny’ way to respond to a question of what MDC Alliance will do if it loses the vote. His lack of apology implies a poor grasp of both gender and leadership.
Overall, Chamisa came across as out of his depth, over-excited.
And he said some really dumb things: ‘Most of the people working in the NHS are Zimbabwean…The independent parties registering to contest the election are mostly surrogate Zanu-PF fronts….We will not be sidetracked by gender-violence issues’.
And dumbest of all ‘…the day when President Chamisa enters Zimbabwe House and begins to reign’. Govern is the word he was looking for.
Govern. I really hope, for Zimbabwe’s sake, that he knows the difference.
*Diana Jeater is Professor of African History at University of Liverpool