HARARE – Known for his tailored suits and designer jewellery, Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa can work a crowd with all the drama of the Pentecostal preacher that he is.
He will now put that charisma to the test in the general election on 23 August when he will once again face President Emmerson Mnangagwa after losing to him in a disputed poll in 2018.
Chamisa will run for the presidency under the banner of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), the party he formed last year after he was thrown out of what used to be the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
It came after a vicious power-struggle broke out in the party following the death of its founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Chamisa was accused by his MDC rivals of staging a coup to wrest control of the party, and as the battle became increasingly vicious he was evicted from the party’s headquarters, and lost a court battle where his claim to the leadership of the party was challenged.
It marked a low point for Chamisa, but he made a comeback with the formation of the CCC. The string of victories it notched up in parliamentary by-elections was heralded by his supporters as a yellow revolution – a reference to the party colours.
On the campaign trail he has sounded optimistic about his prospects, despite saying that the political field is tilted against the CCC, with little access to state media, and an electoral commission he says is staffed by ruling party supporters.
However, President Mnangagwa has said the elections will be free and fair.
‘A formidable opposition’
The 45-year-old’s campaign has focused on his relative youth, with supporters chanting the Shona language slogan “ngaapinde hake mukomana” meaning “let the boy in”.
But it remains to be seen if he can defeat 80-year-old Mnangagwa, known as the “crocodile”, who has been in politics longer than Chamisa has been alive.
Still hugely popular among urban and youth voters, Chamisa is credited with transitioning into his own brand of opposition politics in the last two years and creating an identity divorced from the man he regards as his mentor, Tsvangirai.
“Creating a formidable opposition in a short period of time has been his greatest victory,” says political scientist Alexander Rusero.
Like the late Tsvangirai, being the face of the opposition has made him a target. Chamisa says 63 meetings have either been banned by police or disrupted – potentially a preview of the upcoming elections.
Moreover, members of his party have been arrested and convicted in what Chamisa describes as fabricated charges aimed at weakening the CCC.
He says he has faced threats to his life, which have made him extremely cautious and mistrustful – including escaping an alleged assassination attempt in 2022 when his convoy came under attack during by-election campaigns. He also suffered a cracked skull during a clampdown on the opposition in 2007.
He has previously told the BBC that he rarely eats at public events, for fear of getting poisoned.
An ordained church pastor who graduated from Living Waters Theological Seminary in 2016 and a practising lawyer, Chamisa’s social media timeline is filled with political commentary and biblical references in almost equal measure.
His almost Baptist-like charisma has served him well on the campaign stage, but some say it has come at the expense of substantive policy and a coherent political game-plan.
The CCC follows what Chamisa calls “strategic ambiguity”. It has not held an elective congress, and has not unveiled its party structures or constitution. It prefers to call itself a broad-based citizens’ movement, rather than a political party.
“Our [by-election] wins shows that it is organised and is not a one-man band,” according to CCC spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere.
But some of his former supporters, among them social media influencers, are increasingly frustrated.
Rusero believes that Chamisa appears to be intimidated by the ruling party, opting to confront them on “social media, with bible verses and misplaced optimism”, instead of in real life.
He thinks the opposition candidate has missed opportunities to wage a robust campaign in the face of allegations of rampant government corruption and public discontent at the spiralling cost of living. President Mnangagwa has previously promised a zero tolerance approach to graft.
In 2018, in his characteristic way, Chamisa told the BBC that he was a young man trying to bring about alternative politics on the African continent and that he wanted to replace strong men with strong institutions.
It was a reference to the personality cult that had developed around former President Robert Mugabe – even though Chamisa himself hasn’t escaped the same adulation from his supporters.
He too has not been a stranger to controversy. During the last presidential campaign, he boasted he had met Rwandan President Paul Kagame and been central in crafting a digital strategy that had been key to Rwanda’s economic success.
However, Kagame rebuffed this, tweeting that he had no clue who Chamisa was and had never even had a discussion with him.
He has also been labelled as sexist after telling voters he would marry off his then-18-year-old sister to President Mnangagwa if his rival only won 5% of the vote in the 2018 election.
He later said it was just “political banter that I used to illustrate that even if I promised to give him my most prized possession, he would still not be able to defeat us in a free and fair election”.
In the 23 August poll, Chamisa is hoping to emulate the victory of long-time Zambian underdog Hakainde Hichilema, who lost every presidential election since 2006, until he finally won in 2021.
But it is unclear whether Chamisa has enough resources and support to win, especially when the playing field is tilted in favour of Mnangagwa, whose Zanu PF party has maintained a tight grip on power since independence in 1980.
However, he remains the hope for millions of Zimbabweans who believe that it is time for younger people to lead the nation.