‘When I Am President’: Nelson Chamisa Says Only Change Can Save Zimbabwe

When Robert Mugabe was ousted in a coup in 2017 after four decades in power, many in Zimbabwe hoped his downfall would spark a new era of democracy and prosperity in a country wracked by corruption, political violence and economic turmoil.

Not least those within the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, headed for decades by Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s nemesis since 1999, until his death from cancer in 2018, aged 65. 

Now it is his predecessor, Nelson Chamisa, who will take the party into what is being branded as the first democratic elections since 1987. Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and former chairperson of the MDC Youth Assembly, has renamed his movement MDC-T in honor of Tsvangirai, a former prime minister whom he describes as an “icon.” And he believes he can win.

“The greatest change for the people of Zimbabwe would be a change of system. That change will come when I become president,” he told Newsweek.

RTX4XS7N Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, looks on during the funeral parade for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare, Zimbabwe, on February 19. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Tsvangirai’s influence looms large over the seven-party alliance that Chamisa how heads and that is drawing thousands to its rallies in rural areas. Tsvangirai fought Mugabe’s rule for years and even won the first round of the 2008 election, before withdrawing from the second after hundreds of his supporters were killed.

But success on the stump is no guarantee that the country’s most popular opposition politician can take office in Harare, because there are concerns that, come voting day, the election may be rigged. Zimbabwe’s current leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has not yet confirmed a date for the election, which must take place before August 22.  

Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), have already refused to put the process of printing the ballots out to tender, have not published the country’s electronic electoral roll and have so far resisted meeting with opposition parties to set out electoral ground rules.

This adds to concerns there may be a straightforward reversion to the Mugabe playbook, one that involves intimidation, violence and rigging.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” said Chamisa. “We are now preparing for it. We are planning for a victory but budgeting for some shenanigans. We will not allow them to get away with murder, literally and metaphorically, like what they have done in the past.”

He added, “The mood is good, the time has come, and we are just looking forward to making sure that we claim the victory, and this is why we are clearing all the land mines and obstacles to a free and fair election.”

Chamisa is acutely aware of how momentous the next election will be. For the first time since 1980, Zimbabweans will go to the polls without Mugabe on the ballot, and voters will be given a choice of around 100 parties.

GettyImages-920703042 Nelson Chamisa gives a speech on February 19 at Freedom Square in Harare, during a gathering of thousands of supporters to pay tribute to Morgan Tsvangirai. AFP PHOTO / Jekesai NJIKIZANA

If he wins, Chamisa would become Africa’s youngest leader and one who better reflects the core demographic of the country’s 5.4 million eligible voters, more than four-fifths of whom are between 15 and 54.

“That gives us an advantage among first-time voters and millennials. Even in the rural areas, we are very significantly popular, with a massive footprint on the ground. As a young man, it is an adventure,” he said. “It is a challenge. I foresee our people taking charge. The continent of Africa is very young, so young people must speak out.”

Mugabe was 93 when his 37-year grip on power came to an abrupt end in November 2017. He presided over rampant corruption and became particularly infamous with his ordering of the confiscation of white-owned land.

Ruinous fiscal policies at one point caused inflation to reach 7.9 billion percent in 2008, with prices doubling every 24 hours. A 100-trillion-dollar note was issued, worth around $300.

RTS1PVYH Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa gestures as he speaks during the official launch of the ruling party ZANU-PF's election manifesto in Harare, Zimbabwe, on May 4. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

On November 6, 2017, he sacked his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, leading to fears he would name his wife, Grace, who is unpopular with key members of ZANU-PF, as his successor. A week later, the army placed Mugabe under house arrest, and he was sacked as party leader on November 19.  

Mnangagwa was appointed in his place, pledging that the next election will follow the election guidelines set by the Southern African Development Community. He told the World Economic Forum that Zimbabwe was now open for business, wanted foreign investment and hoped to sit at the international table.

Mnangagwa, nicknamed “the crocodile,” has been unable to shake off suspicions about his links to the security forces, as well as claims he had a hand in the Gukurahundi massacre of 20,000 civilians by the army in the 1980s.

Not everyone is as keen as Chamisa to hold elections this year. Tendai Biti, who served as Zimbabwe’s finance minister from 2009 to 2013, said it may be too soon after the coup to have real elections in Zimbabwe.

“We are rushing into the next election without understanding what happened in November 2017. How can we ever prevent that from happening again? You know from the state of Africa that once you have a coup, they tend to replicate,” Biti told Newsweek. “We need to implement political institutional reform to make sure that November 2017 doesn't happen again.

“I can tell you that that coup has become a copybook for the entire military in an already fragile region,” added Biti, who heads the People’s Democratic Party, which is part of the MDC-T alliance.

There are still hurdles for the opposition. Despite a loosening of media restrictions, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. and state-owned media are accused of being mouthpieces for ZANU-PF.

And those in the huge diaspora, who left during the turbulent past, have the constitutional right to vote but may be barred if they do not return to the country to register.

Some members of that diaspora gave Chamisa a rousing reception at the London think tank Chatham House, where he described how he would modernize the economy. With this momentum, Chamisa thinks he can be at the vanguard of a new African generation where strong ideas take precedence over strongmen.

Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, said that a year ago, there was little interest at the prospect of another Mugabe-Tsvangirai election.

RTS1QDR3 Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe with supporters of his ruling ZANU-PF party at a rally in Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, on July 29, 2017. Five months later, he was ousted from power. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo

“But since the transition, you have two different players, and there has been a huge energy among the electorate. That is a good thing,” he said. “The electorate is energized across the board, and certainly ZANU-PF are concerned. It is going to be a real contest.”

If he is elected, Chamisa wants to look to the future. That process starts with dealing with the baggage of the past, starting with the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. “We need a healing process, a forgiveness regime,” he said.

“For a lot of Zimbabweans, that is the direction we are taking, and it takes a fresh pair of hands, a clear mind, a clean heart to resolve the fundamental issues of the past,” he added.

Updated | Correction: Morgan Tsvangarai died aged 65, not 75, in 2018. Robert Mugabe was first elected in 1980 and spent 37 years, not three decades, in power.