via Folly of professional opposition March 21, 2014
In Western democracy, an opposition party is regarded as a government-in-awaiting. If the incumbent administration snoozes on the job, come next election, there will be a new driver on the wheel. Consequently, parties constantly renew their leadership while sticking to their respective ideologies. In this environment, if a leader loses an election, chances of retaining his/her job are invariably between zero and nil. As a result, this has shortened the cycle of incumbency-to-opposition. In the process, we have often seen further entrenchment of democratic principles and processes.
When Helen Clark of New Zealand lost to John Key, she immediately packed her bags and went to a far away place, literally. She did not remain as leader of the opposition for a day longer. Today, she has a very rewarding job at the United Nations, presumably earning much more than what she would ever dream of as Prime Minister of New Zealand.
John Howard lost to Kevin Rudd and retired from politics. As we speak, he is rated as one of Australia’s best leaders ever, if not the best. In retirement, he is a very happy man. In the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull ousted Brendan Nelson who was later ousted by Tony Abbott. Recognising talent even within the opposition, Kevin Rudd appointed Brendan Nelson Australia’s Ambassador to the European Union where he served for a few years before resigning to pursue other interests in life. Indeed, there is life after politics!
After a relatively short stint as opposition leader, Tony Abbot capitalised on factionalism in the ruling Labour Party and cruised to Canberra as Prime Minister. He appointed his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, one of his front bench ministers, and life goes on. If the Liberal Party had remained stuck with either Turnbull or Nelson, it would probably be still in opposition today.
When Gordon Brown lost to David Cameron, he simply quit and the fight for opposition British Labour Party was between two siblings; David and Ed Miliband where the latter prevailed. Ed is now likely to be Britain’s next Prime Minister.
In Africa, we have the same faces every election; the so-called “face of the opposition” or “face of the struggle”. We saw it in Botswana. From 1965 until 2000, Dr Kenneth Koma was the epitome of opposition in Botswana as president of Botswana National Front (BNF). On several occasions, he ignored calls to step down and allow new leadership to take the movement forward. Consequently, in 1998, the BNF split and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) was formed.
This formation went away with all sitting MPs for the BNF then. Today, the BCP has risen to become Botswana’s third biggest political party and well within reach to cause a big upset in that part of Southern Africa. They have fully embraced the idea of leadership renewal though it may be a long time before they manage to dislodge the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which, like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not only believes in but executes leadership renewal every ten years. If Dr. Koma had stepped down in time and allowed new leaders to emerge such as Gil Saleshando, Paul Rantao, Maitswarelo Dabutha or other firebrand cadres of the time, BNF would have probably formed government a long time ago. Koma died in 2007 at the age of 84 sadly, without realising his dream of becoming President of Botswana.
From Zaire to DRC, long-time Congolese opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, has become the embodiment of opposition politics in the vast African country endowed with rich natural resources that are largely untapped. While he served briefly on three occasions as Prime Minister, he never was President. His last service only lasted exactly one week from 2 to 9 April 1997! Despite his long history of failed attempts, at times boycotting elections for various reasons, Tshisekedi, like Dr. Koma, is also likely to go to the grave without achieving what he set out to.
Moving to Kenya, Raila Odinga also suffered the same fate. After the 2007 contentious elections, he fell into the deadly trap of a negotiated settlement. While he spent most of his time between 2008 and 2013 focussing on delivery in government, his nemesis deployed energy and resources towards regrouping. When elections happened in 2013, his cry was the same, “we were robbed” but this did not change anything. In, came young Uhuru Kenyata from revived KANU while the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) was virtually relegated to the political dustbin. Does this sound familiar?
Winding back the political clock, we would also remember that despite fighting for democracy for several years in Malawi, at times even assuming the unofficial title of “father of Malawian democracy”, Chakufwa Chihana was stunned when he was overtaken by a new entrant, a returnee from the Diaspora, Bakili Muluzi who went on to become Malawi’s first democratically elected president as leader of the newly-formed United Democratic Front (UDF). Up to the present day, Chihana doesn’t know what hit him. He still thinks there can never be opposition in Malawi without him. Such is the fate and folly of professional opposition in Africa.
Another Diaspora returnee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, captured the world by becoming Africa’s first female president. This was later to be replayed by Joyce Banda of Malawi, in very similar circumstances.
Fredrick Chiluba, from whom Zimbabwe’s major opposition borrowed its template, sprang from trade unionism to the presidency of Zambia, defeating veteran nationalist Kenneth Kaunda in the process. If Chiluba had missed on his first attack, given what has happened elsewhere as demonstrated by the examples above, probably he would never have become president of Zambia. In the game of soccer that I love so much, if a team misses three clear chances including a penalty kick in a crucial match, hoping to win in the dying minutes of injury time against a seasoned opponent is pushing one’s luck a bit too far unless there is a prolific super substitute on the bench.
Introspect, renew, re-strategise and re-align are not just empty buzzwords. This is what happens in the real world. Those who want to hang on to power for as long as they still have some breadth in their lungs will face the Koma-Tshisekedi-Chihana fate if in the opposition or the Kaunda-Banda-Mobutu serendipity if in government. Time for real change has come; we just have to accept it. Those who have been bystanders for a very long have finally lost patience. There is a tsunami on the horizon!
Moses Chamboko is interim Secretary General for Zimbabweans United for Democracy (ZUNDE). He writes in his personal capacity. You can visit ZUNDE at www.zunde.org.