By Alex T. Magaisa
It is probably not what he would have wanted, but his place in the annals of history will forever be that landmark moment in the early hours of November 15, 2017.
Clad in military fatigues, he sat authoritatively in front of the national broadcaster’s cameras and broke the announcement to the nation. It was a sight that Zimbabweans had seen in news bulletins depicting scenes in some country far away.
But the unthinkable was happening right at their doorstep. A coup was in motion. Within a few days, Zimbabwe’s long-serving ruler, Robert Mugabe would be out of office, toppled by his lieutenants and erstwhile votaries. It was a dramatic moment that marked the end of an era.
A little over three years after that eventful morning, the man who made that announcement died in Harare, succumbing to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time,
SB Moyo, as he was widely known, held the rank of Major General. He would leave the barracks for the diplomatic corridors after the coup as Lieutenant General.
His appearance on ZBC TV that morning was not surprising. News had already filtered through since late afternoon of the previous day, that something was happening in Harare. Military vehicles had been seen on the major arterial roads leading into Harare. There were already whispers that a coup was happening. The only question was when the announcement would be made. And by whom.
Therefore, when two soldiers in military regalia eventually appeared on national television, it was merely the fulfilment of what earlier events had foretold. Still, the amount of chutzpah required for that act of announcement cannot be overstated. Had the coup collapsed, and there were moments when it appeared to be very precarious.
Who can forget the Asante Sana night, when the wily Mugabe made a television appearance at which many expected him to announce his resignation? The old man arrived long after the scheduled hour and when he did, he delivered an anti-climax, which left the watching world perplexed. He had refused to throw in the towel. It is almost certain that if the coup had failed, Moyo and his co-conspirators would have spent the rest of their lives in prison —if they had survived at all.
Although he was a key member of the military establishment, few outside the barracks had even heard of his name. More meticulous observers of Zimbabwean politics knew him and not necessarily in generous light. His name had appeared in a UN investigative report alongside the alleged looting crew in the DRC where the Zimbabwean military had been involved during the Kabila years. Zimbabwe’s military and political elites had harvested great personal fortunes in that war which claimed the lives of many young troops.
The name had also appeared in reports concerning egregious violence orchestrated and led by members of the military during the campaign for the presidential run-off election in 2008. But to the majority of Zimbabweans, the name was largely unfamiliar until the coup. He became the coup announcer, a celebrity in the euphoric atmosphere of the toppling of Mugabe.
The carefully worded statement tried hard to camouflage the fact that it was a coup, but it failed. It could not have succeeded when Moyo and his Air Force counterpart wore military regalia for their television debuts. As many observers said at the time, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck. It was, of course, a coup. Even those who felt constrained in the heat of the moment and created terms like “military-assisted transition” have since come to terms with the fact that it was a coup. Still, parts of that statement entered political folklore, “The President and his family are safe. We are only targeting criminals around him”.
From face of the coup to face of the coup regime
Moyo was one of those who made the swift transition from the military barracks to political office when he was appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. With that combined portfolio, he became the country’s top diplomat. His remit was to sell the post-coup regime to the world. Those who knew him have fond words and say he threw himself into the high-profile role with real gusto. It was perhaps a fitting irony that the face of the coup became the face of the new post-coup regime to the rest of the world.
However, if he was the salesman of the regime on the international markets, he had an impossible product to sell. Far from ushering in the change that had been promised, the regime was characterised by continuities from the old era. It was, as close observers said, old wine in new bottles. Not even the insistence on calling it “the Second Republic” or “the New Dispensation” could make up for the sheer lack of substance and change in the regime. They tried to distinguish themselves by wearing colourful scarfs of the national flag, to no avail. There was a point when the scarf-wearing routine became ridiculous.
The greater flaw was the sheer lack of leadership to take advantage of the momentum of that early phase. Mnangagwa had all the goodwill that he needed to do well in those formative days. The most difficult thing was to fail. And, incredibly, he managed to accomplish that feat. He had no real plan apart from the personal opportunities that newfound power availed. The result was that all those who had pinned their hopes on the new regime were sorely disappointed. Moyo and his fellow soldiers had risked their lives for someone who wanted to be president but had no idea what to do with the presidency once it was in his hands.
Unsurprisingly, in his new capacity as Foreign Minister, Moyo was reduced to selling hot air.
Distinguished scholars Hening Melber and Roger Southall have rightly remarked in their recent analysis of the regime’s foreign policy, “Mnangagwa’s attempts to balance Zimbabwe’s relations with the international friends of the Mugabe regime against those of the ‘hostile’ West are in disarray. A deepening economic crisis combined with a brutal crackdown on the government’s domestic opponents has resulted in manifestly disappointed hopes”. It encapsulates the failings of the regime’s foreign policy. But if Moyo couldn’t sell the regime, it’s hard to see who else could do it among Mnangagwa’s remaining lot. He couldn’t sell it because there was nothing to sell.
The regime’s penchant to use deadly force against dissenting voices only made it worse. Twice, in August 2018 and January 2019, the regime deployed soldiers who shot and killed unarmed civilians in cold blood. During the same period, several opposition activists were abducted and tortured. If the regime was not dismissing them for allegedly faking their abductions, it was blaming a “dark force”. Journalists and members of the opposition have been arrested and locked up on spurious charges. These human rights abuses compounded the problems for Moyo, who was trying hard to sell the regime to the world.
The dominant discourse in the regime’s foreign policy was that of re-engagement with the international community. It meant establishing cordial relations with the West, with whom relations have been fractious since the early 2000s. Although there wasn’t much progress on this front, it seems Moyo had made some in-roads at a personal level and charmed some Western diplomats into believing that he meant well. He appears to have sold himself as the reasonable one of the bad lot. Certainly, he seems to have presented himself as eager and keen on engagement.
It is for this reason that he was also being regarded as far more than a salesman for Mnangagwa, but himself. Talk of him as a potential successor was no longer a mere whisper. At 60, he had the advantage of “youth” but also what appeared to be a reasonable disposition compared to other contenders such as VP Chiwenga. With his wife, a High Court judge heading the anti-corruption watchdog, the Moyos was one of the “power couples” in the establishment.
But he carried a mortal handicap, a chronic illness which has proven to be his Achilles Heel. He had kidney disease, a condition that kept him out of the office for some time as he convalesced. It was, it appears, that underlying condition that made him more vulnerable during the current pandemic. It’s another reason why the government needs to take a more considered approach to avoid exposing its more vulnerable members to the pandemic.
He was being described as a somewhat stabilising force in the Mnangagwa regime. Quite how he was such a force is not altogether clear given the excesses of the regime since the coup. The attacks against the opposition showed no moderation at all. If anything, they were increasing. Shortly before he died, two senior MDC politicians and a journalist had been arrested for offences that do not exist. The regime had been attacking the main opposition, the MDC Alliance, and building up a regime of controlled opposition. The atmosphere of repression was getting worse, not better.
But if these were the results of his stabilising and moderating influence, then the future is bleaker than anyone could imagine. The opposition should brace for more terrible times ahead now that he is no longer there to provide that moderation.
As Foreign Affairs minister, Moyo had to spend time fire-fighting for his errant colleagues in government. On one occasion, the then deputy minister of information and publicity, Energy Mutodi went offside in an apparent attack on Tanzanian leader, John Magufuli. In an overzealous bid to please his boss, Mnangagwa, Mutodi drew unfavourable comparisons between him and his Tanzanian counterpart and ally. Moyo moved in swiftly to douse the fire. On another occasion, he had to put out a fire started by Zanu PF chairperson Oppah Muchinguiri in the early days of the pandemic when she said the pandemic was a curse upon the US which had imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe.
The strategy for re-engagement involved millions of dollars paid to Western lobbying firms in Washington DC and London. After starting with a more cordial approach that suggested the era of blaming sanctions was in the past, the Mnangagwa regime soon went back to default settings. The use of lobbyists has been utterly unproductive. Instead of reducing the restrictive measures, more individuals were added to the list of persons under sanctions. This included the man who had led the military operation on 1 August 2018, which killed six people and wounded several. Also added to the list is the Mnangagwa regime’s most visible politically exposed person (PEP), Kuda Tagwirei whose fingers appear all over the national pie.
Although it was his dramatic television appearance that brought him to public prominence, Zimbabwe’s top diplomat was not made for the small screen. But it was not for lack of effort. He simply was not comfortable in front of the camera and his interviews with international media showcased those shortcomings. He was almost robotic in his approach as if he was reading from a script or worse, trying to remember stuff that had been rammed into his head by advisers before the interview. He was eager to impress, but it was impossible to sugar-coat the flaws of the regime that he was representing.
Who does Mnangagwa turn to?
The issue is not who Mnangagwa turns to, but what he does to fix a wayward domestic policy. Mnangagwa may not have wished to do a Cabinet reshuffle, but the hand of death has forced him to carry out one in the middle of a pandemic. He must now find a new candidate for the foreign desk. For all his flaws, Moyo appeared to have established a rapport of cordiality with the Western ambassadors whose countries Mnangagwa is eager to re-engage with. It will be hard for Mnangagwa to find a replacement of equal stock. One of the groups shunted to Zanu PF might even fancy their chances. But that would be a grievous error of judgement. If it is not incompetence or baggage from the past, they are unnecessarily combative and aggressive — qualities that are ill-suited for the job.
However, at the end of the day, Mnangagwa must reconcile himself to the fact that it is not the character of the top diplomat that makes a difference, but the quality of his government and its programmes. Moyo cannot be faulted for lack of effort. He seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the job. He might have struggled to impress in interviews on international television, but that is not because he did not try. He was selling a myth which no one believed. Every time he said, “Zimbabwe is Open for Business”, he was confronted with questions about egregious human rights violations.
The question, therefore, is not so much as who Mnangagwa turns to in his search to replace Moyo, but what he does to change the course of his government.
Mnangagwa could appoint the best salesman in the world to front his regime, but he would struggle to sell the regime to serious investors. When he arrived in November 2017, many gave him the benefit of the doubt, despite the deep flaws of his ascendancy to power. He squandered that opportunity. In SB Moyo, he had a lieutenant who had the will and zeal to impress. The trouble is that is all he had, and it was not enough.
This is an extract from Alex Magaisa’s Blog, The Big Saturday Read.