Unpacking factionalism: The context

Reason Wafawarova on Thursday
Last week I wrote on the politics of factionalism, outlining the negative implications of the scourge within the Zimbabwean context.

The context of factionalism in Zanu-PF today is defined by futuristic perceptions, themselves a result of an uncertain future, premised upon the inevitability of departure by the current party leader, as anticipated and hoped for by an ambitious yet directionless lot within the lower ranks of the party’s power corridors.

The anticipated departure is premised on the President’s age, and a force identifying itself with an age acronym has been emerging, simplistically hoping that the country’s succession politics can be defined, directed, determined, and concluded solely on age terms.

In a 2005 journal titled “Factionalism and Political Parties,” German scholars Patrick Kollner and Matthias Basedau gave an incisive outline of the reality of intra-party groups within political parties, otherwise commonly referred to as factions.

The stability of Zanu-PF, as of any other party, the MDC-T included, has been negatively impacted on by factionalism, and this has wrecked havoc on the party’s institutionalisation processes, on its efficiency, and increasingly it is impacting on the party’s legitimacy, both in the eyes of the voters and observers.

By nature political parties must be central to the concept of democratic institutions, and they are also a key factor in the attainment of democracy itself. Like other formal organisations political parties have organisational and operational structures, as well as norms.

However such structures can be overshadowed by the effect of informal relational systems, and these can take over the course of policy direction, as has been happening in Zanu-PF in the last two years.

The African political terrain is an unconventional one borrowing heavily from rebellion politics and guerilla warfare, and often it is futile to assume that formal structures and rules within political parties will form the binding framework for all concerned. Intra-party processes often do not necessarily take place within the constitutional confines of the officially declared party framework.

Power-obsessed politicians often ensure that political parties are neither homogeneous entities pursuing specific goals, nor that they are not bound by some sort of shared unitary will.

We must always understand that political parties are products of coalitions of selfish political actors with unbridled individual ambitions, interests and goals. Zanu-PF is a gathering place for liberalists, socialists, communists, patriots, intellectuals, nationalists, materialists and even outright criminals.

At its formation in 1999 the MDC brought together workers, bitter Rhodesians, disgruntled students, fortune seeking civic groups, intellectuals and some leftist groups, plus common ghetto criminals.

Generally politics is a process based on the conflictive and consensus-oriented relations among independent individuals. Intra-party politics is characterised by conflict and consensus between interdependent groups within political parties.

As we see with the intricate decision-making process within Zimbabwe’s political parties, factions can influence the internal decision-making process of any party. Robert Hamel and Alexander Tan make a good argument of this in the journal “Party Actors and Party Change: Does Factional Dominance Matter?”

We must not pay too much attention to the incessant denials of factionalism from spokespeople of our political parties. They just want us to regard factionalism as ephemeral, short-lived, ignorable, and unimportant.

But we know better, having seen the splintering of the MDC into numerous offshoots since 2005, and also being cognisant of the history of Zanu-PF in Zambia and in Mozambique, as well as we do know about the party’s own post-independence off-shoots, the likes of ZUM, ZUD, Dabengwa’s symbolic Zapu, Makoni’s disastrous Mavambo outfit, as well as the emerging People First project, “a party led by a woman,” to quote Morgan Tsvangirai.

The cohesion and competition within a political party can entirely depend on what factions within the party do.

There is no doubt that the yet to be launched People First project is a baby born to factionalism within Zanu-PF, and we can be sure that for as long as the party’s idea of disciplinary procedure is suspensions and expulsions, the spawning of rival little political parties will develop into a national culture.

Zanu-PF was dramatically incoherent entering the 2008 general election, and we know for a fact that factional fighting was at peak levels at the time. It had to take Tsvangirai’s breathtaking foolishness for Zanu-PF to survive imminent electoral defeat. Zanu-PF regrouped and regained lost ground.

It is three years since Zanu-PF won elections on the back of an impressive economic blueprint named Zim-Asset, but not much of that document has been implemented, and this is largely because of factional fighting within the ruling party. State and societal functions can be halted or crippled by factionalism.

Factions are simply a manifestation of dissension within an organisation, and they are quite normal, if only they are managed well by top leadership.

Progressively, factions can break ranks with retrogressive traditional patterns of political behaviour. The deadly culture of forbidding budding politicians from “contesting your seniors” is slowly dying out within ZANU-PF, thanks to factional politicking that has been roping in younger blood within the factional ranks of veteran politicians.

Retrogressively factions often advance the ambitions of particular persons, and rarely do they advance specific policies or ideology. Factionalism within ZANU-PF largely informs us of party divisions based on personal interests of factional players.

If unchecked factions can grow to overshadow the parent party that host them, and this is exactly how factions from within their own ranks outgrew KANU and UNIP in Kenya and Zambia respectively.

Apart from Fredrick Chiluba, who was the fronted face of renegade factionists from UNIP in Zambia, the majority of political players in Zambia came from UNIP, and these include Levy Mwanawasa, Rupiah Banda, and Michael Sata. The same story goes for the relationship between KANU and characters like Raila Odinga, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta.

Factional members generally band together under the label of a defined tendency. We are told of the pro and anti-Mnangagwa factions within ZANU-PF today, and the defining tendency is to engage in this war of pretensions about a future whose direction everyone seems to be guessing.

The price we have paid for this nonsensical war is lack of attention to policy and national development, and recently our indigenisation policy was turned into a dirty political football by two ministers apparently separated by factional boundaries, or at least one of them was from the other, as it later turned out.

Factions can develop a strong organisational backbone, and this is particularly worrisome when it happens within the context of personalised factions. These are factions based on clientelism, itself the central mechanism for mobilisation.

We have seen factional leaders abusing their ministerial portfolios to attract supporters from the youth and the women for example, and such patronage can only destroy the country.

In personalised factions the chain of command is vertical, all leading to one person – the factional leader. Any horizontal links within such factions are treated as treacherous.

I have written before about my visit to Webster Shamu’s Munhumutapa Offices in 2011, at the facilitation of his Permanent Secretary when Shamu was still Minister of Information. It was an absolutely worthless visit in as far as the assistance I was seeking was concerned, but I learnt so much about factionalism in the one hour I sat in that office, being occasionally and casually attended to by the busy man.

The office was a hive of political activity, an extension of ZANU-PF’s commissariat department, then headed by Shamu himself.

The man was incessantly on either of his two mobile phones, barking instructions about how the faction on the other side of the divide was to be deprived of any victory in what I later gathered were party internal elections in the provinces.

On the day in question the political setting was Mashonaland West, and from what I gathered through Shamu’s phone utterances, someone by the name John Mafa was in real trouble, not because he had no vote-backing on the ground, but because the commissar and his sidekicks were arranging a meticulous “vote of no confidence” against him.

After returning to Australia, I later read the vote of no confidence had been reversed by ZANU-PF’s politburo.

Our political parties have been smitten by elite factionalism, open factionalism and other factional alliances, and there is no denial on the impact this has had on our political landscape. We now have doomed political parties that signify a doomed near future for the country.

Positively factionalism kills apathy and creates interest in the politics of our country, and this can be good. Sometimes factionalism can even further a good principle, and of course factions do provide a sense of belonging to their members.

It can also be argued that factions can promote generational change, and Zimbabwe is one nation where an entire generation has struggled so badly to make a meaningful contribution to the politics of the country.

Negatively, factionalism can make party management an insurmountable challenge. We have heard President Mugabe publicly lamenting the effects of factionalism in relation to succession aspirants within ZANU-PF.

One most worrying negative consequence of factionalism is mediocrity, when factional affiliation overrides merit in the election of office holders.

Factional leaders are more worried about loyalty than they are about merit when choosing their allies.

It must also be noted that faction-based dissent can reduce or destroy a party’s ability to mobilise and recruit new members. It is hard to believe the MDC-T could possibly attract new members as the party stands today.

Factionalism can lead to blurry and contradictory policy positions within a party, as we have seen senior ZANU-PF politicians repeatedly contradicting each other over the indigenisation policy.

Factionalism can also impede intra-party discussions, and issue-oriented debate can easily degenerate into the whirlpool of inter-factional power struggles.

At its worst factionalism can be responsible for unaccountability, impunity and corruption.

Generally, factionalism can easily weaken the moral standing, authority and integrity of a political party. We have seen the waning fortunes of the MDC and its offshoots, and we have seen in the past evident urban voter cynicism against ZANU-PF.

Of course there are positive consequences of factionalism. Kollner and Basedau assert that factionalism can be a transition belt for bargaining processes, conflict resolution, and even consensus building within political parties.

They also argue that factionalism can help to increase political participation and activism, can also help to increase mobilisation and recruitment of new members, and can help strengthen the inclusionary character of a party. Perhaps this is what Simon Khaya Moyo means by “vibrancy” in ZANU-PF today.

In a way, factionalism can actually result in the stability of a party’s leadership, promote a sense of unity, if the basic ideology of the party is not brought into question. The question is whether or not ZANU-PF still has a monolithic shared ideology within its ranks.

Arguably, ZANU-PF’s landslide victory in election 2013 could be attributed to this unity around the basic ideology of the party – generally centred on mass emancipation policies.

However, that agenda was seemingly pushed by a strategic minority from the party, and its success impact was a shock even to some high ranking leaders within the party, the then commissar included.

Factionalism increases debate and competition within a party, and that is healthy and positive. It can also be argued that factionalism can have a moderating effect on the party.

As a political phenomenon, factionalism can be ambivalent, yielding very destructive and constructive consequences at the same time.

While factionalism can help mobilise voters and even win elections, it can immensely diminish the winning party’s ability to govern effectively.

Competing factions within the ruling party are hardly complementing each other on matters of national governance, and that can be tragic for a country.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!!

  • Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in Sydney, Australia
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