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Are African Opposition Parties Stooges of the West?

Malawi president Joyce Banda's party was once opposed to Hastings Kamuzu Banda's autocratic rule.
Malawi president Joyce Banda's party was once opposed to Hastings Kamuzu Banda's autocratic rule.
In most cases, African rulers craft stringent laws or use colonial-era legislation to oppress political opposition. Some ruling parties argue that the opposition is simply an appendage of the West.

Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who is widely viewed globally as the face of Zimbabwe’s opposition since he helped form the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999, suffered serious injuries when he was attacked by suspected Zanu-PF supporters and state security agents before attending a Harare peace prayer meeting in 2007.

At that time, Tsvangirai was still facing the death penalty for allegedly attempting to mastermind a military coup.

​Ten years before the attack on Tsvangirai, Zanu-Ndonga leader Ndabaningi Sithole was convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Robert Mugabe and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail. He was granted the right to appeal but the appeal was never brought before the courts. The opposition leader, one of the senior founding members of Zanu, died of ill-health three years later.

Even Zimbabwe’s founding father, the late Vice President Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, in 1983 was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in London when suspected army and military agents raided his house and killed three people, including his top aides. Zanu-PF viewed Nkomo’s party, PF Zapu, as a threat to its rule.

When Nkomo landed in London, a country he and Mugabe fought against for more than 15 years to bring independence to Zimbabwe, he said he fled because his former brother-in-arms could not tolerate dissent.

“It was a question of threat to my life. I had to leave. I have to be somewhere. For three people having been killed in my house it was quite obvious what would have happened if I had remained. It is not possible for Mr. Mugabe or anybody else to decapitate a party like Zapf by using violence.

“If one wants a one-party state, I don’t think it is the right thing to go about it in a violent manner because you will not win the hearts of the people.”

Still today, opposition parties face serious challenges in many countries, where they may be viewed by ruling parties as being sponsored by the West or another enemy. But are these parties stooges of the West?

Southern Sudanese celebrate independence from northern Sudan in Juba. AP.
Southern Sudanese celebrate independence from northern Sudan in Juba. AP.
​Leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for Democracy, Lam Akol, who is in self-imposed exile in Egypt, says it is not true that most opposition parties in Africa are an appendage of the West.

“It is not surprising that all of them say some opposition party is a stooge to some forces, some opposition party is working in the interest of other forces and some opposition party is working hand in glove with countries opposed to some nations,” says Akol.

In South Sudan, there are fears that opposition parties are aligned with political enemies in North Sudan.
Mr. Akol, whose party is a splinter group of the SPLM, believes that most African nations do not understand the role of opposition parties.

The situation appears much the same in Malawi where the opposition has been viewed since independence from British rule in 1964 as a threat to the ruling elite.
The late Malawian president Hastings Kamuzu Banda never tolerated opposition and ran the country with a few friends until he lost power in 1994.

In his first month as ruler, Banda declared that Malawi had one party, one leader and one government. In 1971, he became president for life, further consolidating his authoritarian rule.

New rulers who succeeded him – ranging from Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front to Bingu Wamutharika and Joyce Banda, may not be as forceful, but also work to suppress opposition, according to opposition leader Nicholas Dausi of the Democratic Progressive Party.

“We have a litany of cases, arrests and trumped up charges. It is a move to stifle the opposition and by and large that is how we live in Africa,” says Dausi.

His party has a majority in the House of Assembly but its members are often harassed by the ruling party of President Banda.

Opposition parties are in trouble in Malawi. Reuters
Opposition parties are in trouble in Malawi. Reuters
Dausi’s party in Malawi is not alone. In Zimbabwe, the opposition says it is harassed by the ruling Zanu-PF party, which also advocates for a defacto one-party state. That is why, according to MDC-T spokesman Douglas Mwonzora, President Mugabe’s party calls the MDC puppets of the West.

“They want to dehumanize the opposition when they call us the puppets of the West and when they start beating up Tsvangirai they are beating up a Western person and not a Zimbabwean just like a person will say to a person they hate that they are a dog,” says the MDC-T spokesman.

Mwonzora also believes that Zanu-PF’s intolerance of the opposition stems from the party’s direct links with the autocratic regime in China, where officials draw no distinction between the communist political party and the government.

“There is a conflation between the ruling party and the state and because of that conflation there is a lot of abuse of opposition politicians by the state agents at the instigation of the ruling party. So, it’s war in Africa, it’s abuse of the opposition in Africa,” he says.

Zapu leader Dumiso Dabengwa pulled some members of his party from Zanu-PF following a unity accord signed by the two parties in 1987. The accord ended a near civil-war between 1980 and 1986 which left thousands of people killed and maimed in some parts of the Zimbabwe. The deal required then Zapu leader Nkomo and some of his followers to join Zanu.

Dabengwa, who fought against white colonial domination for more than 15 years and is opposed to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government, says it is difficult for opposition parties to operate in most African countries.

“It is an unenviable position to be in the opposition really because most African governments are not tolerant and they will not allow the opposition to be able to make even objective criticism sometimes,” he says.
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Dausi agrees, but notes that the future looks brighter for opposition parties in Africa.
“In Malawi and some African nations the future of the opposition is bright because I believe we will make sure that come 2014 an opposition leader will be the ruling party,” says Dausi.

Prime Minister and MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Mavambo Kusile Dawn party leader Simba Makoni. (MDC website)
Prime Minister and MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Mavambo Kusile Dawn party leader Simba Makoni. (MDC website)
For Zimbabwe’s Mwonzora, only strong national constitutions can save opposition parties in Africa on the continent.

It remains to be seen whether Africa’s autocratic ruling parties will one day accept - even embrace - the concept of a loyal opposition party.

This week we have been airing our series ‘Opposition politics in Zimbabwe and beyond’. In part one Wednesday, we heard that most ruling parties in Africa encourage opposition parties, which they view with suspicion or open hostility. In our last edition, we will look at factionalism in Zimbabwe’s opposition parties. Many observers say the failure of the opposition to unite is crippling them.