Political Newcomer Aims to Unify Opposition Party

Prof. Arthur Mutambara, leader of Zimbabwe's opposition faction The Pro Senate M.D.C. (Movement For Democratic Change) party, addresses a rally in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

The epochal ascendancy of Oxford scholar and robotics scientist, Professor Arthur Mutambara, to the political throne of Zimbabwe's beleaguered opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) has a ring of fame and legend like that of his English namesake. The difference ends there.

Unlike the fabled King Arthur, Prof. Mutambara's quest for Zimbabwe's political rebirth will not come simply by the dislodging of the royal sword from the stone. In Zimbabwe, the stakes are higher and the risks greater. But, the entry of Prof. Mutambara — a dark horse — into the country's political arena has not gone unnoticed or unfelt.

The media has gone agog, and so has the political hype on whether Prof. Mutambara — one of the foremost scientists in Africa — is the cure for Zimbabwe's political ills. Both the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition are deeply divided and without real leaders at a time when Zimbabwe's economic and political ship has run aground. Inflation is rising. There is a shortage of almost every commodity needed for everyday living — fuel, bread, maize corn, sugar, milk, and even blood.

However, the normal sources for goods and services have been replaced by the illegal or 'black' market, which has particularly thrived by providing much-needed foreign currency and fuel. The political climate has gone from bad to worse as evidenced by Zanu-PF's clean sweep of the parliamentary elections, entrenching its two-thirds majority in Parliament and also its dominance in the recently reactivated House of Senate. The irreparable split of the M.D.C., formed six years ago as the first formidable opposition party in Zimbabwe, has thrown opposition politics into disarray.

Prof. Mutambara is leader of the faction that supported contesting for the Senate elections, while the other faction led by trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai, opposed participation in the Senatorial elections which it said was akin to endorsing President Robert Mugabe's illegitimate regime. President Mugabe won the disputed 2004 presidential election, which the international community branded as unfair. Mr. Mugabe denies this.

In an interview with the South African Mail and Guardian (March 10), Prof. Mutambara said he has come as a unifier, a peacemaker and a nation builder.

"I came to Zimbabwe to become a unifier, to provide a framework of reunification of all democratic forces fighting for change in the country. I felt that there was confusion and a lack of direction in the political party… I do not have time to condemn and fight other soldiers. We will focus our eyes on the prize that is defeating the Zanu-PF culture, not [Robert] Mugabe. If Mugabe drops dead tomorrow there still will be a Zanu-PF culture. The Zanu-PF culture is pervasive in our society," he said.

Zimbabwe has written its own piece of history by suffering the highest rate of inflation in the world. The year on year inflation surged 168 percentage points to 782 percent in Feb. 2006 and it is still rising. Economic analysts predict it will hit the 1000 percent mark before Christmas. Unemployment is over 75 percent with thousands of millionaires carrying hordes of currency that buys little.

Given the sorry state of affairs of Zimbabwe's politics, a fragmented opposition, a clueless ruling party and a struggling, frustrated electorate, can the 'Johnny-come-lately' Prof. Mutambara succeed in a field that has claimed many political scalps?

A comment by the privately owned The Independent (March 3) suggests that he is in for a long slog: "…a painful fact that Mutambara must live with is that like Tsvangirai, he remains the leader of an M.D.C. faction. It is important for him to create his own image and use that to market his ideas. This could be an insuperable task as long as the party remains divided and open to manipulation by Zanu-PF government functionaries. Put simply, the opposition in Zimbabwe is no stronger because of the entry of Mutambara into the political fray as long as there is no unity in the M.D.C."

The Zimbabwean (March 6), published in London, said that the division within the opposition ranks was a "crying shame" which Prof. Mutambara et al should "come to their senses and do whatever it takes to focus on the real enemy, resolutely choosing to relegate these side issues to the sidelines, where they belong."

The pro-government, Zimbabwe Mirror (Feb. 28) has given Prof. Mutambara the benefit of doubt, remarking that: "He seems to have come up with a position that is lacking across the African continent, the attitude of self-belief…We hope that Mutambara and his colleagues are not hiding a sinister ace in the sleeve. We have seen the type of destruction that comes with misplaced confrontation and the readiness to dance to alien tunes."

In its editorial entitled, 'Wanted: unit to winch us out of this quagmire,' The Independent (March 3) observed that Prof. Mutambara has entered a political minefield in which he has to be nimble-footed to survive the tide of criticism.

What is new that Prof. Mutambara can offer which Zimbabweans have not heard from a politician before? Well, in an interview carried on the Web site, he vowed to bring down President Robert Mugabe and end the misrule that has left millions on the edge of starvation, stating: "We can't expect the outside world to bring about change... As a Zimbabwean, I've had enough of seeing my fellow citizens suffering. The game's up. I'm going to remove Robert Mugabe, I promise you, with every tool at my disposal."

In an analysis, Britain's Sunday Times said although Zimbabweans are desperate for change, it is not surprising that this fresh-faced figure promising to 'rebrand' the opposition has aroused suspicion. One of his professors at Zimbabwe University was Jonathan Moyo, who became Mugabe's spin-doctor before being elected as an independent Member of Parliament.

While Prof. Mutambara's academic credentials read like a who's who list, there is no mention of his political experience apart from what is publicly known — that he was a rabid student leader during his heydays at the University of Zimbabwe.

Prof. Mutambara has a PhD from Oxford University in Robotics and Mechatronics, and has worked as a research scientist and professor of Robotics and Mechatronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Carnegie Mellon University, California Institute of Technology, F.A.M.U.-F.S.U., and NASA.. He has published three books on engineering. In addition, he has done well for himself in business as in science, including a post as professor of business strategy, and as a consultant with McKinsey and Company.

The missing political credentials have raised eyebrows and heated debate as to who Prof. Arthur Mutambara is and what catapulted him to the top seat within the M.D.C. The tags have not been long in coming.

Zimbabwe's minister of national security, Didymus Mutasa, has branded Prof. Mutambara as a C.I.A. undercover agent because of his NASA credentials."Do not be intimidated by the composition of the M.D.C. faction which has two professors (Welshman, Ncube and Mutambara)," Mr. Mutasa was quoted by the Web magazine Zimonline (March 7) as saying at a Zanu-PF party. He added, 'Tine mutungamiriri wedu anoshamisa asiri professor' (You don't have to be a professor to lead a political party). We have our own astute leader [Robert Mugabe] but he is not a professor." Mr. Mutasa questioned why Prof. Mutambara worked for the U.S. space division, NASA, while several highly qualified Americans had not.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Online commented that Prof. Mutambara has stepped into the furnace of Zimbabwean opposition politics essentially as an outsider, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The Web site quoted a political scientist, Eldred Masunungure, who noted that Prof. Mutambara is an outsider "untainted by the struggles within the struggle of opposition politics." Another political scientist, Brian Raftpoulos, said Prof. Mutambara had a good history as a student leader but will "need time to grow into the position of national leader."

"Both Ncube and [deputy chairman Gibson] Sibanda must have realised... that in Zimbabwe politics, and given the grip of ethnic consciousness, a Ndebele would have a very faint chance of making it to State House," Mr. Masunungure stated on the ZimOnline Web site.

The pro-government Sunday Mail (March 5) warned: "Politics is about popularity — popularity not only among a section of society but across the whole society. Prof. Mutambara has to know that the intellectuals won't win him the MDC ticket just as the trade unionists won't win Mr. [Morgan] Tsvangirai the same. The game is set!"

If Prof. Mutambara is honest in that he was driven to come home by the gravity of the economic crisis, Zimbabweans are waiting for the new day when the country's future will be sealed once and for all.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.