The rise and fall of Tendai Biti

Spread This News

THE political circus unravelling in the country’s opposition politics needs no introduction. The tag of war between the Morgan Tsvangirai and Tendai Biti camps over control of the opposition MDCT has dominated news headlines over the last few weeks. Social media platforms are awash with heated debates over the developments.  Although the end circumstances are not yet known, logic would suggest that Tsvangirai’s camp has an upper hand on the tussle and that despite all the rhetoric coming from Biti and his supporters, it appears his political career is coming to a sad and abrupt end.
There is a very sarcastic but interesting analogy doing rounds in the social media which somewhat captures the rise and fall of Biti and his allies. It is the biblical story of Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem. The bible narrates of how Jesus rode on a donkey upon entry into the city. Some people who were part of the crowd welcoming Jesus spread their garments for the donkey to tread on.
Zimbabweans who are overly comical have added a humorous comparison to Biti’s rise to political fame. Their narrative talks of the donkey’s mistaken belief about its popularity to the extent of going back to Jerusalem on a solo walk without Jesus. The donkey got a rude awakening. It was shocked by the hostile reception it got, including some thorough beatings. It had mistaken Jesus’ popularity for its own.
Biti’s rise to fame is partly due to the man he eventually decided to turn his sword on. Tsvangirai, as a trade union leader, helped Biti in getting a firm grip on the political pedal. As a lawyer, Biti was given a number of labour cases to handle both from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and its affiliates. His work relationship with Tsvangirai saw him getting involved in the formation of the MDC, a labor backed movement to which he belongs.
To his credit, Biti proved to be a fighter. He spoke fearlessly against the regime of President Robert Mugabe at a time when doing so was risky. He also handled the nation’s finances at a time when the country was virtually bankrupt in spite of his limited financial background and, until recently, he has been among a breed of young and promising political leaders whose future was firmly secure.
It is reasonable to suggest that Biti’s positions as both MDC-T secretary general and Finance Minister eventually contributed to his downfall. At party level, Biti was the chief administrator at Harvest House. He supervised staff at both provincial and national levels. He hired technical staff, some more educated than him. He was a signatory to the party’s bank accounts. He is reported to have registered some party assets in his private company, the final custodian of assets belonging to the party. His appointment as Finance Minister during the GNU era elevated him to an even more authoritative status. All of a sudden the young politician had ministerial aides and butlers.Advertisement

He was invited to speak in places far from home. He had the powers to decide on the country’s financial matters, including the powers to borrow on behalf of the country and mortgage future generations. He became the only minister whose authority affected the work of an entire nation through his budget planning. He dined with the rich and famous, graced corporate corridors of the world’s most iconic institutions; the IMF and World Bank. He was even admired by Mugabe who described him as the best finance minister since independence. The man was big, exercising his powers with reckless abandon.
In Parliament he became part of the furniture, not losing his Parliamentary seat since the formation of MDC. He became part of the legislative establishment, a member of the august house tasked with the responsibility of crafting the country’s laws. Who can blame him for feeling big, powerful, wanted and important? Indeed Biti felt very powerful, walking in political glory, exuding an aura of invincibility and living in grandiose and opulence. His political stardom was monumental. But then politics has a cruel way of bringing people back to earth. The July 31 elections turned tables and fortunes on many opposition figures. Ministerial assignments came to an end, together with associated benefits. Butlers and aides vanished.
After losing his new found fame, he became disillusioned with the leadership of Tsvangirai and started scheming and plotting the leader’s downfall. How could he continue reporting to Tsvangirai, a man who had lost elections with no powers to appoint him minister anymore? He found company in the equally ambitious but little known Elton Mangoma in his quest to topple Tsvangirai. Mangoma was not known within MDC structures until after the 2005 split. His reasons for joining MDC may have been influenced by his personal knowledge of Tsvangirai rather than by any philosophical urge.
Mangoma was an audit partner with Kudenga and company, a firm which audited the books of the ZCTU where Tsvangirai was secretary general. Biti and Mangoma’s fidelity to the movement was based on opportunistic allegiance, one that was based on the benefits accruing from siding with Tsvangirai. Mangoma decided to act and he did so compulsively. It was his letter to Tsvangirai which ignited and inflamed the situation out of control. It is common knowledge that Tsvangirai is no easy push over and a number of politicians who tried to oust him before such as Welshman Ncube can bear witness to that.
However, Biti and company committed one cardinal sin; that of forgetting the powers of party structures and grassroots support. He organised what turned out to be a bogus national council meeting which suspended Tsvangirai and the entire leadership of the party. Suspending the entire party leadership was shear madness and was bound to backfire. If Biti’s camp had suspended Tsvangirai alone, maybe their cause would have picked sympathisers.
Considering all the opposition politics which supposedly should have matured by now, one wonders how Biti, a senior lawyer and experienced politician committed such a blunder in his strategy. Biti and company distinguished themselves from Tsvangirai’s camp in three respects: naivety, arrogance and wilful stupidity. His strategic mistakes are entirely instructive regarding his future in politics. There is no doubt that Biti overestimated both his power and influence.
Democracy and all its merits is a fight. Tsvangirai and his associates fought back. Some political analysts and commentators do not seem to understand why Tsvangirai survives one coup plot after the other. The answer lies in his trade union background. The man is a unionist and an organiser par excellence. His ability to woo crowds makes up for his strategic short comings. His deputy Thokhozani khupe, also a unionist, compliments his grassroots appeal. The charisma of his loyalists in Nelson Chamisa and Douglas Mwonzorwa and the cool heads of Lovemore Moyo, Tapiwa Mashakada and Morgen Komichi were sure to seal Biti’s fate.
Whilst some would want to call it a split, the extent of fissures in the MDC-T suggests otherwise. Unlike the 2005 split which left the party somewhat evenly divided between the Ncube and Tsvangirai camps, the current impasse is characterised by few low key members on Biti’s side with majority backing the former prime minister. Judging by the number of MPs supporting the so-called renewal team, Biti’s agenda appears to have died a still birth.
Some of Biti’s associates, who fronting the leadership renewal agenda, are nonentities with no political profiles of their own. Jacob Mafume who doubles up as both spokesperson for the group and lawyer for the expelled Mangoma has no political CV of his own besides working as a staffer in Tsvangirai’s office. Having shared the same work corridors with Tsvangirai, he felt strong enough to challenge him, going as far as calling himself a democrat. How such a junior staffer who never won an election even at ward level could call dare themselves a better democrat than Tsvangirai boggles the mind.
Biti is yet to test his grassroots support. Recent media reports of him attracting as little as 50 people at one of his first solo rallies in Manicaland are indicative of his lack of public appeal. It is especially worrying considering Manicaland is home to both Mangoma and Biti who are leading the breakaway. Their political future is certainly in doubt. His position as an opposition figure is worsened by his widely publicised personal admiration for Mugabe. At one point, Biti described the Zanu PF leader as a “fountain of experience, fountain of knowledge and, most importantly, a fountain of stability who was unflappable”. At this year’s independence celebrations, Mugabe surprised everyone by defending Biti and his camp. The two appear to have a soft spot for each other.
The renewal camp’s public castigation of Mugabe and Zanu PF is therefore mere political posturing and grandstanding meant to hoodwink the public into believing the group is genuinely opposed to Zanu PF policies. At the recent debate series organised by the SAPES Trust, Biti is widely quoted as having expressed admiration for Zanu PF’s robust policies, citing this as the reasons behind the party’s July 31, 2013 election victory. It will not surprise anyone if Biti and his group finally come out in the open to form some sort of political alliance with Zanu PF or join the party altogether.
For now, the renewal team may enjoy support from the donor community. They may meet donors and diplomats at popular cafes in Avondale and Borrowdale. They may meet in air conditioned offices in Harare’s Milton Park and its surrounds. But donors and diplomats are funny creatures. Soon they will demand results. They will not continue supporting a movement with no grassroots support. Soon, phone calls to donors and diplomats will not be answered. Messages will not be returned. Funds will dry up and the camp will start to crumble.
Some argue that Biti has a better chance in court since our judiciary is staffed with judges sympathetic to Zanu PF who have an interest in the demise of Tsvangirai and his camp. Whilst there is no denying that some of our judges are compromised, past court cases point to a relatively competent judiciary.
The instructive case in point is that of Tsvangirai who was acquitted of treason charges despite Zanu PF’s pressure to convict him. Judges are professionals who are not keen on soiling their bench reputations. If Biti and Tsvangirai end up in court, it is more likely that judges will rule against Biti. The strength of both sides’ arguments lies on the legality of national council meetings conducted and the authority ofmembers who attended. Biti’s case is weak. By all accounts, it is fair to say Wananchi has fallen.
Wezhira Marihwepi is a Zimbabwean writer. He can be contacted at