Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai could go down in history as the president who never was. His Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) missed the 2000 parliamentary elections by a whisker. It swept 57 out of 120 seats, only four seats shy of winning the elections. A win would have created a constitutional crisis. President Robert Mugabe would have been forced to step down as he would not have been functional without a parliamentary majority. The quest by the MDC to win a parliamentary majority by contesting the results of 37 seats has come to nothing. Instead, the party is down to 55 seats.
The same applied to the 2002 presidential elections. Most people thought Tsvangirai was destined for State House. Some had already positioned themselves for cabinet posts. But he lost. His party says it was robbed of the elections. The west supports this argument and is calling for a re-run of the elections. The MDC is contesting the presidential poll through the courts. But, it looks, everything is now hinged on Tsvangirai’s treason trial. Can he survive the trial, even if he is acquitted?
Some observers say the trial, in which he is being charged with party secretary general Welshman Ncube and agriculture secretary Renson Gasela with plotting to kill Mugabe, could mark the end of Tsvangirai’s political career. He will be a loser either way. If he is convicted, that will be the end. He will not be allowed to contest any elections unless there is a change of regime or an amendment to the constitution. But at least he will be considered a political martyr.
Things could even be worse if he is acquitted. His lieutenants are likely to abandon him as he will now be considered a political liability, the same way some in ZANU-PF regard Mugabe. The heroes will be his lawyer, George Bizos, the judge, Paddington Garwe, and the whole judicial system. Even the key state witness Ari Ben-Menashe, who has been written off by the media as an international fraudster, will be better off than Tsvangirai.
Observers say President Mugabe is likely to grant Tsvangirai amnesty if he is convicted. There will be no use letting him hang because this would make him a political martyr when he cannot contest any public office if he is convicted and jailed for six months or more. Though Mugabe has been accused of being very arrogant, he is not likely to be that naive.
But most people believe that Tsvangirai will be acquitted because evidence against him is largely based on a grainy video taken by someone who seems to have been double-dealing. But Ari Ben-Menashe will have made his point. He will have exposed Tsvangirai as someone not fit for the highest office in the land. He clearly showed the nation that even though Zimbabwe was in a deep economic and political crisis, it did not deserve to be led by a “fool” or “madman”.
Though the western and privately owned media in the country went into the trial already firmly convinced that Tsvangirai had been framed and had been trapped by the ruling ZANU-PF to stop him from contesting the 2002 presidential elections, the testimony that Ben-Menashe gave over three weeks, showed that Tsvangirai no longer has the qualities to lead the nation. He was no longer the charismatic trade union leader who could have matched his adversary, Robert Mugabe, one on one.
And it probably did not escape a lot of people’s attention that Ben-Menashe refused to retract his statement that Tsvangirai was a fool. He apologised to the court, meaning the judge, and when this was not accepted, he opted to apologise to everyone in the courtroom and not directly to Tsvangirai. This was an indictment by someone who had met the opposition leader, not once, but three times, not for 10 minutes or so, but for lengthy periods of 5 hours at one time and 8 hours on two occasions.
As one observer put it: “The question people have to ask is: was he set up, or was he simply foolish. He could not have travelled all the way to London or Montreal to discuss the weather. This is filthy and like someone who has fallen into shit, you can’t expect to come out smelling like a rose”. Observers say Tsvangirai’s behaviour in holding meetings with Ben Menashe clearly showed his lack of judgment. It showed a serious shortcoming within the MDC leader because he seems to have a tendency towards making damaging mistakes that can forever be used against him. It shows lack of statesmanship and leaves people asking whether this is the kind of person who can lead a nation.
Some of the serious mistakes Tsvangirai has made include his statement that if Mugabe did not go quietly he would be removed violently and another in which he said Mugabe was turning the country into a nation of peasants. They are now being used against him.
One observer, who has been an admirer of Tsvangirai from his trade union days, said once the trial was over, people within the ranks of the MDC will start asking whether Tsvangirai is the appropriate leader. “They will start asking themselves whether they want a leader who at times runs out of ideas. The world admires sharp minds. Whether people like Mugabe or not, Tsvangirai is no match for Mugabe and people are bound to compare the two most of the time. When Ben-Menashe said the people of Zimbabwe did not deserve this fool, this had nothing to do with education. It was simply a question of being streetwise. Tsvangirai was not like this. I think he is getting too much bad advice. Some of his so-called advisers could actually be working for his downfall.”
An acquittal on the other hand will be a big win for South African lawyer, George Bizos. At 74, this will probably be his last big case. The Greek-born South African lawyer made his name when he joined the defense team of former South African President Nelson Mandela in his 1963 treason trial. Though Mandela was convicted and served 27 years in jail, Bizos is credited with saving him from the death penalty by proposing that Mandela make a statement instead of submitting to cross-examination. Reports say the decision was described as a tactical move that may have saved Mandela from the death penalty. It resulted in Mandela’s famous speech from the dock where he pledged his life for the ideal of a free and democratic society.
Judge President Paddington Garwe would be the biggest winner if Tsvangirai is acquitted. Garwe, one of the few judges who has risen through the ranks, has been written off by the international media as Mugabe’s man since his appointment as judge president, a post described by some as the second highest post within the judiciary yet a judge of the High Court is normally considered lower than a Supreme Court judge. Garwe is being viewed as one of those who is not likely to make any decisions against Mugabe. If he acquits Tsvangirai, he will instantly turn from villain to hero.
Though an internationally acclaimed judge and a board member of International Corrections and Prisons Association and national chairman of the Zimbabwe National Committee on Community Service, Garwe was recently in the news for allegedly “grabbing” a farm belonging to former tobacco giant CG Tracy. This, according to the international media put him among Mugabe’s elite who are “grabbing” prime land for themselves while 7.5 million people are starving.
But Garwe will not share the victory alone. It will also be a victory for the entire judicial system. It will be a confirmation of the independence of the judiciary something that is becoming increasingly hard to swallow, as everyone now says the bench is dominated by Mugabe’s men. It will also be a confirmation of the independence of state institutions. But at the same time it would put the nation and the international community in a quandary. For the nation, an acquittal would confirm, the independence of the judiciary but critics are not likely to accept this because this would mean accepting all other contested decisions. This would apply equally to the international community because if they welcome the acquittal this would be an acknowledgement that Zimbabwe indeed has the rule of law.
Their biggest problem would that it would expose the double standards they have been applying, namely that they cry foul when something is not in their favour but zip their mouths when something is in their favour.
Two other key players in the trial who at first glance would appear to be losers if Tsvangirai is acquitted would in fact be winners as well. These are the state prosecutors and Ari Ben-Menashe. If Tsvangirai is acquitted, it will not be because the state team comprising deputy attorney general Bharat Patel, director of public prosecutions Joseph Msakwa and senior law officer Morgen Nemadire, will have failed to prosecute. “It will be because they tried to nail Tsvangirai while at the same time trying to strip the case of political connotations,” one observer said.
Ben-Menashe would also be a winner. Though the defence case rests on painting him as a fraudster, the major question will be: can he be believed? As one Australian journalist wrote when the Australian government tried to deny him a visa: “Just when you begin to think he can’t (be believed), the powers that be become very nervous at the prospect of revealing evidence that would confirm or contradict his stories.”
Ben-Menashe, it appears, is not just a namedropper. Governments are nervous about what he can disclose. None of the persons he has named so far, be it former President George Bush, CIA or British intelligence operatives, have personally refuted what he has said. The denials have been through third parties. The fact that he is no small fry is testified by the number of top ranking diplomats who fell over each to attend Tsvangirai’s trial when he was giving testimony. An observer said some people might have thought they were coming to support Tsvangirai. They were not. They were there to protect their own interests. They wanted to hear what Ben-Menashe would say about their countries and their leaders.