We all saw it coming, and yet we were surprised when it came. Zitto Kabwe was sacked by his party late last week.
No longer will Zitto be Chadema’s deputy secretary, nor deputy leader of the opposition in parliament. There’s even a suggestion that he will be stripped of his party membership, with uncertain consequences for his status as an MP – Tanzania doesn’t allow independent MPs, and “crossing the floor” to join another party mid-term is unheard of.
I will come to the implications in a moment. But first, some background is essential.
Zitto has long been a difficult character, both for the government and his own party leaders. He is quite possibly the most popular political figure in the country (though no data exists to confirm this) and has been a huge asset to his party. At only 37 years old, he has an appeal to the youth vote that no other politician can match. But there have always been suspicions that his energy and drive owed more to his personal ambition (he had already indicated his intention to run for the presidency in 2015) than his party allegiance.
He has fought long and hard for tax justice, public financial accountability, transparency in mining and gas contracts, and more, in part through his roles as chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Shadow Finance Minister. No-one doubts his ability or his determination. But his campaigns have sometimes been lonely ones, lacking support from his senior Chadema colleagues, suspicious of his personal popularity, tech and media savvy and youth appeal. Internal disagreements recently grew heated, such as over his insistence that Chadema should be audited by the National Audit Office for the public funds its receives and his refusal to participate in the allowance culture that pervades Tanzanian politics.
Then a document, titled “Strategy for Change”, found its way into the hands of Freeman Mbowe, the Chadema party chairman, and others: a plan to replace Mbowe with Zitto as party chair, and effectively as the party’s presumptive presidential candidate come 2015.
Suspicions of Zitto’s popularity and ambition had come to a head. Late on Thursday night and well into the early hours of Friday morning, the party’s Executive Committee, including Zitto himself, met and decided on his fate and that of his allies.
Two days later, Zitto responded in typically forthright fashion (video here). Passionate, determined and undeterred, he denied many of the key accusations against him, declared his continued allegiance to the party, and challenged Mbowe to kick him out. “I will not leave the party of my own free will,” he said.
Whether or not they decide to do so remains to be seen. It will be another ten days at least before that decision is reached.
But whether or not Zitto is allowed to keep his Chadema membership card, the complete breakdown of relations between Zitto and Mbowe has major implications for their respective careers, for Chadema, and for Tanzanian politics as a whole.
So what are those implications?
First, this hurts Chadema. Badly. They will miss his contribution; Zitto was one of their big hitters, better than any others at pulling in the youth vote, connecting the party to the small but influential online crowd, and representing the party on a global stage. Chadema with Zitto in a leading role could have challenged CCM hard in 2015. Without Zitto, they have no chance.
On top of which, they look bad for how they have dealt with this issue. One of the main justifications of Zitto’s allies for a change of party leadership was that Mbowe and his inner circle did not listen. Their reaction to the Strategy for Change document seems to confirm these claims. In much the same way, it hurts Mbowe.
That’s not to say I don’t understand Mbowe’s dilemma. Zitto’s ambition and popularity were a genuine threat to him, and Zitto was unwilling to compromise his principles for the good of the party. Zitto’s strategy (and that of his allies) to challenge for the leadership was arguably the beginnings of an internal party coup. No party leader, anywhere, would be happy with that.
It’s tough at the top: as the party grew more viable, there was more for individual politicians with their personal ambitions to fight over. Mbowe in 2005 and Slaa in 2010 knew in their hearts that they couldn’t become president, but the party’s candidate for 2015 stands a chance. (Stood a chance). On this count, they’ve failed to overcome that challenge.
Second, CCM are delighted. Just as their status as the country’s ruling party looked to be under more serious challenge than ever before, their challengers shoot themselves in the foot. Look at January Makamba’s twitter activity over the past few days – he can’t contain his joy. Nor can the CCM-owned Uhuru newspaper – see front pages from Saturday and Monday. In contrast, Chadema’s media strongholds, Tanzania Daima and Jamii Forums, are on the defensive as never before.
There are even some cynics arguing that CCM have engineered these problems for Chadema, and it’s not impossible. “We are trying our best to help them,” explained the official CCM Twitter account. High on adrenaline and success and flirting with a dangerous truth, or just an unfortunate choice of words? I will let you be the judge.
Third, and most significantly, this hurts Tanzania. I have long complained about the unashamedly pro-government reporting of the government-owned Daily News, but in this case, the paper has got it just right. “Let Chadema stay put for the sake of democracy,” was their editorial headline on Sunday. “We need a strong opposition to keep pricking the government of the day into action for the development of the nation.” The Guardian agrees.
Democracy is a messy process and politics often has a bad name, but it remains the best way of keeping governments honest. A healthy democracy needs a healthy opposition.
What will happen next is much harder to answer. This story is far from over.
But one thing is for certain: Zitto will be back. There are very few with his commitment, ambition and ability. He is an inspiration to many, who will follow wherever he decides to lead. Indeed, he may well be back soon. If Mbowe and co. decide they are better off with Zitto inside their tent pissing out than on the outside pissing in, he may yet keep his card. And he may yet find a way of challenging for the party chairmanship and presidential nomination.
He may have to delay his presidential ambitions, he may have to spend some time off the front line. But I would not bet against him being back in the game within weeks or even days. I would not want to be Freeman Mbowe right now.