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Nurses scandal reveals new govt's smart authoritarianism

22 Apr 2018 at 10:30hrs | Views
When Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga dramatically "expelled" striking nurses last Tuesday, the responses from different quarters were somewhat predictable. Understandably so. Because the move was made by a former general, the knee-jerk reaction was to see this as an ominous manifestation of military rule that would stretch into the future.

That wasn't entirely incorrect, of course. It's just that this general perception was simplistic. The truth is, this is a new tactic of political governance in town whereby the Emmerson Mnangagwa administration will be invoking the spectre of militarism and sanitising it with a semblance of adherence to the rule of law and get the results that it wants in the process.

Nurses went on strike last Monday protesting against poor working conditions and government's failure to honour earlier promises to redress their plight. This came just after government doctors did the same and reached a fair compromise with their employer.

A day after the commencement of the strike, Chiwenga took a lot of people aback by penning an arrogant letter that summarily dismissed the 15 000 or so nurses who had defied government's call for them to return to work in a way, that was weird and clumsy. A VP doesn't get into the business of firing nurses through a press statement even if he may be heading the social services cluster.

That task belongs to the Health Services Board (HSB) and the relevant ministry. The constitution, which accords Zimbabwean citizens outside the security sector the right to withdraw their labour on legitimate grounds, must be respected. So must be the administrative and labour laws of this country that favour workers with the right to be heard.
The HSB has not helped matters in any way. Clearly under orders from the presidium, it went on to compile thousands of dismissal letters for the nurses that the board's director had to sign one by one. He must have gotten some fat blisters for his hapless efforts.

The nurses have already enlisted the help of human rights lawyers to get the courts to declare the dismissals null and void, interdict Chiwenga, the Health ministry and the HSB from proceeding with the expulsions and also to stop government from replacing them. Meanwhile, people from here and abroad are throwing angry brickbats, particularly at Chiwenga, for using military rule to quash legitimate protests by the nurses

But people have not been asking key questions. Do we honestly believe that the presidium was not aware of the implications of what Chiwenga did? For starters, Mnangagwa is a lawyer. Would he not have seen where the whole drama would wind up? Was Chiwenga acting alone in all this? Could it be true that Chiwenga has the president so captured on the backdrop that the ex-general led the coup that popularly removed a long-time hard man, Robert Mugabe?

Would Mnangagwa and Chiwenga afford making the huge mistake of using strong tactics ahead of the crucial 2018 elections, especially as the world is watching so keenly? Wouldn't the dismissal, in a stroke, just delete all the efforts that Mnangagwa has made since taking over power last November to endear himself to the much-needed international community?

Obviously, Mnangagwa would always be worried to soil himself by allowing Chiwenga to make such a bad decision and legitimising it later as he did. A disgruntled 15 000 nurses would directly cost him an equal number of votes and at least twenty-fold downstream. These nurses have extended families in the rural and urban areas. They have friends. They have families and they have other keen sympathisers who are going to vote.

Here is the new administration's scheme of things, pretty like what we have seen in post-genocide Rwanda, which has remained a darling of most of the international community despite its strong-arm style of governance. The new administration seems to have seen through the gathering storm of industrial action. The nurses went on strike after the doctors and teachers and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions are planning the same.

They have to make their hay while the sun shines. Neglecting putting the new administration under pressure now is a big risk. After the elections, regardless of whether Zanu-PF or Nelson Chamisa's MDC wins, whoever is in power will forget them. That's what politicians always do. But then, a tide of strikes before the elections is also risky for the Mnangagwa administration. It makes people feel that they are bad boys and girls who can't do anything to better their lot, just as was the case under the Mugabe tenure. After all, civil servants were not striking during Mugabe's last years in office even though the working conditions were just the same. That would look like people's patience has run out and the Mnangagwa outfit is useless. That means the industrial action must stop now.

How? You first bring out the stick, otherwise the civil servants will get too cozy with you and take you for wool. This is where the military spectre comes in. By the way, it didn't start last week. You will remember, for instance, that just recently, July Moyo, the Local Government minister, went out hollering about deploying soldiers to kick vendors off the streets. That it didn't happen after all doesn't matter. The new establishment is fully aware of the potential of getting people quaking at the mention of the army. Word has it that Chiwenga actually told a delegation of nurses that went to see him last week that they, in fact, had bigger guns than the ones that were taken out during the coup.

It is useful to note that the letter of dismissal was written not from Defence House, but Chiwenga's office as VP. That means, technically, it wasn't written by the army. But it's all draw-draw like 6 and 9, as they say in street language. When people think of Chiwenga, they see a battalion of soldiers. He may have taken off the army fatigue now, but he remains the army general in their minds. He is the political scarecrow in the post-Mugabe government.

What comes after the military spectre? You let the courts do its work. They, rightly, declare the expulsions null and void and reinstate the nurses. This will happen next week or slightly after as sure as the sun will come up. That will give the Mnangagwa outfit the look of a dispensation that respects constitutionalism and the rule of law.

And it would have met its objective of stopping swelling civil instability ahead of the polls. The nurses will be too happy to get back to work. The next time they think of protesting, they will start by looking over their shoulders. The same will happen with the teachers. Very soon, Chiwenga's blunt stunt of "expelling" the nurses will be forgotten.

There are clear indications that the Machiavellian tactic is working. Mnangagwa, through his spokesperson George Charamba, late last week betrayed a clever part of the strategy. It's instructive he waited for some time to announce that, practically, government would be readmitting all the "fired" nurses, even ahead of the High Court hearing. Charamba's statement puts the nurses in three bags—those that reported to work on Monday and, therefore, were not affected by the firing, those that went back to work upon a government directive to do so and those that are willing to return to work despite being fired. That means every nurse will be returning to work, but with the message back at their minds that striking is a no-no.

We will see Mnangagwa using the same tactic even after the elections if he and his party win. That says the military will be a very present cog in the ruling machinery. In other words, it will be abusing its mandate by using the army or its proxies to rule. But the world will accept that because, one, it is anxious to see and work with a relatively stable post-Mugabe government and, two, the administration will be clever enough to fuse hard tactics with staged constitutionalism and other political niceties.

There is a real danger though. The longer the militarised establishment stays in power, the greater the chances that it may forget that it must still be nice-looking and nice-sounding. As more and more people see through the government's Machiavellian tactics, the bolder and more defiant the citizens may become. If it happens this way, they will begin to really irritate the regime, which will get one glove off first, and then the other. Once that happens, the post-Mugabe dispensation will gradually descend into a crudely authoritarian and despotic arrangement that might, in fact, turn the former president into a saint.

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Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust and can be contacted on tmajoni@idt.org.zw.

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