Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) offices in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on Jan. 30, where youth aligned to Nelson Chamisa, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, erected a banner and painted the CCC office walls blue in solidarity after Chamisa quit his own party.ZINYANGE AUNTONY/Getty Images

When an obscure Zimbabwean politician announced a takeover of the country’s biggest opposition party last October, its members were astonished and baffled. But they soon realized that their party was in deep trouble.

Four months later, the Zimbabwean opposition is fragmented and leaderless, while the ruling party has exploited the confusion to secure a two-thirds majority in the national assembly – a crucial step in prolonging its 44 years of domination in the country.

Sengezo Tshabangu, a textile and bricks businessman from western Zimbabwe who has held a series of minor positions in several opposition parties since 1999, shocked the country by installing himself as interim secretary-general of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) – and then ousting many of its MPs from Parliament.

Open this photo in gallery:

Sengezo Tshabangu, a textile and bricks businessman from western Zimbabwe who has held a series of minor positions in several opposition parties since 1999, shocked the country by installing himself as interim secretary-general of the CCC – and then ousting many of its MPs from parliament.Handout

“Nobody knew him,” said Rusty Markham, a CCC parliamentarian who had just won re-election a few weeks before Mr. Tshabangu wrested control of the party.

“I’ve never met him. I can honestly not even tell you his history. He wasn’t known by anyone until he wrote a letter saying that he’s now the secretary-general.”

For months, CCC’s leaders fought in the courts in a desperate battle against Mr. Tshabangu’s edicts, which the parliamentary speaker had swiftly accepted. The position of “secretary-general” did not even exist in the party, the CCC officials noted.

But in a country where the judiciary is heavily influenced by the ruling ZANU-PF party, they had little hope of winning. The courts approved Mr. Tshabangu’s recall of two dozen MPs, triggering a wave of by-elections, which ZANU-PF swept easily because the courts prohibited dozens of opposition candidates from running.

“It was a simple choreographed dance,” said Mr. Markham, who served five years as a city councillor and five years as an MP before this year. “It was a fiasco.”

In the national elections last August, CCC leader Nelson Chamisa had finished second with 44 per cent of the vote, according to the official count, while ZANU-PF won the presidency and captured 177 of the 280 seats in the national assembly, the lower house of Parliament.

But after Mr. Tshabangu’s manoeuvres, the ruling party now holds 190 seats – potentially enough to change the constitution and extend the rule of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power in 2017 after a military coup.

The President is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, but now analysts expect him to prolong his rule – and the rule of the party that has governed Zimbabwe since its independence after the liberation war of the 1970s.

“It’s frustrating because basically we’re living in a one-party state,” Mr. Markham told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

“There’s no way these people are going to give up power. They came into power by coup, and before that they came into power by liberation war, and that’s the only way they know, and they’ll hang on for dear life.”

Mr. Tshabangu, in a Zimbabwean television interview in December, denied rumours that he was secretly a member of ZANU-PF – although he acknowledged that he had sometimes defended the ruling party in the past. He also defended Mr. Mnangagwa at a public inquiry over a deadly military crackdown against protestors in 2018.

Mr. Tshabangu said he had “grassroots support” in the CCC, and he accused Mr. Chamisa of feigning ignorance of him. “He doesn’t even pronounce my name properly,” he complained. “They’re carrying a narrative that I’m an imposter.”

The opposition endured a series of similar splits in the past, when it was called the Movement for Democratic Change. The party fragmented in 2005 and again in 2018. Dissidents quit the party, lesser-known politicians claimed the leadership, repeated court battles ensued and new parties were formed under new names – with Mr. Tshabangu playing a behind-the-scenes role in some of these splits.

When the CCC was created in 2022, it lacked a formal constitution or internal structures, in an attempt to deter infiltrators. Mr. Chamisa called it a deliberate policy of “strategic ambiguity.” But the move backfired. In his takeover bid last year, Mr. Tshabangu cited the same ambiguity to explain how he could hold a senior post in the party without anyone seeming to know.

Late last month, after failing to fend off the Tshabangu takeover, Mr. Chamisa made a surprise announcement: he abandoned CCC and resigned as leader of the party.

“CCC has, to all intents and purposes, been criminally handed over to ZANU-PF,” he said in his announcement.

“This is as a systematic and deliberate disenfranchisement campaign,” he said. “We are being thrown into a river with hungry crocodiles. We need to extricate ourselves from the shenanigans. I will have nothing to do with sewer-pond politics.”

Mr. Markham agonized about whether to follow Mr. Chamisa in disavowing the party. He didn’t want to leave his constituents voiceless in Parliament – but he also saw how the national assembly was increasingly dominated by the ruling party, with only token consultations at brief meetings on key issues such as the national budget.

After much soul-searching, he decided to resign. “The democratic space in Parliament has been shut down completely,” he said in a statement to his constituents.

In parliamentary sessions in recent weeks, the remaining CCC members have been subdued and gloomy, while ZANU-PF members have been exultant, sometimes mocking their opponents.

Some rank-and-file CCC loyalists want Mr. Chamisa to adopt the same tough tactics that ZANU-PF has used. “Chamisa needs to stop being so soft,” said Livias Jomisi, a 61-year-old resident of Mbare township in Harare.

“He needs to fight, the same way the ruling party has employed all those dirty infiltration tactics against the opposition over the past decades.”

Desmond Sharukai, a human-rights activist and long-time opposition supporter, says he is losing hope in elections as the vehicle for change, although he still supports Mr. Chamisa. “He should adopt a radical, confrontational approach to ZANU-PF. The days of wearing designer suits and shiny neck ties are over. It should be time for brazen action.”

Many CCC supporters expect Mr. Chamisa to create a new opposition movement. Thousands have already rallied in support of him, wearing blue shirts, which they believe will be the colour of his new party.

“I will follow Mr. Chamisa wherever he goes,” said 42-year-old Lucia Radzokota, who suffered injuries from a beating by ZANU-PF supporters when she campaigned for CCC last year.

Many other Zimbabweans simply want any political shift that might create jobs in the nearly collapsed economy. “Young people like me just want change,” said 26-year-old Malcolm Gandiwa, who has been unemployed since completing his university degree in 2021.

To survive, he sells cigarettes and phone chargers at a bus terminal in Harare. “This doesn’t make sense at all,” he said. “And there are many like me.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe