Arthur Mutambara ascended to the highest position in the smaller faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in February 2006 after a split of the original labour-backed party in 2005 following parallel views in contesting Senate elections.
After two years, Mutambara landed the prestigious post of Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) at the formation of the problematic inclusive government in February 2009, which also includes MDC-T leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF.
He became one of the three principals in the unity government despite the fact that he did not stand in the presidential election of 2008 after his faction threw its full weight behind Simba Makoni, leader of Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn party.
Worse still, his bid to gain a parliamentary seat in Zengeza East constituency collapsed that same year after he came a distant third in the polls with 1 322 votes behind the candidate of the Tsvangirai faction, who won 7 570 votes, and the ZANU-PF candidate, who won 3 042 votes.
But against all odds Mutambara emerged even stronger to become one of the key pillars in the coalition.
After nearly two years in the pushy and influential post, his political career is however, now subject to debate as he faces an uncertain future at the MDC-M’s watershed congress this weekend.
There are concerted efforts by hardliners in the party to recall the robotics professor from government. They accuse him, rightly or wrongly, of failing to clearly articulate the position and policies of the MDC-M and confusing his personal views with those of the party.
Ideologically, it is difficult to distinguish Mutambara from ZANU-PF hardliners, which has won him more enemies than friends within the MDC-M.
Beyond issues of ideology, critics see Mutambara (45) and many others of his generation fighting to dislodge ZANU-PF from power as belonging to a group of people that got frustrated with ZANU-PF’s failure to renew itself and not its policies. They then joined opposition politics in order to deliver change.
Again, rightly or wrongly, Mutambara, who first cut his political teeth as a student leader at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), has been accused of sounding more ZANU-PF than the party he represents, which was formed specifically to wrest power from President Mugabe and his party.
With the potentially divisive two-day congress of the MDC-M slated to begin this Saturday until Sunday, it does not need a rocket scientist to decipher that DPM Mutambara faces his Waterloo at the City Sports Centre — the venue of the party’s congress.
Those baying for his blood seem to have done their homework. Not even a single province has nominated him for the presidency.
Just like Shaka Zulu’s men would outflank their enemy using the cow horn formation, Welshman Ncube’s supporters have completely outmanoeuvred Mutambara.
On his part Mutambara has stressed that he would not be seeking re-election at the congress as his party secretary-general Ncube looks set to be endorsed as the new leader of the MDC-M.
Insiders claim that in the event that Ncube is endorsed at the congress, Mutambara would be recalled from the post of DPM and possibly be redeployed elsewhere.
There have been unconfirmed media reports that he might assume the post of Minister of Industry and International Trade set to be vacated by Ncube upon his elevation in the MDC-M.
Despite the uncertainty, Mutambara has sounded confident about his future.
Addressing a conference organised by the Development Foundation of Zimbabwe in the resort town of Victoria Falls last month, he spoke with bravado.
“When I came to lead the MDC people made a lot of noise. When I became the Deputy Prime Minister they still spoke, they continue to speak and they will be surprised one day when I am the head of State,” said the garrulous Mutambara, who has pledged to continue working for the MDC-M.
Mutambara has two distinct advantages on his side. At 45 and God willing, he still has a lot of time on his side to further his political career. Secondly, he has an impressive CV.
He was a noted leader of the student movement in 1988 and 1989, leading anti-government protests at the UZ, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. He was later educated on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1991 at Merton College, Oxford in the United Kingdom where he obtained a PhD in Robotics and Mechatronics, and in the United States where he spent time as a visiting Fellow in the same field, including both California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and FSU College of Engineering.
He also worked as a lecturer on Business Strategy and as a consultant for McKinsey & Company.
Despite his relatively young age and a distinguished career, Mutambara is however, still to mature as a polished diamond politically.
A confidential 2007 diplomatic cable penned by former US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell was blunt about Mutambara’s political immaturity saying the politician “is young and ambitious, attracted to radical, anti-western rhetoric and smart as a whip. But in many respects he is a lightweight who has spent too much time reading US campaign messaging manuals and too little thinking about the real issues.”
There are therefore genuine fears that Mutambara is finished politically unless he waves a magic wand.
Joseph Kurebwa, a UZ academic and political scientist, said Mutambara was likely to maintain a low profile in politics and return to his academic profession.
“I do not see Mutambara continuing in active politics, but rather he will go back to his former profession and concentrate on that. What he has done by not seeking a second term as per the party’s constitution is an indication he is no longer interested much in political activities,” said Kurebwa.
“The MDC-M congress will see the restructuring of (the party)’s leadership positions and that is good in that there will be cohesion because the provinces would want their selected individuals to lead the party. However, we should not rule out resistance because apart from the party’s president, all other top positions have more than one aspirant.
“Resistance is bound to be there among other members who would have lost or feel their choice of candidate has failed to make it. That resistance is a test to the party because it can divide the party forever, but if managed well, it will gradually disappears,” said Kurebwa.
Goodson Nguni, a Harare-based political commentator, said the move to ensure DPM Mutambara bowed out of the race was well calculated because the robotics professor was viewed as “President Mugabe’s boy”.
“We should not look at things at the surface, but dig deeper to see that the people sponsoring the MDC wanted Mutambara out because of his so-called sympathy with President Mugabe. I should congratulate Mutambara for serving himself from embarrassment at the congress,” said Nguni.
“But the biggest danger is that if Welshman (Ncube) is catapulted to president then we have two people, him and Tsvangirai fighting on the same side and seeking a change of government to further the interests of non-Zimbabweans.
“I think Mutambara appeared a nationalist, but his future in politics is now uncertain. It is a pity that Ncube whom I view as a diversionist will now lead that party and that will also mark the beginning of its downfall because problems are likely to emerge within it along tribal lines.”
More than 5 000 delegates are expected to converge in Harare for the congress to plot the destiny of the party and elect its future leaders.
The changes in the MDC-M’s top structures will also see the post of vice president being contested by Edwin Mushoriwa, the current party spokesperson, Trudy Stevenson, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Senegal and Frank Chamunorwa, a national executive committee member.
In a statement to the media this week the MDC-M said it has since concluded nominations in its provinces countrywide ahead of the watershed Indaba that would also take stock of the performance of the party in the last five years, which have been characterised by factional fights in the run up to the congress as members jostled for positions.
Mushoriwa said there had been consensus in nine provinces on Ncube as president. Masvingo province is still to conclude its nominations.
Eight of the provinces have also reached consensus on Priscilla Misihairambwi, Goodwill Ch-imbaira and Paul Temba Nyathi who have been nominated as secretary-general, national chairman and national treasurer respectively.
“The party’s last congress was held in February 2006, the MDC constitution has a set two-term limits for the seven top positions, which are the presidency, vice-president, secretary-general, deputy secretary general, treasurer-general, deputy treasurer general and national chairman.
“Welshman Ncube and (Fletcher) Dulini Ncube are therefore not elegible to continue in their current posts as secretary-general and treasurer-general respectively,” said Mushoriwa
Wither Mutambara is the question Zimbabweans ask themselves as the MDC-M congress beckons. – This article was first published in the Financial Gazett