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I recently had the pleasure to hear National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Reagan-Fascell Fellow Charles Mangongera, Director of Policy and Research for Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, speak masterfully at NED on the role of the military in the country’s political sphere.  Dedicated readers may know that I have a particular interest in Zimbabwe and recall an earlier Africa in DC interview of another Zimbabwean activist.

Charles graciously agreed to sit down with me just days later for a wide-ranging conversation on his personal background and the current political situation in Zimbabwe.  Charles is from Mutoko, a large town north of Harare on the Tete corridor, a route that I frequently took on visits to a site just south of Zimbabwe’s Nyamapanda border post with Mozambique.  Mutoko is just below the southern edges of the arid Zambezi valley, which is marked by very high temperatures and an dry climate not particularly receptive to the agricultural activity that much of central and eastern Zimbabwe is known for.  During the liberation war, the territory just beyond Mutoko was hotly contested and the independent Zimbabwean press refers to it today as ‘a volatile ZANU – PF stronghold.’  Charles’ life has followed a route very different from most in this part of Zimbabwe. He is cognizant of his relative fortune and mentioned his desire to set up a scholarship scheme for secondary school students in the region.

As an undergraduate, Charles studied political science at the University of Zimbabwe, an experience that led him ‘to begin to question and challenge the state.’  He noted that he was a member of the last generation of domestic Zimbabwean students with the luxury of being able to fully concentrate on their studies and the pursuit of knowledge before the implosion of the economy – ‘the last group in the golden era of student activism.’  He added that university students played a key role in pushing for a political alternative to Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF.  He recalled a campus event with Morgan Tsvangirai, then the head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (now the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Charles’ employer) in which the students began chanting ‘you are the President!’  Speaking of Zimbabwean youth today, Charles laments that the country’s economic collapse has driven many graduates to domestic employment with international non-profits, greatly reducing innovation and entrepreneurial activity.

After graduation, Charles played an instrumental role in the formation of the Mass Public Opinion Institute, a highly respected organization focusing on public opinion research in the public policy sphere in Zimbabwe since 1999 (the same year the MDC was founded).  Charles served as a Chief Research Fellow and returned to the University of Zimbabwe to obtain a MSc in Demography.  In 2003, shortly after Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth and President Mugabe was unleashing a wave of insults against Prime Minister Tony Blair, Charles was awarded a Chevening Scholarship for study at a UK University – he went to the University of Birmingham and continued to examine Governance issues.

Upon his return to Zimbabwe, Charles soon became active in international civil society capacity-building organizations like HIVOS, a Dutch international development organization, and Freedom House, headquartered here in DC.  This work drew the attention of the MDC, who sought to avail themselves of his research and strategic planning skills.  Although Charles was initially hesitant about the contributions he could make to the party, he had an ideological affinity for ‘what they were trying to do’ and started working for the party full-time in January 2012.

Charles’ Fellowship at NED has coincided with cold weather here in DC, which he notes has limited his ability to get out and travel.  However, this has allowed him to double his focus on the broader struggle for democratization in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of the July 2013 elections.  The ‘enriching experience’ has led him to determine that ‘there’s a book in me that needs to come out at some stage.’  Charles has focused on the role of the military in Zimbabwe and is particularly interested in the role of the security sector in the diamond industry, which he believes played a significant role in funding ZANU-PF’s campaign in the 2013 elections in which the MDC was handed a resounding defeat; not surprisingly he calls it a ‘stolen election.’

I was surprised to hear the pan-African notes that Charles sounded in our conversation.  He noted that meeting Zimbabweans and other Africans has been a highlight of his time in DC.  He states that ‘many of our stories are the same’ and that ‘we come from countries struggling with dictatorship.’  Charles observes that many of these dictators are exchanging notes – as Mugabe has done with the leaders of countries like Angola and Equatorial Guinea.  Hopefully the notes he has exchanged while in DC will play a constructive role in undermining the systems led by individuals like Mugabe, Dos Santos, and Obiang.  On a less optimistic note, he added that a significant challenge facing the MDC was their lack of support in the southern African region and across the continent, a situation that he believes has been exacerbated by the European and American sanctions on Mugabe and individuals and companies affiliated with ZANU – PF.

In his own words, Charles has been ‘fighting the system all the time.’  The system came close to crumbling in Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2009.  His decision to focus on an examination of Zimbabwe’s military is quite audacious.  As Charles mentions, countries like Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic are receiving a lot of attention while Zimbabwe has increasingly become an outlier.  Hopefully the determined efforts of people like Charles will ensure that although the struggle in Zimbabwe has been deferred, it will not be in vain.

C: Charles Mangongera, R: Thiat before the former’s presentation at NED.