The MDC-T faction pushing for leadership renewal is reportedly hunting for a charismatic figure to lead a splinter group from the mainstream party led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Zimbabwean civil society appears to be warming up to the Renewal Group, led by Secretary General Tendai Biti.

Sources told The Zimbabwean that Biti had indicated that he would prefer another person to lead the group, having considered that he might lack the necessary clout to make the project a success when they officially break away.

While both factions claim ownership of the MDC, the Biti camp will eventually announce a new party, according to informants from within the group.

"The plan has always been to form a different party. Clinging to the MDC is only strategic at this stage. It is designed to tarnish Tsvangirai and convince supporters and the rest of the world that he is undemocratic and responsible for the split. Getting a crowd pulling leader is key to our breakaway," said one of the informants.

The group recently met in Harare and announced the suspension of party president Tsvangirai, Nelson Chamisa (Organising Secretary), Douglas Mwonzora (Secretary for Information), Deputy President, Thokozani Khupe, National Chairman, Lovemore Moyo and several other senior members.

Tsvangirai quickly hit back and expelled Biti, Youth Secretary Solomon Madzore and all the other members who attended the meeting at which the suspensions were announced.

Biti is considered astute and a brilliant lawyer, but there are concerns that he lacks mass appeal. The source said that after Biti indicated his reluctance to lead the new party, several names had been suggested.

These include Strive Masiyiwa and Mutumwa Mawere, but they are yet to respond to the courting.

Masiyiwa, the millionaire owner of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, is respected both locally and internationally for his business acumen, but the source said he was unlikely to accept the position because active politics might negatively affect his business empire.

"It is not a secret, though, that Masiyiwa prefers Biti to Tsvangirai. He also had a soft spot for Welshman Ncube and the team that broke away from Tsvangirai over disagreements regarding whether or not to participate in the Senate," said the source.

"Biti was also initially part of that splinter group but he went back to Tsvangirai when he was nominated for the position of Secretary General."

Masiyiwa also enjoys support from many in the Renewal Group because he would provide much-needed funding.

Mawere, a prominent businessman who is based in South Africa after being muscled out of his investment in Shabanie Mines by the government, was reported to have formed a political party ahead of the general elections last year, but he repeatedly denied it.

As part of its broad plan, the Biti faction is said to be mobilising other political parties and their leaders, among them Ncube, to join the rebel movement as a way of weakening Tsvangirai's support base.

Simba Makoni, the leader of Mavambo Kusile Dawn (MKD) who joined hands with the MDC in last year's elections, is also likely to become part of this united front. Sources say he could be chosen to lead the new party in the event that neither Masiyiwa nor Mawere are forthcoming.

Jacob Mafume, spokesperson for the group, said consultations were already underway before a stakeholders' meeting that would choose party leaders and structures.

"We are already in consultation with all those you mention (Masiyiwa, Mawere, Makoni and Ncube). We are seeking to unlock all democrats and hold a stakeholders' meeting in the next four months where leaders will be chosen by consensus," Mafume told The Zimbabwean.

The stakeholders meeting will decide whether to form a party or a loose but broad coalition, he added. The group is said to have already received informal endorsement from various civil society organisation, even though the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions prefers Tsvangirai.

"Civil society sees Biti and other top members in his camp as progressive and likely to meet the expectations of the middle class. There is general disillusionment with Tsvangirai, especially among women's organisations which disapprove of his controversial love affairs," said a senior officer at one of the CSOs.

Civil society was instrumental in the formation of the original MDC in late 1999.

Mafume said of civil society: "We are looking at civil society as part of our broad movement. It would help in formulating a new leadership model that is consensual and not based on cult heads. We want to do away with a culture of building leadership around personalities". The Biti faction will use legal fights as a way of weakening the Tsvangirai faction, according to another member of the group. "A strategic legal battle for control of the party has been mooted by some of our members. The strategy is to bleed the Tsvangirai faction and render it broke beyond repair," he said.

A senior leader in the imminent breakaway team, preferring not to be named, said: "There is nothing that will stop the renewal team. Tsvangirai is not clever and has already made fatal mistakes, especially by claiming to expel us. There are no provisions in our constitution that allow him to expel us and we are currently considering what to do next."

He insisted that the Tsvangirai faction leaders remained suspended and thus could not expel them. "We outsmarted them because our national council met first and we wrote a letter indicating that MPs who belong to our team cannot be recalled from Parliament. The pressure is on Tsvangirai and he must approach a court of law if he feels like doing so".

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