Seeing Zimbabweans cheer the end of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous 37-year rule, it’s tempting to join in their exultation.
Mugabe governed ruthlessly, quashing all opposition. Inheriting one of Africa’s wealthiest and most developed countries upon its independence in 1980, he impoverished it through the imposition of a Marxist-style command economy. The seizure, 20 years later, of productive white-owned farms and their transference to political cronies led to widespread starvation and an exodus of several million refugees. Yet through persistence, constant appeals to his history as a liberation leader, and a sheer cunning which belied his rank as the world’s oldest leader, Mugabe was able to withstand international isolation and Western sanctions.
Tuesday, his ruinous reign finally came to a pathetic end when, under threat of impeachment, he resigned from the presidency. Having come to power through the barrel of a gun, it was fitting that he would leave by the same means, forced into early retirement by his own generals. Loyal to the president’s liberation movement-cum-political party ZANU-PF, they could not tolerate Mugabe’s elevation of his second wife, Grace, 40 years his junior and lacking in struggle credentials, to the position of successor. And so, under cover of night last week, the troops came out of their barracks and, facing minimal resistance, put the first family under house arrest.
Replacing Mugabe is Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former vice president and erstwhile Mugabe ally who fought white minority rule alongside him in the 1970s. As Grace’s ambitions expanded beyond European shopping sprees and into the political realm, a faction opposing her ascension emerged with Mnangagwa as its leader. Under pressure from his wife, Mugabe fired Mnangagwa in early November, an event that would ultimately prove his undoing. Mnangagwa, fearing for his life (months earlier, Grace had allegedly tried to poison him with ice cream produced from her dairy farm, one of several stolen properties), escaped to neighboring South Africa where he remained in hiding until Mugabe’s resignation.
This sequence of events and cast of characters should allay hopes that Zimbabwe is on course to some sort of grand democratic transformation, akin to South Africa’s 1994 liberation when decades of white minority rule came to an end with the election of Nelson Mandela as president of a multiracial, constitutional republic. What has transpired in Zimbabwe is not so much a transition of power as the successful triumph of one corrupt, blood-stained faction over another. The proverbial poison is still in the proverbial ice cream.
Consider: What was it that precipitated the military to intervene and suppress “criminals around” Mugabe, (itself a curious phrasing considering that the country’s greatest criminal is Mugabe himself)? It wasn’t the blatantly illegal and violent theft of white-owned farm land which degenerated Zimbabwe from “the breadbasket of Africa” into a basket case. Nor was it the 2005 politically charged slum clearance operation that left 700,000 people homeless. The 100,000% inflation and resultant economic collapse did not stir their conscience. Countless incidents of corruption, electoral fraud, and torture did not move the generals to act.
No, what ultimately persuaded the military to intervene was Mugabe’s rash decision to promote his wife at the expense of other powerful constituencies within his regime. Of course, it is to be welcomed that Zimbabwe is finally rid of Robert and Grace Mugabe, the latter of whom, right down to her penchant for expensive shoes (“I wear only Ferragamo,” she is reported to have said), makes Imelda Marcos look like Mother Theresa. Yet there is nothing in the Crocodile’s record to suggest he has any interest in establishing democracy and good governance.
Mnangagwa has been fully complicit in every crime and atrocity the Mugabe regime has undertaken from its inception. Beginning with the early 1980s slaughter by North Korean-trained soldiers of some 25,000 members of a minority tribe, which he allegedly oversaw as head of the country’s intelligence services, to the repeated rigging of elections and violent assaults on opposition leaders, Mnangagwa stood alongside Mugabe every step of the way. The main driver of last week’s coup replacing Mugabe with Mnangagwa—the powerful band of ex-guerrilla fighters known as “war veterans”—was the same group that drove the disastrous land-reform policy of the early 2000s. And the leader of the military who orchestrated the entire affair, General Constantine Chiwenga, is one such veteran who, like Mnangagwa, is listed among the 200 officials sanctioned by the United States under the 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act.
The sad truth is that, in the whole history of postcolonial Africa, there are pitifully few examples of an African liberation movement transferring power peacefully. In the continent’s leading democracy, South Africa, Mandela’s African National Congress has ruled without interruption since the end of apartheid, and there is no prospect of its leaving any time soon. None of Zimbabwe’s neighbors relish the prospect of seeing a fellow liberation movement lose control, fearful as they are of a regional ripple effect that could lead to their own defeat.
As a transition government comes to power in advance of fresh elections next August, the following year will be crucial. The military’s clear preference not only for a political party but a particular faction within that party exemplifies the fundamental problem in civil-military relations that has long plagued African countries, a problem exacerbated by the military’s recent intervention (no matter how welcome) in politics. Having gone to such lengths to preserve their privileges, the generals are unlikely to let ZANU-PF lose its grip over the country via something so pedestrian as a free and fair election.
Zimbabweans may be relieved of Robert Mugabe, but they are hardly relieved of the system of violence, corruption, and the dangerous conflation of party and state that sustained his rule. And the new boss, sadly, may be the same as the old.