The era of Robert Mugabe—the most intellectual of African presidents—is coming to an end. Who will follow him?by Stephen Chan / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
There is no doubt the elegant 83 year old with the tailored suits is a fighter. He has been fighting all his life, often against huge odds. Now he imagines he is facing the greatest fight of his life, and he fantasises he will win. Even his opponents in Britain are weary of denouncing him. The home office is itching to send failed Zimbabwean asylum-seekers home—since it seems the chaos in Zimbabwe is as stable as it is ever going to get.
But Mugabe wants not only to survive politically but also to complete his work of nationalisation—of the state and of the land—and to defend what he has done against all-comers. He is not mad, but he is a zealot. He is the most intellectual of the African presidents, but he is not a technocrat. He is the philosopher who lost his way as a king—Nietzsche sitting in the rubble of Harare.
And he is not a farmer. He has very soft hands. They have not held a hoe for decades. For Mugabe, the land is an ideological necessity, but its cultivation is only a fantasy. He had no idea what he was unleashing when, finally and abruptly, he moved to seize the farms. A bit, perhaps, like the US entering Baghdad, expecting the population to rejoice with spontaneous democracy.
But the farms were the backbone of the nation’s economy. The result, seven years on, is almost 2,000 per cent inflation, with the prospect of 4-5,000 per cent by year’s end. Mugabe sees the phlegmatic patience of his citizens, thinks the opposition-led rallies are an aberration—and seeks to crush them accordingly. But behind the scenes, his own, formerly close, lieutenants have nurtured doubts for the last two years and, now, seeking to safeguard their own futures, are contemplating his end.
More ominously for Mugabe, the African presidents whom he had led intellectually are now in close contact with precisely these former lieutenants, and also with the leaders of the two opposition parties. Why did it take so long coming? Partly because of Mugabe’s intellectual leadership. There is a great desire to be autonomous in thought as well as deed in Africa. There is even a chauvinism, almost an autarky, in the image of an Africa without the west—even if it means a transitional Africa with China in the place of the west. Thabo Mbeki has published articles lauding the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his call to “decolonise” the mind—to assert one’s own language, one’s own thinking, one’s own land and one’s own destiny. These thoughts are shared by Mugabe, his former lieutenants and his opposition. There is still a project of decolonisation.
But in Mugabe’s case this project has lurched terrifyingly off the rails. At first it was mostly South Africa that took up the slack. Its equivalent of the home office is just as concerned about the Zimbabwean refugee influx as Britain’s. Now the other southern African presidents realise the impact of Zimbabwe’s meltdown on their own economies. For two years, Nigeria’s president Olusegun Obasanjo has refused to have anything to do with Mugabe. Today, even the “silent majority” of presidents are ready to enter the Zimbabwean fray.
In a way they felt they had no choice but to wait. None was impressed by the opposition’s capacity to form an alternative government. The “tipping point” is the detachment of Mugabe’s former lieutenants from his cause. Who are these lieutenants? There are two key camps. The first is led by Solomon and Joyce Mujuru, husband and wife heroes of the liberation struggle. Joyce Mujuru is the vice-president and, under her nom de guerre Teurai Ropa (Spill Blood), she shot down a Rhodesian gunship and led attacks while heavily pregnant. Her husband had been the field commander of the liberation forces. There is a curious chemistry between husband and wife—they are political rivals as well as allies—but they command great residual loyalty within the armed forces. For now, they have been joined by Didymus Mutasa, the head of the secret police—this means they have coercive capacity.
The second camp is led by Emerson Mnangagwa, who again has defence and secret police loyalties arrayed in his favour. None of these are savoury figures. It is not that they do not already have enough support where it matters to persuade Mugabe to step down; they just can’t agree who will be president in his stead.
A lot will depend on which camp Mugabe’s former finance minister Simba Makoni chooses to enter. The west sees in him a true and largely unsullied technocrat, as do the South Africans. But the South Africans and Zambians would also like to see the leader of the larger opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai, incorporated into a post-Mugabe “unity government.” For Mbeki, now beginning to get tangled up in his own succession battles, the chess game is all about lining up these pieces. And Mbeki would like to persuade Mugabe to step down, rather than have him wait for his own former friends to hold a gun to his head.
The central committee of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party has endorsed his wish to stand in the 2008 presidential elections for a five-year term. He will be 89 by the time that finishes. The outwardly fit Mugabe is already a heavy consumer of traditional, western and Serbian medical and herbal products. They seem to work. It is rumoured that he has acquired a new, very young mistress. But it is not a question of whether he will last the term; it is a question of whether Zimbabwe can last as a going concern for more than a few more months.
There is a rumour doing the rounds in Pretoria that come August, if all else fails, the South Africans will turn off some key economic taps. That will be the signal for the former friends of Mugabe to move. That gives Pretoria most of the summer to put its favoured coalition together. In effect, the post-Mugabe government will be as undemocratically selected as Mugabe’s was undemocratically elected.
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter in April condemning Mugabe: “God hears the cry of the oppressed.” And it seems that God may respond in August when He visits Pretoria, not being able Himself to bear the desolation in the heart of Zimbabwe.