Robert Mugabe, like his fellow travellers in that self-destructive adventure in power, was swept out of office by the tidal waves of history on Wednesday. The military in Zimbabwe, under the command of Constantino Chiwenga, a general, seized power and put him and his wife under house arrest. Though the military have denied staging a coup – even some elated Zimbabweans described their intervention as a national democratic consolidation – there is no doubting the fact that it has ended the ugly and better forgotten epoch that Mugabe’s regime was.
It is good for Zimbabwe, it is excellent for Africa. The legitimacy of democratic institutions derives from an implicit promise to help everyone achieve his or her full potential within society. But Mugabe’s government reached a point of no return when he sacked the Vice-President, Emerson Mnangagwa, barely two weeks ago in an intra-party feud the army watched closely. Members of his ZANU-PF Party were stupefied by Mugabe’s action. Observers saw it as a move geared towards priming his wife, Grace, for the presidency in the event of his death. He is 93 years old. It was, therefore, not surprising that the army, on November 13, threatened to step in via a news conference, when it reviewed the unwholesome political development and called for order.
Mugabe is the only leader Zimbabweans have known since the country’s independence on April 18, 1980 from the Ian Smith-led apartheid regime of Southern Rhodesia. Independence was not obtained on a platter. Mugabe was a guerilla fighter and was at some point, imprisoned. He started well as a hero, but ended it all as a villain. He deceived many by his racist and anti-imperialist rhetoric. “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources…If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for,” he was once quoted as saying. Indeed, Ralph Emerson, an American essayist and poet, might have had Mugabe in mind when he penned, “Every hero ends up a bore.”
The olive branch he extended at independence to the former white oppressors for a new order: “Forget our grimy past, forgive others and forget,” gave hope of a purposeful and visionary leadership. Foreign direct investments and aid from Europe and other countries flowed in. The attention education received saw Zimbabwe recording the highest literacy level in Africa.
But Zimbabwe’s 300,000 white minorities then were not deceived by Mugabe’s rhetoric of an egalitarian society. Sooner than later, they left in droves. His land redistribution policy to accommodate blacks’ interest went awry. The Zimbabwean white farmers never welcomed it at all. This created sundry crises – murder of the white farmers by guerrilla war veterans, confiscation of their land and looting of their properties. Food shortages began.
On the political front, intimidation, persecution of political opponents, killing and rigging of elections became the unmistakable emblems of Mugabe. To firm his power grip, he ensured the amendment to the constitution, which changed his position from prime minister to president in 1988. Nothing serves as a barometer of his power drunkenness than making himself eligible, even at 93, to contest the August 2018 presidential election.
As Mugabe was hated at home, so was he abroad. The European Union banned him from travelling to member-nations because of his abuse of human rights and abysmal democratic records. He shot back by pulling the country out of the Commonwealth in 2003.
In the 1990s, Zimbabwe was one of the most developed economies in Africa. The International Monetary Fund said that in 1980, GDP per capita in Zimbabwe was higher than in most of its neighbours and manufacturing accounted for a large share; the quality of health and education services was high. But beyond demolishing political institutions, arguably Mugabe’s unkindest gift to the country was the devastation of a once thriving economy. Lauded globally initially for reforms in the health and education sectors in the 1980s and for an economy dependent on agriculture, mining and manufacturing, Zimbabwe was also famous for its tobacco industry.
But as his popularity dipped and he adopted brutality and bribery to maintain power, he turned to land-grabbing. International agencies say the decline began in the 1990s when the Land Acquisition Act of 1992 facilitated the seizure of white-owned farmlands for re-distribution to blacks. In reality, the land was given to cronies –his ZANU-PF loyalists, veterans of the liberation war and persons connected with officials. What they had in common were inexperience and incompetence. Over 4,000 white farmers were forced to give up their farms, triggering immediate food shortages and famine. Between 2000 and 2007, agricultural production generally declined by 51 per cent and tobacco, its main export crop, by 79 per cent between 2000 and 2009.
Similarly, its important mining sector, headlined by exports of platinum, iron ore, coal, gold and diamonds, suffered from declines in global commodity prices and similar muscling out of white mine owners. The country’s financial crisis had been stretched by its ill-advised involvement in Congo’s civil war, which funding drained the treasury.
Soon, the central bank started printing money. The value of the Zimbabwean dollar fell and hyperinflation set in. At one point in 2008, inflation hit 231 million per cent: bank notes worth 100 trillion Z$ had to be printed, but were worth only $0.4! The trend was halted only after the local currency was scrapped and replaced by the US$ and other international currencies. Prices doubled every 24 hours and GDP shrank by 18 per cent in 2008 amid food shortages. Zimbabwe suffers 95 per cent unemployment, forcing its nationals to seek jobs and sustenance in South Africa and other countries.
Africa must outgrow the “Big Man” syndrome that allows an individual to approximate all power and bend all institutions to serve his interest. The continent should build societies sustained by functional institutions and democracy. Long serving dictators are destroying economies and trampling on basic freedoms. Of the 10 longest serving non-monarchical national leaders, eight are Africans: the top three – Paul Biya of Cameroon, 42 years in power; Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, 38 years, and Mugabe, are Africans. Citizens should rise up to resist their manipulations of term limits as Burkinabes did when they resisted Blaise Compaore’s efforts to extend his 27-year rule. The African Union and the sub-regional economic blocs should collaborate to enforce democracy as ECOWAS had done in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gambia. Henceforth, Africa’s leaders should resolve that the continent will not remain the laughing stock of the rest of the civilised world and aspire for global best practices.
Paradise lost, paradise regained? Certainly, not yet uhuru for the oppressed Zimbabweans. The military must not be allowed to hold power. It will send a clear message to other military forces that coups are no longer welcome in any part of the continent. Hard pressed Zimbabweans deserve a chance to elect their own preferred leader and have a better quality of life.
John Enoch Powell, a British politician and classical scholar, says, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” It is a pity that Mugabe has ended his political life ignominiously.