This fortnight

End of Mugabe era

Print edition : December 08, 2017

An armoured personnel carrier at a crossroads in Harare as soldiers regulate traffic, on November 15. Photo: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP

Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace at a youth rally in Marondera in June. Photo: TSVAnGIRAYI MUKWAZHI/AP

Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photo: PHILIMON BULAWAYO/REUTERS

THE Robert Mugabe era in Zimbabwean politics seems to be finally over. The 93-year-old leader had plenty of opportunities to leave gracefully but he insisted on keeping the top job. The Zimbabwean army, which removed the President and put him under house arrest on November 15, denied that there was a coup d'etat. The military spokesman said on national television that the “temporary” takeover was only to “target criminals” who had congregated around the head of state and were causing social and economic hardship in the country. “As soon as we accomplish our mission we expect the situation to return to normal,” the army spokesman said. Tensions had been building up in the country with the date for new general elections nearing.

In the last couple of years, the veterans of the liberation struggle, who occupied top positions in the government, were methodically sidelined. The sudden removal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s senior-most colleague and presumed heir apparent, from the Cabinet in the first week of October set alarm bells ringing in the country's political establishment. Mnangagwa, known as “the crocodile”, a nom de guerre he earned during the liberation struggle, has strong support within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and the country’s security establishment. The veterans of the liberation struggle still occupy key positions in the government, the bureaucracy and the army. They were loath to see Grace Mugabe, the President’s wife, emerging as the flag bearer of the ZANU-PF in the coming elections.

In recent months, the youth wing of the ZANU-PF comprising a generation for whom the liberation struggle is a distant memory had rallied behind Grace Mugabe. Its leadership even warned the army leadership against interfering in politics. The “war veterans”, who were the bedrock of support for Mugabe in the past, broke ranks in 2016 and threatened to tie up even with the opposition to defeat Mugabe at the elections in 2018. Chris Mutsangva, the leader of the war veterans group, said in Johannesburg that Grace Mugabe was a “mad woman” who got power “through a coup—a marriage certificate”. He praised the military for its action, calling it a “bloodless correction of gross abuse of power” that would help Zimbabwe return to “genuine democracy”.

Zimbabwe's army chief, Gen. Constantine Chivenga, had publicly aired his displeasure about the alleged shenanigans of the Mugabe government and the ZANU-PF government two days before the army moved in. The army chief, also a veteran of the liberation struggle, had warned that the army was prepared to “step in” to end the turmoil in the ruling party. The army acted on its threat after signs of resistance from sections of the ZANU-PF aligned with Grace Mugabe. Soldiers blocked access to the President’s official residence, the courts and government buildings. Otherwise, life in the capital, Harare, was reported to be normal, with people carrying on with their lives. The Zimbabwean security forces have historically close links with the ruling party. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), did not criticise the army’s intervention but expressed the hope that the rule of law would be restored at the earliest. Senior opposition politicians told the media that the military top brass had established contact with them and suggested the formation of an interim government in which all the major parties would have a role. The opposition is expected to be offered the posts of Vice President and Prime Minister in a government headed by Mnangagwa.

South Africa and the broader region would welcome such an arrangement. The spokesman for the Zimbabwean armed forces assured his countrymen on national television that the President and his family were “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed”. The spokesman once again denied that a coup had taken place and said “as soon as the armed forces are done, the situation will come back to normal”.

South African nod

The military's limited intervention in Zimbabwean politics, which has so far been a one-off occurrence in southern Africa, seems to have the tacit approval of South Africa, the region’s economic and political powerhouse. The Zimbabwean army chief was in China in early October. China is Zimbabwe’s strongest international ally and has invested heavily in the country's economy. During the liberation struggle, ZANU’s main backer was China. The country has a big role to play in keeping Zimbabwe’s economy afloat.

Zimbabwe is a rich country, endowed with bountiful mineral riches, fertile land and an educated population. A combination of factors, external and internal, led to the deterioration of its economy, and around a decade ago inflation made its currency worthless. The country had to jettison its currency and allow currencies such as the U.S. dollar, the South African rand and even the Indian rupee to become legal tender.

After his dismissal, Mnangagwa was allowed to take refuge in South Africa. He was also allowed to leave once the new chain of events was set in motion. South African President Jacob Zuma had a talk with Mugabe after he was kept under house arrest and expressed the hope that civilians would be back in control at the earliest. Efforts seem to be ongoing to convince Mugabe to either resign or designate Mnangagwa as the ZANU-PF’s candidate for the presidency.

Zimbabweans still have a lot of respect for their leader. It will not be a surprise if Mugabe is allowed to spend the rest of his life in comfortable retirement in Zimbabwe or abroad.

Mugabe is the only leader Zimbabweans have known since their nation became independent in 1980 after a brutal war of liberation. Though Mugabe himself did not personally participate in the guerilla war against the white settler government of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, he was the undisputed leader of ZANU.

“Comrade Bob”, as he is known, was among the group of progressive leaders on the African continent and could be counted on to stand up against the machinations of the West in Africa. The speech he delivered in this year’s United Nations General Assembly is a testament to his anti-imperialist credentials. In Zimbabwe, he will be remembered for contributions to the spread of education and adult literacy.

The land reforms programme that he implemented came in for much criticism. It may have been executed in a haphazard manner, but it was long overdue. One per cent of the white population was owning more than 70 per cent of the best agricultural land in the country. It was only in the last two years that Mugabe allowed his wife, Grace, to openly test the political waters, much to the consternation of ZANU-PF’s old guard. Mugabe had also started sidelining long-serving members of his Cabinet.

Last year, another Vice President and a veteran of the liberation struggle, Joice Mujuru, was dismissed from the Cabinet. Some of them had ambitions of their own to succeed Mugabe.

One reason why Mugabe could continue so long at the helm of affairs was the intense infighting in the ruling party to succeed him. Now, with the ruling party, with a little bit of help from the army, finding a candidate to fill the huge void left by Mugabe, Zimbabwe can hopefully enter a period of political and economic stability.

John Cherian

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