As I sat down to write this column, word came through that Robert Mugabe, the 93-year old leader of Zimbabwe had resigned after 37 years in power. Wild jubilation followed in the streets of Harare and Bulawayo. But does this really represent a new dawn for this Southern African country born out of the agony of a 15-year liberation war against racist white minority rule? The hatred of Mugabe has blinded many Zimbabweans and other analysts from recognising the danger of the military toppling an elected leader, no matter how flawed.
Experience from the rest of Africa should engender caution at the prospect of the military as democratic, anti-corruption messiahs. In Nigeria in 1993, one recalls former foreign minister, Bolaji Akinyemi, and human rights activist, Gani Fawehinmi, calling on then defence minister, General Sani Abacha, to seize power from a weak and illegitimate transitional government in the naïve and forlorn hope that he would somehow hand over power to the presumed winner of the June 1993 election – annulled by the military - Moshood Abiola. Abacha did eventually seize power and invited Abiola's allies such as Baba Gana Kingibe, Olu Onagoruwa, Lateef Jakande, and Ebenezer Babatope into his cabinet. He, however, subsequently kept power for himself, rid the cabinet of most of Abiola's allies, and jailed the businessman when he tried to claim his presidential mandate. As will surely occur in Zimbabwe, Abacha played on the opportunism and greed of the country's political class, using and then dispensing with them, after they had outlived their usefulness.
More recently, the political opposition and civil society activists in Egypt cheered on the military coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013, which toppled the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. El-Sisi subsequently imprisoned many of the same civil society dissidents, having swapped his military khaki for civilian robes following a sham election in May 2014. El-Sisi then transformed himself into a Pharaoh more tyrannical than the three-decade autocracy of Hosni Mubarak.
In the Zimabawe case, the military brass hats who have staged this coup are clearly defending their own narrow, sectional interests. This is not an effort to clear the Augean stables of the filth of a decadent regime; it is also not an attempt to take power from a corrupt autocrat in order to hand it back to the Zimbabwean masses. This is the same military that launched the scorched earth campaign of military terror that prevented opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, from taking power in the second round of presidential polls in 2008, after having defeated Mugabe in the first round. The Zimbabwean military, in fact, publicly stated that it would not allow someone like Tsvangirai without liberation struggle credentials to assume power. This is the same army that has been accused of stealing millions of dollars from illicit diamond-mining. This is the same military that has propped up Mugabe's autocracy while the country went from being the regional bread basket to being a basket case, with Zimbabweans a fifth poorer today than they were at independence.
The tragedy of this situation is that Mugabe was a genuine liberation hero who spent 10 years in jail (1964-1974) and led a successful guerrilla war that liberated his country from the clutches of a racist white minority government in Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes and his fellow British freebooters had stolen much of the country's most fertile land in decades of pillage, plunder, and dispossession of the black majority. In the first decade of his rule, Mugabe built one of the finest education systems on the continent, many of whose graduates continue to benefit South Africa in diverse sectors of the economy. He also improved on the colonial infrastructure that he had inherited. But in the end, Mugabe's forcible "land reforms" and seizing of white farms, effectively killed the golden goose that laid the eggs. His legacy is a bankrupt country with over 80% unemployment, a quarter of the population short of food, about 3 million out of 17 million people (nearly a quarter) having left the country, and an inflation rate that, at one point, reached 500 billion percent.
Despite depictions of Mugabe as an omnipotent dictator, this military coup suggests that the situation in Zimbabwe was always more nuanced. He lost a constitutional referendum in 2000 and the first round of presidential elections in 2008, when a more ruthless autocrat would have rigged both polls. Mugabe reportedly tried to leave power after losing the first round of presidential polls in 2008, but the army allegedly prevented him from resigning, insisting that they must all sink or swim together. Mugabe thus effectively became a hostage of the military, a Macbethian nonagenarian leader entrapped in a castle making sporadic visits to Singapore to seek medical treatment. It was in fact his own Lady Macbeth – in the form of Grace Mugabe – who goaded the leader into taking the fatal step of firing his deputy, resulting in his downfall.
Mugabe's reign was full of paradoxes: a British-baiting anti-imperialist, he was also an anglophile who was knighted, loved cricket, and revelled in British parliamentary traditions. A fire-breathing anti-American ended up dollarizing his economy and using the currency of the very imperial superpower that he had consistently castigated. A cunning political operator who was able to rule for nearly four decades made the most elementary political error in sacking a rival – Emmerson Mnagagwa – strongly backed by Zimabawe's securocrats.
The country's new leader, Mnangagwa – a long-term close ally of Mugabe - is clearly part of the same Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) system that has been part of the country's decline. Nicknamed "the Crocodile" for his patient ruthlessness, he was state security minister during massacres in Matabeleland of an estimated 20,000 minority Ndebele people between 1983 and 1984, conducted by the notorious Fifth Brigade. Mnagagwa was also reportedly a leading advocate of military repression after the first round of presidential polls in 2008. For Zimbabwe's soldiers, he represents the safest pair of hands after Mugabe. However, this 75-year old former vice-president can scarcely be a credible reformer, let alone an example of genuine generational change.
Mugabe was clearly part of Africa's club of "presidents-for-life". He had recently boasted that he would rule Zimbabwe "until God says come join the other angels." The Almighty, however, had other plans, and it is uncertain that Paradise will be Mugabe's final destination in the Hereafter. Zimbabwe's democracy will clearly not be entrenched through the barrel of a gun. It is Zimbabwe's citizens – not its army – that should decide who rules the country. Based on the history of Africa's putschist "men on horseback", this coup may come to represent a case of Mugabeism without Mugabe. "Mugabe is dead, long live Mugabe!"
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in Business Day (South Africa), on Monday, 27 November 2017.