We’ve heard of sexually transmitted diseases. But sexually transmitted power? No! Yet that was the scenario the Zimbabwean military succeeded in preventing a week ago when it first placed Robert Mugabe, the country’s president for 37 years, under house arrest in order to prevent the ascension to power of Grace, wife of Mr. Mugabe. At first it all looked like the country had been plunged into yet another crisis following the economic and racial crises involving white farmers that had rocked it for many years. Who does not know that the whole world is now allergic to military takeover of power? The African Union has not been slow to condemn such 21st century aberration. And that is all the tyrants among the many senile leaders who lead most of the countries that make up the Union need to maintain their stranglehold on power.
But the AU, in fairness to it, has not been shy or lax in rising against anyone who tries to subvert the principles of democratic governance by overthrowing a legitimately elected leader or blocking such a leader’s access to power. Not even a long time crony and member of the AU is spared. How long ago was it that Yahyah Jammeh, the ex-Gambian dictator, found to his own cost that he could not muscle his way back to power after reneging on an earlier promise to handover power after his charms failed him and he lost the presidential election to an opposition figure? Jammeh suddenly changed tack and decided to hold on to power, perhaps out of fear for the atrocities he had committed as a brutal leader of his small island country. It took the threat of military intervention by the AU for the presidential scoundrel to relinquish power.
So, when the military intervened in the crisis that had pitched Mugabe and his wife against his long-time deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, leading to the sack of the latter, nobody knew how to react. While many thought Mugabe’s cup of iniquity was full to the brim and spilling over, not many could summon the courage to excuse his ouster via a coup even if bloodless. But the military was clever in explaining what it just did. It rejected any description of it as a coup even when it bore all the textbook marks of that frequently African phenomenon. The new leaders made no move to take what was right in their pocket. Nor did they engage in any ostentatious display of power beyond the strong presence of the military at strategic locations including the presidential seat of power where Mugabe had been confined. The stalemate that ensued gave the soldiers time to consolidate their hold on power while not taking any precipitate step towards a violent or expeditious ouster of Mugabe.
They attempted a negotiated exit for the fox and persisted in the charade meant to deaden his sense that he was no longer in charge. Some of the coup leaders posed for a photo-op with Mugabe and massaged his ego by allowing the senile leader the opportunity to attend a relatively insignificant graduation ceremony at which he presided with all pomp and circumstance, looking shrunken and occasionally dozing in his throne-like seat. By Saturday Zimbabweans were already coming out of the hole they had been plunged for the best part of Mugabe’s rule and taking a stand. At mass rallies across Harare they openly celebrated the military, jubilated and called for the resignation of the 93-year old. The so-called war veterans, Mugabe’s comrades-at-arms in the liberation struggles that brought Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, joined the fray and asked that Mugabe stand down. Things were now tilting towards forcing Mugabe out ‘democratically’. The ZANU-PF sacked him as their leader but Mugabe continues to dig in, refusing to resign.
With all of this playing out the book was effectively closed on the blighted career of one of Africa’s most brutal leaders. With this went the ambition of Grace, the presidential spouse that was notorious for her naked ambition to succeed a senile husband that was her senior by more than 40 years. Impeachment is the way out and it remains to be seen where this leaves Zimbabwe. Mugabe had had cause to quarrel with those he accused of ogling his wife’s backside. The woman herself had come across as bitchy. She openly throws tantrums and shouted at Zimbabweans, making clear she couldn’t be bothered about what they thought of her. An Imelda-Marcos character, Grace, a former typist nicknamed ‘Gucci’ for her flamboyant love of fashion, had risen rapidly through party ranks. All in a bid to prepare her to take control of power from a man that had vowed only God could remove him from the presidential palace. Either that or he would die in power, he vowed. When it looked like what no man could do nature by way of old age would, Mugabe decided on a more secular and practical measure- transfer power to his wife.
To do this, he stirred up a fight with his deputy who everyone expected to succeed him. He would have succeeded at his plan but for the intervention of the military. It was in these circumstances that ordinary Zimbabweans rejoiced and carried placards to express their outrage. One of the more unusual messages on the placards formed the title of today’s discussion. It poignantly registered the fall from grace of a man that started out a hero of the people. Mugabe at Zimbabwe’s independence was compared to Nelson Mandela. A former school teacher as were several of Africa’s independence leaders, he had fought for the independence of then Rhodesia from British control. One of the last of the brutal enforcers Mugabe confronted was Ian Smith. The world had applauded when Mugabe triumphed and Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. Fela sang of Rhodesia, Bob Marley welcomed Zimbabwe and Sonny Okosuns dedicated an album to the cause.
At independence Mugabe sustained the hope the world had in the newest entrant into the comity of nations. He formed a government of national unity, much like what Mandela would do nearly a decade and a half later. The country grew fast, food was available and Zimbabwe boasted and still boasts of one of the highest literacy levels in the world. But that peculiar disease of African leaders never to give up power soon plunged Zimbabwe into economic and political crises. Robert Mugabe transformed from a progressive and highly intelligent leader into a brutal suppressor of his people’s freedom. Even as he grew older and fell asleep on his feet, he showed no slight awareness of what Gerry Adams, who steps down next year after 34 years as leader of Sinn Feinn, has identified as a mark of true leadership: knowledge of when to quit.