How Zimbabwe rounded on Mugabe, Africa’s oldest dictator

Now that he’s been replaced with Mnangagwa, the big question is: will anything change?

Zimbabwe’s then president, Robert Mugabe, and his wife, Grace. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/File/AP Photo

Zimbabwe’s then president, Robert Mugabe, and his wife, Grace. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/File/AP Photo

 

It was not until the military openly supported nationwide anti-Mugabe street protests that Zimbabweans began to really believe their president’s final days in office had come.

For many citizens of the southern African country, November 18th was the first time in nearly four decades that they could publicly vent their considerable frustrations with Robert Mugabe without fear of violent reprisals from security forces.

The marches, which were organised by Zimbabwe’s military veterans’ association, came three days after the army had placed the then president and his unpopular wife, Grace, under house arrest, and taken control of strategic government buildings in the capital, Harare.

Up to that point, negotiations between the generals and the man who led the fight to free his country from colonial rule had yielded little progress towards securing the 93-year-old’s resignation.

However, the scenes on the streets of Harare that Saturday turned out to be unprecedented in both the manner in which they played out and their consequences.

Tens of thousands of people converged on the city centre to call for an end to Mugabe’s rule. Where once the security forces would have dealt mercilessly with these protesters, this time they marched side by side with them towards the veteran president’s private residence, where he was being held.

Although the crowed was turned back at the last minute, the message the army wanted to deliver to Mugabe was clear: stand down or we will let ordinary Zimbabweans decide your fate.

Less than four days later, on November 21st, facing impeachment by his former comrades in the ruling Zanu-PF party and with more protests in the pipeline, Mugabe reluctantly relinquished power.

Yet in the months leading up to the military takeover it seemed as if he and his allies – the Generation 40 faction in Zanu-PF that had coalesced around Grace Mugabe and her political ambitions – appeared to be in total control.

Mugabe had fired his wife’s main political rival, vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, and many of Mnangagwa’s supporters from government in October and early November. The man nicknamed “the Crocodile” due to his ruthless nature fled the country, citing fears for his safety.

Talking up Grace

Famously reticent about tackling the succession battle raging in Zanu-PF, Mugabe over the course of the year began to reveal his hand. In public addresses he began to laud his wife’s loyalty and capabilities, while at the same time undermining Mnangagwa’s.

Grace Mugabe was expected in December to fill Mnangagwa’s vacated deputy president role at party and governmental level, which would have positioned her perfectly to succeed him.

In the 37 years that had passed since he first came to power, Mugabe had only really come close to being ousted once: during the disputed 2008 presidential election. So what went wrong for Africa’s oldest dictator?

Almost certainly it was the prospect of a Mugabe family dynasty taking root that prompted his former comrades to act against him.

By choosing his wife as his heir over Mnangagwa, he had betrayed the revolutionary comrades who propelled him to power in 1980 and then helped him fortify his grip on it for decades.

Without one of their own at the helm of government, the military men would become vulnerable to prosecution for the widespread human rights abuses they committed at Mugabe’s behest.

This, more than the economic crisis that is gripping the country, encouraged the army generals to act against him.

Gen Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwe’s army chief, who initiated the military takeover, warned Mugabe as much in the days before the army’s intervention, which led to Mnangagwa’s rise to power.

“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” he said.

Mnangagwa’s first test

Now Zimbabwe’s new president has returned the favour. In December Mnangagwa filled his first cabinet with a number of the military men who removed Mugabe from power.

Although Zimbabweans are unsurprisingly basking in Mugabe’s unexpected demise, the question they need answered is: have they just swapped one dictator for another?

Zimbabweans will not have to wait long to get the answer to this, as Mnangagwa’s approach to a general election next year will reveal a lot.

The manner of Mugabe’s demise will have also been noted with interest by South Africa’s beleaguered president, Jacob Zuma, another unpopular leader who continues to outstay his welcome.

Although Zuma stepped down as leader of the ruling African National Congress during its elective conference in December, his term as the nation’s president does not end until 2019, and he seems intent on seeing it through.

Zuma is deeply disliked by much of South Africa’s electorate, who see him as corrupt. Consequently, if he is allowed to finish his second term, his presence could adversely affect the ANC’s general election chances in 2019.

As a result he too may be forced out of office in a bid by the ANC to win back the traditional voters who have abandoned the party because of the high levels of government corruption under his leadership.

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