Free Press Journal

A popular coup in Zimbabwe


It is probably the god complex that makes dictators everywhere to try and prolong their lien in power beyond the sell-by date. For 37 years, Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, with an iron fist, refusing to go gracefully even when his own party wanted him to make way for a relatively younger leader. When the 93-year-old dictator sacked his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, in a bid to put his second wife, Grace, 52, the people rose. Seeing the popular anger, the Zimbabwean army stepped in. Mugabe and Grace were held captive at the presidential palace.

For a week, he refused to resign. Last Sunday when it looked he might offer his resignation in a televised address, he surprised everyone, committing to fight on. This led the ruling party, Zanu-PF, to initiate impeachment proceedings its founder and tallest leader who had waged a long and successful struggle for independence against the British. Expectedly, he won the first post-independence election in 1980 – and has ruled as an autocrat ever since. As in the case of most post-colonial leaders, over time he lost the sheen due to corruption and authoritarian rule. (An­y different from what happened to the Congress leaders in post-Independence India?) As the economic conditions worsened, the leaders and their vast entourage got enormously wealthy. The per capita income of Zimbabwe was half of what it was when Mugabe first became the president. Hyper-inflation has made life a daily struggle for a nation of 16 million.

Young people are sneaking into neighbouring countries in search of jobs. Agriculture and industry is limping while foreigners, especially the Chinese exploit its natural wealth in collusion with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.  Grace, the ambitious and much younger wife of Mugabe, his typist, when his first wife was dying from cancer, proved his Achilles’ heel. He wanted to put her in the presidential gaddi, and with that aim in view, a few days ago he sacked Mnangagwa, his deputy and widely believed to be the designated successor. Fearing for his life, Mnangagwa escaped to South Africa. This triggered a chain of events leading to Mugabe’s resignation on Tuesday. It is a classic case of dictators clinging to power against all odds in the hope that somehow, the people arrayed against them would capitulate.

But this was probably a rare intervention by the military in a notionally democratic country to remove a democratically elected leader, at least in form, when the ordinary people danced with joy on the streets, egging the generals to evict the unpopular and corrupt president from his gilded perch. Grace, truly, brought nothing but disgrace to her 93-year-old husband. Mugabe blackened his long career of having freed his people from the colonial masters only to try and enslave them at the far end of his life for the sake of his cunning and ambitious spouse.

Without doubt, the joy of Zimbabweans is not so much at the elevation of Mnangagwa as it is at the departure of Mugabe. As a long-time number two, Mnangagawa was a party to the murderous campaign against a rival Ndebele tribe, resulting in the death of over ten thousand people over a decade. Nicknamed Scorpion, the new president is a former intelligence chief and in that capacity, had earned a reputation for cruelty and ruthless.

How he would usher in socio-economic change, remains in doubt.  Though he has made conciliatory noises on his return to Harare, there is bound to be a power struggle within Zanu-PF, unless Mnangagawa can show magnanimity and good sense to form an all-party government in order to steer the country out of the economic mess. Reports say that the military had intervened only after getting the nod from the Chinese, who are big investors in the country, also do not inspire confidence. The Chinese investments everywhere, as Pakistanis are now discovering at their cost, do not come without strings. In fact, instead of offering jobs to the locals, they import their own people even for unskilled jobs and insist on a hefty return on their investment. Mugabe may have gone, enjoying the spoils of corruption and loot in some safe haven for the few years he may still have, but Zimbabwe, once a beacon to the colonized nations in the region, is yet not out of the woods.