‘Calling time’ on Robert Mugabe

In a matter of days Zimbabwe has drifted from decades of stable government, albeit undergirded by de facto one-party rule and a President who, after thirty-seven years in office, appeared likely to govern the country for as long as he pleased, to a condition bearing a suspicious resemblance to a Kafkaesque farce. On Sunday Robert Mugabe, already removed as Leader of the all-powerful ruling party, ZANU-PF, appeared to thumb his nose at the opportunity afforded him by the party and the military to demit office with a modicum of dignity. This from a man who has effectively been removed  from power (if not, as yet, from office) placed under house arrest and effectively cast aside by the political party that has been in absolute political control of Zimbabwe in all of the years since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980.

What now remains is for the Zimbabwean Parliament to invoke Section 97 of the country’s Constitution that allows for the ignominy of his impeachment, a circumstance that will almost certainly result in him riding off into the sunset of Zimbabwean politics on a worn out and disgraced nag rather than on a sturdier political steed, his myriad shortcomings notwithstanding.

If Mugabe’s dramatic slide from power is being blamed largely on the ambitions of his controversial wife Grace and the so-called G-40 faction of ZANU-PF over which she had reportedly wielded influence, it is true, as well, that protracted de facto dictatorships like his, tend, frequently, to either unravel or implode with lightning speed. In those circumstances the holders of power are customarily afflicted by beliefs or impressions that are contradicted by reality so that their actions are governed by an altogether contrived perspective of the real world. By asserting on Sunday, whilst standing on the shakiest of political legs and having already been removed as its leader that he intends to preside at a Congress of ZANU-PF in December, Mugabe is demonstrating that he has become afflicted with that tenuous hold on reality.

Absolute rule as obtained in the case of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is also usually characterized by fault lines that are sometimes tolerated until frequently they arrive at a tipping point. In the instance of Mr Mugabe, the evidence from this distance suggests that the fault line (at least one of them) reposed in the ambitions of his wife Grace as reflected in what turned out to be a flawed decision to go against the party-determined succession plan by removing his Vice President from office. That apart, public response to the military intervention clearly suggests that much of Zimbabwe, including large numbers of supporters of ZANU-PF, had simply grown tired of Mugabe’s rule.

Setting aside the issues pertaining to his vast wealth, the lavish lifestyle of his wife and the reported outrageous opulence of his children,  there had been earlier signs that factions within the powerful ruling party had begun to raise the issue of a successor to the 93-year old Mugabe. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s long-time Vice President and a pick from the freedom fighter generation, was their choice. It would appear that ZANU-PF and the military acted together to forestall an attempt by Mugabe to tinker with ZANU-PF succession arrangements. It was this, it seems, that lent a legitimacy of sorts to his removal from power and the snuffing out of whatever political power base his wife appears to have had.

Ageing and/or deposed dictators are rarely if ever treated in the manner afforded Mugabe. The military, it seems, presumably with the acquiescence of ZANU-PF and both mindful of the aura that surrounds the surviving freedom fighters from Zimbabwe’s war of liberation, to which revered group Mugabe belongs, appear to have wanted to offer him an exit route from the presidency with his pride intact. His speech on Sunday suggests that he has opted for brinkmanship. On Sunday he threw a huge spanner in the works of what had been thought of as the best retirement plan he could have been afforded. Against what would have been the expectations of the entire country that he would offer the nation his resignation from the presidency without fuss or fanfare, he assumed what is perhaps best described as a delusional posture by declaring that he intends to be around for the party’s December Congress.

Saddled with a President who still holds office but who effectively has no power, Zimbabwe may yet face a period of political uncertainty that could degenerate into a measure of instability. There is a measure of truth to the view expressed in some quarters that what is playing out in the country at this time is a ZANU-PF crisis rather than a national crisis, though the argument can be made that the writ of the ruling party runs so large in the country that it is virtually impossible to make a distinction between a party crisis and a national crisis.

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