Whatever spin the Zimbabwean Army puts on the situation for the benefit of the world’s media, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion that Robert Mugabe being placed under house arrest by the military is a sure-fire sign that the longest-running elected dictatorship in Africa is effectively over. Unlike Fidel Castro, the President of Zimbabwe wasn’t prepared to retire once he reached an advanced age, despite being 93; it seemed the only way he was ever going to leave the Presidential palace was in a box. Now it appears his army has beaten the Grim Reaper to it. Officially, actions that look like a coup in all-but name are being described as a move to protect the President from a coterie of ‘criminals’ surrounding him; these allegedly include Mrs Mugabe, who was suspected of manoeuvring her way to becoming her husband’s successor, especially after his long-term ally, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa was recently sacked.
Like Mugabe, Mnangagwa is a veteran of Zimbabwe’s brutal and bloody war of independence that essentially spanned the last fifteen years of the county’s previous incarnation as Rhodesia. Therefore, the military hold him in high esteem, for the generation that led the armed struggle against white minority rule – despite the fact the struggle ended almost 40 years ago – is still revered, and its veterans viewed as the founding fathers of the nation. In part, this is why Mugabe has been allowed to maintain his grip on power for so long and why Mnangagwa is regarded as the ideal successor, despite his role in the slaughter of thousands of opponents in the early 80s during his tenure as Security Minister. They can be forgiven for almost anything, with the exception of grooming an ambitious First Lady too young to have participated in the war to take over.
The lowering of the Union Jack in Zimbabwe in 1980 belatedly brought the curtain down on European colonialism in Africa, though it would have happened far sooner if Rhodesian PM Ian Smith hadn’t declared UDI in 1965. Harold Wilson had been pressing for Smith to end white minority rule at a time when an economically perilous Britain was seeking to cut costs by severing the remaining ties with Empire, pulling out of Aden and only hanging onto Hong Kong until the 99-year lease was up. Smith saw neighbouring South Africa as the preferable role model for Rhodesia and his blinkered intransigence engineered a climate that ultimately claimed thousands of lives, often in unimaginably savage and barbaric ways. However, the tendency of native rebel groups in Africa to turn to a Marxist blueprint as an alternative to imperialism inspired panic when the Cold War was still in full swing, so even international sanctions against Rhodesia weren’t as severe as they could have been when Soviet influence in former colonies remained a potent source of concern for European powers.
Ian Smith shocked both supporters at home and opponents abroad when he proposed the implementation of transition to black majority rule in 1976, but perhaps he could finally sense the guerrilla war he had instigated was a lost cause after a decade of fighting it. What followed was a laborious process of diplomacy between London and Salisbury that climaxed with the Lancaster House talks in 1979, paving the way for Zimbabwean independence a year later. The wonderfully-named Canaan Banana was Zimbabwe’s first President, though his role was largely ceremonial; the real power rested with prominent guerrilla figurehead Robert Mugabe, now leader of the ZANU party, who was elected Prime Minister of the new independent nation. In the post-colonial climate, Mugabe was feted by the west and seen as symbolic of a new start for the continent; Stevie Wonder even applauded the birth of Zimbabwe in the lyrics of 1980’s ‘Master Blaster’, though there were a lot of scores to settle.
The African tribal issue, which has been compared to England’s class system or the old clan loyalties in pre-Culloden Scotland, didn’t disappear with independence; within two years of white minority rule ending, Mugabe suppressed ‘dissidents’ in the province of Matabeleland by sending in elite troops trained in North Korea; thousands of civilians were massacred in Mugabe’s name – estimates of deaths range from 3,750 to 80,000. The majority of those executed supported opposition party ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo. With his grip on power solidified, Mugabe’s second election victory in 1985 was followed two years later by a pattern familiar to many countries that have been ‘liberated’ from colonial rule: Mugabe altered the constitution and made himself President – effectively for life. Zimbabwe was now a one-party state.
Mugabe’s initial public call for racial reconciliation wasn’t helped by the understandable ‘white flight’ from Zimbabwe to Apartheid South Africa, though those that remained tentatively supported Mugabe until he decided to play the colonial card and demanded ‘decolonialisation’, a process that resulted in the disastrous seizure of white-owned farms at the turn of the millennium. The economy consequently went into freefall as generations of experienced farmers were displaced by Mugabe cronies who hadn’t a clue how to manage the rural economy. The consequences of this were disastrous for a country already being run down, stricken with the HIV epidemic and a pitifully low life-expectancy; hyperinflation followed, with the currency rendered virtually worthless. In the space of just fifteen years, Mugabe had enabled one of the most potentially powerful African nations to become a basket case.
Although opposition grew, Mugabe clung onto power through corruption and electoral fraud, constantly playing upon his war veteran credentials and deflecting international criticism by invoking the ‘sour grapes’ spirit of the country’s former colonial overlords. However, by 2008, international admiration for the great revolutionary had diminished and he was forced to share power with opponent Morgan Tsvangirai, despite the violence he had overseen against his opposite number’s supporters. This uneasy arrangement ended with the 2013 elections as Mugabe proved himself yet again to be a canny electioneer, retaining his office with a landslide.
Since then, however, his judgement and standing at home has come into question; the presence of his wife, regarded by many as the incumbent power behind the throne, has destabilised his support amongst the military, and this week’s actions appear to have finally called time on a reign that seemed destined to end in death. Whatever happens next, the legacy of Mugabe’s rule will take decades to repair, though the enforced installation of another ageing war veteran as President is perhaps not the best way to begin.
© The Editor