At 93, Mugabe should have called it a day but he simply won’t let go
President Robert Gabriel Mugabe will celebrate his 93rd birthday today and, as usual, it will be an extravagant bash belying the fact that Zimbabwe is in the throes of a collapsed economy and ossified leadership. The man will have ruled the southern Africa country for 37 uninterrupted years but even now, he insists that he is going nowhere any time soon.
In fact, his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front, has already declared him the presidential candidate for next year’s election, although for a long time now, he has been way past his sell-by date. But his thousands of supplicants, while munching through generous chunks of game meat and imbibing copious beer, will obviously disagree with that assessment.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise when his wife, Grace, says without any fear of contradiction that should her husband’s corpse run for the presidency, he would still win – so much do the people of Zimbabwe love their leader. She could be right, not because Zimbabweans are congenital idiots, not because they love Mugabe, but because most have never known any other ruler.
President Mugabe came to power in 1980 after a long struggle in jail and through bush war during which thousands died at the hands of Ian Smith’s army and mercenaries. For that reason alone, he is regarded as a great freedom fighter, although many now wonder whether he has not long outlived his usefulness. After all, 30 years under the thumb of the nonagenarian must be a real trial for the poor people of Zimbabwe.
The other reason the gutsy Mugabe will always feature prominently when the history of the continent is written is that he made part of that history with his brand of fiery nationalism. Few African leaders have had the pluck to thumb their noses at neocolonialists. His expropriation of white-owned farms still excites many pan-Africanists.
Never mind that by so doing he impoverished his country. Never mind that he became a pariah in the eyes of the West. There is no doubt that Mugabe remains a hero in many African countries, and a subject of envy among some of his peers who would like to do the same things but dare not because they are still under the thrall of their erstwhile masters.
But the reasons he is a hero to many are the same reasons he will always remain a villain to his foes even within the country – dedicated rape of Zimbabwe’s economy. While some of our founding fathers decided to go the capitalist way and others dabbled in varieties of socialism, Mugabe, despite the rhetoric, never embraced Marxism. In fact, he seems bereft of any ideology except, perhaps, his hatred of the white man and his black lackeys.
It is also telling that the redistribution of the seized white farms did not benefit the poor. In fact, the major beneficiaries were war veterans – those who fought in the bush – government functionaries and army brass. Many of them did not know the first thing about farming and the productivity of those farms fell dramatically.
The one problem with Mugabe is that he has never allowed anyone to threaten his hold on power. Any person who would try to raise his head was firmly put in this place, which was usually the political wilderness. It happened to Joshua Nkomo, a member of the Ndebele tribe who was Mugabe’s first Vice-President. One of the most infamous massacres of the Ndebele occurred in 1982 during which Mugabe’s army killed 20,000 civilians as a lesson to his rival. The Gukurahundi massacre should have been Mugabe’s Waterloo but wasn’t, a testament to Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe.
After that, it was the turn of another comrade turned foe, Edgar Tekere, who for a long time chafed under the mistreatment of Mugabe. In the end, they parted ways, and Tekere was to die a lonely forlorn figure. But perhaps the most troublesome opponent has been Morgan Tsvangirai, the man who beat Mugabe during the 2008 election, but then was sidelined in a power-sharing arrangement.
As for the likes of Joice Mujuru, the former Vice-President who was accused of using witchcraft to take power from Mugabe and hounded out of office, and Tendai Biti, the former Finance Minister who was similarly mistreated, they are really minor players, but things may soon change for even Grace knows her man will breathe his last someday.