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Thwarted ambitions caused Zimbabwe’s fall from Grace

Saturday November 18 2017

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Zimbabwe’s democracy had become a charade.

It was the façade that hid the unjustified personality cult of a leader whose excessive permanence in power eroded institutions and people.

With, or without, his express consent (at 93 consent may not be so evident), Mugabe became a weapon for the swift, irrational and insensitive exploitation of a people.

This was seemingly, though not wholly, orchestrated by ungrateful, ungracious and aggressive Grace. Grace Mugabe’s outbursts, eccentric behaviour and aggressive attitude did not help her cause.

She mistook the signs of the times. She thought they loved her.

Zimbabwe’s history is unique in many ways. Their beautiful plains were inhabited by the San, later replaced by the present-day Shona. The Nguni people soon came to lands of gold ridges, as did the Ndebele people. Intermarriage between them led to the present day Ndau Ethnic group.

With the advent of colonisation, this land then became, like other African countries, an artificial creation of Western colonialism, which drew its present boundaries in disregard of existing demographic and cultural realities.

Cecil John Rhodes arrived in Kimberley, now the capital and largest city of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, in 1871 at the age of 18.

He made his successful mining career buying out the claims of other diamond prospectors in the region. 

In 1890, Rhodes sponsored a pioneer column, marking the beginning of an 80-year-long colonial rule that saw the gradual expansion of a white settler population, and the development of a modern economy based on mining, agriculture, and manufacturing that depended of African labour.

In 1965, Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared its independence from Britain, having failed to convince the colonial powers to do so voluntarily. The country was caught in the throes of an armed conflict that ended in 1980, when Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s rule was installed. 


African rule however, did not translate to peace. The Post-Independence era was followed by violent farm invasions and the mass exodus of skilled professionals.

The West responded with sanctions and isolation, while the East cashed in on it.

Mugabe’s first wife, Sarah (Sally) Mugabe, died in 1992. Four years later, the President married his secretary, Grace Ntombizodwa. As Robert Mugabe grew older, Grace gradually took central stage and her heavy-handedness made her husband’s comrades uneasy.

Grace may not have been experienced or clever enough to realise she had surrounded herself with a subservient ‘yes-ma’am’ crowd, who saw in her a passing cloud, the unlovable wife of a man they revered.

This is how unchecked power poisons good and bad leaders, like a slow venom that goes to the head and kills the conscience slowly and efficiently.

Zimbabwe’s woes are by no means over, for two reasons. First, the President’s de facto house arrest by the military has badly agitated Addis Ababa’s AU headquarters.


Second, the change may mean no change at all, or at least not for the better. As Walter Khobe put it to me, “the extent to which the Zimbabwe military has gone to insist its coup is not a coup reflects the impact of Article 23 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance that prohibits unconstitutional changes of government.”

What an ‘unconstitutional change of government’ actually means has been the biggest point of contention and the most difficult barrier in the negotiations to determine the crimes under the jurisdiction of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.

African presidents have become allergic to unconstitutional changes of government. They are usually called coup d’état, a French word that means “stroke or blow of state”, a sudden overthrowing of a government by a small group.

Everybody knows that so far, this is a soft coup. The AU will not take this lightly and sanctions will follow, unless Zimbabwe’s military extract a nod from a stubborn Mugabe. This is the ‘constitutional’ excuse the AU needs to justify the coup.

Karim Anjarwalla brought to my attention a very interesting fact. He quoted Winston Churchill, who said, “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

A change forced by the military raises many eyebrows. Why now? Why not before? Why in this way?

Is this change triggered by a desire for justice and for the common good or the dismissal of a hopeful successor?


This brings us to the second question. Will there be any change? Did Mugabe make any decision affecting the lives of the people or was it a decision that affected the life of Emmerson Mnangagwa and his succession plan?

Will this change of guard be a new dawn for Zimbabwe or more of the same?

The problem with undemocratic, unconstitutional change is that none of these questions can be answered with accuracy. The most we can do is to hope that things will change for the better, by chance.

Grace Mugabe has been distributing key positions to her Young Turks. Possibly, their idea was to loot the country more voraciously, faster and more effectively, or perhaps they wanted to curb inflation and redesign Zimbabwe’s worn-out economy. We will never know.

What seems certain, is that holding all variables constant, little change should be expected from the old guard. They have been part and parcel of Mugabe’s philosophy, style and decisions that have shaped the country for almost four decades.

Mugabe’s woes are the result of Zimbabwe’s institutional wearing-out. Its institutions are depleted and morally exhausted.

Grace underestimated the ambitions of those who knew Mugabe before she did. Her move may have blurred and thwarted the ambition of many veterans who were counting down Mugabe’s final days.


Like Zimbabwe, Kenya is at a crossroads. We should not underestimate political ambitions, the expectations people placed in the 2010 Constitution, and the example we have given to Africa and the world.

The Supreme Court will deliver its judgment on 20th November. It would not be appropriate to comment on a matter that may influence the court’s position, but we hope the integrity, independence and intelligence of our judges will prevail and strengthen our jurisprudence.

We hope the court’s decision also helps us rethink such a critical issue as this unending cycle of petitions.

The constitution did not foresee our current stalemate, or perhaps it did, and the assumption was that every new election would be better, but this does not seem to be the case.  

Whatever the case, we should look at Zimbabwe and learn from Grace, and not to be ungrateful for the graces we have received.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi