Those leaders who make dignified exit impossible make disgraceful exit inevitable. Or something to that end.
As of this writing it is unclear how president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe will effectively exit State House, where the military were confining him and his family this past week. (One can’t overstate the unforgiving irony of a leader who once considered himself invincible being detained in his own home of many decades — the presidential palace).
Whichever way things pan out, his exit will be a forced one, a less dignified affair (whether it is by a “party leadership vote” as he is reportedly insisting). That’s an absurd end for Zimbabwe’s independence hero.
Last Sunday, I noted in this column just how decadent Mr Mugabe’s presidency had become. Often the little things tell a lot about the vibrancy of an individual, of a government, of a country. The ridiculousness of Mr Mugabe’s actions suggested that the wheels were spinning off much faster — those wheels started coming off in 2000 after he lost a referendum on a new constitution to tighten his hold on power.
Here are the first few paragraphs from last week’s column: ‘Mugabe fires one of his two vice-presidents to pave way for the first lady to replace him in State House. Mugabe renames the international airport in his name. Mugabe arrests four for booing his wife. Mugabe charges a young American woman with “subverting the government and undermining the authority of — or insulting — the president” via Twitter. This 25-year-old woman could serve up to 20 years in jail…
‘From Reuters, we learned this: “The government has said from next year the veteran ruler’s Feb. 21 birthday will be known as Robert Mugabe National Youth Day, a public holiday.
‘“On Aug. 9 the cash-strapped government announced plans to build a $1 billion university named after Mugabe…”’
Mr Mugabe, at 93, is old and appears to have been overtaken by delusions of grandeur. Meanwhile he was sitting atop a political cauldron of two fiercely contending rival factions within his party and government. One, consisting of ambitious younger people, was led by his wife Grace; the other, equally ambitious and made up of independence war veterans, was led by recently fired VP Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Given the intense manoeuvrings to succeed him, Mr Mugabe either favoured his wife’s faction or simply failed to tame it. If he failed, it probably was due to old age and diminished energies or simply because of tender feelings toward his sweetheart.
Media reports from June this year indicate that his own head of intelligence warned him that the military would not only oppose his wife’s bid for the presidency of Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe, but that the brass actively supported Mr Mnangagwa for the same positions. So the power play in the recent firing of Mr Mnangagwa from the VP position was a serious miscalculation. Ms Mugabe’s power grab has resulted in a military power grab.
Mr Mugabe did not know how and when to leave his big boy office. Now he will not be leaving on his terms through a clean transition, leaving behind a thriving economy and a confident country.
But are the new key men — military chief Constantino Chiwenga and Mnangagwa — all that new? No one knows because of Mr Mugabe’s unfolding messy exit. Their track record, however, is not encouraging. Be it the Matabeleland Massacres (Gukurahundi), grand corruption, brutal suppression of the opposition, their names have variously been linked to these atrocities.
On the optimistic side, any change from Comrade Bob and the “criminals around him” (presumably this includes Madame Mugabe) is welcome.
On the pessimistic end of the stick, the military, having tasted political success, could become a key power broker. Not always a good idea.
And Mr Mugabe, despite the structural forces buffeting him, could still have made different choices to assure a more ennobling end for himself and outcome for Zimbabwe.
This particular buck stops with Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.