Not too long ago, now-93-year-old strongman Robert Mugabe thought he had finally conquered Zimbabwe.
He had stood up to his “imperialist” enemies, defied sanctions, scattered the opposition, and seemingly broken his country’s spirit to resist him. In triumph, he declared that only God could remove him from power.
He was right. As Oprah would say, God showed up, and showed out. But he didn’t come in his more familiar form of the old man with long hair, beard, flowing robes, and a stick. God came to Mugabe in the form of the army with tanks, and guns.
They put him under house arrest. Then the masses came out in their hundreds of thousands to demonstrate against him.
The central committee of his own party Zanu-PF, which he had privatised and from which he purged all pretenders to the throne so he could hand power to his nefarious wife Grace (DisGrace the First Shopper), voted to kick him out as its leader and sacked him from the party. In came Emmerson Mnangagwa as Zanu-PF leader, the man he had bundled out barely two weeks previously as vice president, a ruthless chap, but hero of the liberation struggle.By the time you read this, the parliamentary party that once did Mugabe’s every bidding might already have voted to impeach him.
The whole world has been transfixed by events in Zimbabwe, and now the debates rage about what Uncle Bob’s political demise portends for other members of the president-for-life club, including Uganda.
There are those who are positing that our own good Yoweri Museveni will go the same way. Others are saying, no. Unlike Mugabe, they argue, Museveni has disbanded all the old NRM and NRA historical figures, and removed all those with a historical claim to NRM leadership. That the successor of the NRA, the UPDF is a totally new army beholden to Museveni in ways that Zimbabwe’s wasn’t. There is no Gen. Constantino Chiwenga in the UPDF, no Mnangagwa in NRM (the last figure near that status being Amama Mbabazi who was hounded out in 2015). Actually, that view is correct.
Where it, and those who see Museveni ending like Mugabe, are wrong is that they both think that the “Harare Option” is the only way. No, there are possibly 10 different ways this can go down, including surprisingly even through an election.
Last year in The Gambia, despot Yahya Jammeh, who was also secure and had a feared presidential guard protecting him, lost an election to Adama Barrow. First, he conceded, then changed his mind and decided to cling to power. There were protests, then as his base deserted him, the regional bloc ECOWAS intervened and booted him out.
The late election theft, a rapid loss of support, and regional dynamics cost Jammeh.
In Tunisia and Egypt in the 2011 Arab Spring, the masses turned out in their millions. The Police hammered them but the ultimate power, the army, did nothing.
By doing nothing in both countries, the balance of power tilted against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. However, the Tunisian military left and stayed away. In Egypt, they eventually came back, hence setting off the series of events that brought Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.
In 2014, in Burkina Faso, youth took to the streets against Thomas Sankara-killer and strongman Blaise Compaore. The army didn’t stand aside, nor was it united against him as in Zimbabwe. It was divided. Then, in a powerful symbolism that added some dramatic fuel to the events, the women of Ouagadougou took to the streets with wooden cooking spoons!
Compaore suffered a cultural, as much as a political collapse. So it’s difficult to know how Museveni, who clearly is going nowhere soon, might retire to Nyabushozi – or how he will stay in power. However, Zimbabwe and all the cases above have one thing in common that analysts don’t focus on – the behaviour of the people. It seems that it’s not ultimately important what the army does, but rather what the people do.
In Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso, the people put their necks on the line first, then the armies responded. In Zimbabwe, the army took the initiative this time, and the people followed. If Mugabe’s support in Zanu-PF was still solid, and without the massive show of civilian support on the weekend, the Zimbabwe army, reluctant to declare its putsch a coup, would have been in crisis. What Museveni therefore should worry about is not the army. It’s the masses. Ultimately it is they whom the soldiers fear the most. Power is like a club. Once the patrons stop coming, the club will close. And the bouncers will go away, and leave the gate unguarded.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3