By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On November 15th Former Zimbabwe Minister of Education, Sport and Culture David Coltart tweeted, “Right off to bed for the first time since 1980 without Robert Mugabe at the helm of my beloved Zimbabwe.” On November 14th army units began to move to take control of Harare and place long-time leader Robert Mugabe under arrest. Amnesty International has released a statement: “At this tense time, it is essential that the military ensure the safety and security of all people in Zimbabwe – regardless of their political allegiance – and refrain from any action that puts lives and human rights at risk.”
Army spokesperson Major General Sibusiso Moyo has stated they are only acting against “criminals” around Mugabe. “We are only targeting criminals around him [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice‚” Moyo said.
Many questions remain about what this crises will bring. The Guardian has postulated that the visit by the army chief to China last week may have something to do with the decision by the army to take charge. According to reports the head of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), General Constantine Guveya Chiwenga, said he was “willing to deepen exchanges and cooperation in all fields with China to promote the rapid development of bilateral state and military relations between the two countries”.
Now experts and commentators claim that 93-year-old Mugabe reached too far in firing vice-president Emerson Mnangagwa, “the Crocodile.” Born in 1942 his whole life symbolizes the journey of modern Zimbabwe. A member of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), he then joined Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). He was imprisoned during the campaign against white rule in Rhodesia and was at the Lancaster House Conference in January 1980. As Minister of State Security he is accused of being in charge at the time of the 5th brigade mass killings in Matabeland in the 1980s. Subsequently he served as Minister of Defense from 2009-2013 and in other positions. He is younger than Mugabe who was born in 1924. Mugabe was Prime Minister of the country in the 1980s and President since 1987.
Mugabe has deeply harmed Zimbabwe during his 37 years of near-dictatorial rule. With the veneer of democracy he kept winning elections. He also entered into negotiations with opposition leader and trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai that resulted in Tsvangirai becoming Prime Minister in 2009.
For decades Mugabe has run his country into the ground, suppressing civil liberties and harming the economy. According to CNN: “At the peak of the crisis, prices were doubling every 24 hours. Cato Institute economists estimate monthly inflation peaked at 7.9 billion percent in 2008.” Mugabe’s regime has also suppressed dissent for decades. When I was in southern Africa in 2006 we met many people who had left Zimbabwe to find work in Botswana, South Africa and Zambia. In the last decade and a half the numbers crossing every year to work in South Africa reach to the tens of thousands and there were thought to be more than a million living illegally in South Africa. Zimbabwe has continued to be haunted by the memories of the war against Ian Douglas Smith’s government. Veterans, some real and others less so, of the conflict demanded a role in government, land reforms and largesse. They continue to do so. Much like Cuba’s difficulties in escaping the allure of the myths of the 1960s, Zimbabwe cannot leave behind 1980. It has not transitioned fully to democracy the way South Africa and other countries have. Mugabe is not the world’s longest serving leader, Paul Biya in Cameroon and Teodoro Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea are. Mugabe is third. Like them, he clings to power based on his anti-colonial credentials and the era in African politics when big men, coups and dictatorial rule were normal.
For those who now worry about the “coup” against Mugabe, people need to remember that Mugabe has been carrying out a coup against democracy for decades. Zimbabwe was supposed to become a democracy, that was the promise of ending minority rule. Instead it became a disaster. Unfortunately because of the “non-aligned” and “global south” movements that Mugabe was connected to, his abuses were excused. But like his contemporaries such as Qadafi in Libya, his time inevitably must come to an end. He is a symbol of the failure of the 20th century to bring freedom and democracy to many countries that were trying to escape the shackles of colonialism. Unfortunately those countries moved from one kind of minority rule to another, one kind of dictatorship to another kind of one party rule. None of them are better off for it. That doesn’t mean the army or other Mugabe cohorts offer promise. They may offer chaos and instability. The West always like “stability” and for that they often tolerate and work with dictators. But stability is a form of a coup against the people when it means forsaking democracy and always putting off human rights.
When I stood at the Botswana-Zimbabwe border post in 2006, I thought about the tragedies unfolding across the road. The people we met that had fled we friendly and optimistic. They had suffered under a difficult economy and haphazard political rule. They wanted a better life for themselves and their kids. Their neighboring states had all experimented at bringing that better life with varying degrees of success. Zambia’s GDP per capita is $1,178 against $1,008 in Zimbabwe. In Mozambique it is only $382 while in South Africa it is $5,273 and in Botswana $6,788. Zimbabwe has a lot of potential in terms of mineral wealth, farms and high levels of literacy. But it still remains poor and suffering economically even as other countries have grown their economies since 2000.