How Zimbabwe Freed Itself of Robert Mugabe

By: 
Petina Gappah
Source: 
The New Yorker

Thirty-seven years after he brought independence to the last outpost of the British Empire in Africa, Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is no more. Mugabe’s resignation, announced in Harare on Tuesday, ushers in a new era for his country, and his continent. At ninety-three, Mugabe was the last of Africa’s generation of modern founding Presidents. His resignation came after a tumultuous eight days in which the Zimbabwean Army intervened in the political process for the first time in the country’s history, thousands of Zimbabweans marched and danced in delirium in the streets, and Mugabe addressed the nation to resign, only to pull back in a final act of spectacular brinkmanship, before resigning when Parliament threatened him with the ignominy of impeachment.

For the many Zimbabweans under the age of thirty-seven, the end of the brutal Mugabe era is a vista-shifting, imagination-opening opportunity. More cautious voices from civil society and opposition parties caution against both euphoria and complacency: Mugabe, they warn, may be gone, but his ZANU-P.F. party, so closely associated with both his failures and cruel excesses, remains in power.

Zimbabweans will forever associate the Mugabe years with the authoritarian repression that saw those who threatened the President’s power either killed, jailed and beaten, intimidated with treason charges that carried the death penalty, or, if they were fortunate, silenced and co-opted through patronage. His final years have all but obliterated the glorious promise of the period soon after Zimbabwe gained independence, in 1980. A vibrant economy collapsed, as his obsession with threats to his rule from within his own party paralyzed government. Rising levels of poverty went hand in hand with corruption and cronyism, meaning that, just as in the classic abuser-victim cycle, the same government that had destroyed livelihoods masqueraded as the benevolent provider of everything from food to tractors, and in return demanded that the recipients give the President their votes.

Among Mugabe’s most effective instruments, and one that he deployed frequently, was his extraordinary voice. It may seem odd to outsiders, but Mugabe’s speeches were one of the ways he held sway over his country. They contained sweeping phrases invoking Zimbabwe’s fifteen-year liberation struggle against the Rhodesian settler regime of Ian Smith. He employed rhetorical devices that made his words weapons: the amplification and over-enunciation; the deliberate, timed pauses between words; the elongation of the second syllables of certain words, such as “among,” ”indeed,” “comported”; and the evocation of emotion through lilting inflection at unexpected moments. His is the most recognizable voice in Zimbabwe not only because he was the only leader that generations have known but also because he speaks like no one else.

In his thirty-seven years in power, Mugabe tyrannically centralized power around his person, both at the national level and at the level of his political party, to such a degree that he seemed invincible. With longevity came decrepitude. Since he won a controversial election in 2013, his government has been battling an economy that, unlike his party, was not willing to bend to his will. As Tendai Biti, a government critic and former finance minister, pithily retorted, you can rig elections but you can’t rig the economy.

In a final act of hubris that proved politically fatal, Mugabe seemed hell-bent on making his fifty-two-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe, his preferred successor, ahead of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his seventy-five-year-old long-standing and loyal ally, a veteran of the liberation struggle, and a popular succession candidate within ZANU-P.F. Grace Mugabe is a combative figure whose entry into politics, three years ago, will be studied by historians as the beginning of her husband’s downfall. Ambitious and polarizing, Grace Mugabe worked with a coterie of advisers referred to as the G40, a cabal made up almost entirely of men and women who did not fight in the war for independence. Grace Mugabe was at the center of the “King Lear”-like chain of events over the last two weeks that led to Mugabe’s fall. On November 4th, the President and First Lady spoke at a rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. In something of a Ceausescu moment, the First Lady was loudly booed by the crowd as she took the microphone, angering both her and the President. (The couple also spoke in Shona, Zimbabwe’s most widely spoken language, in a predominantly Ndebele-speaking city.) In his speech, Mugabe’s departed from his prepared text to address the booing, and threatened to fire Mnangagwa, whom he blamed for the crowd’s display of disrespect. The following day, Mugabe, egged on by his G40 advisers, fired Mnangagwa.

A week later, the commander of the Zimbabwean Army, Major General Constantino Chiwenga, issued a warning that the Army would intervene if needed for the stability of the country. Three days later, Zimbabweans awoke to an image they had only ever seen on television in other nations: an Army general in fatigues appeared, announcing that the military was acting to address “criminal elements” around the President, but that Mugabe was safe. He fooled no one. It was an all-out bid by the Army’s top leadership, war veterans, and the old guard of ZANU-P.F. for state power, meant to strengthen Mnangagwa. The idea of power passing from Mugabe to his wife and young advisers was inconceivable and unconscionable to the Party, the Army, and war veterans. Together, they acted to prevent it.

When Mugabe took to the airwaves to address the nation on Sunday, he was widely expected to resign. In a sign of how deeply Mugabe and his wife were loathed, people of different ethnic groups, races, ages, churches, and political parties united in street demonstrations of the kind not seen since celebratory rallies at independence. ZANU-P.F. had expelled Mugabe as the Party President. His Cabinet members had either abandoned him, were on the run, or were in hiding. At his private residence, a Catholic priest mediated frantic negotiations to guarantee his family’s safety. An unprecedented combination of military force, street protests, procedural ploys, and backroom maneuvering, it seemed, had finally pushed Mugabe out.

Yet, when he finally spoke, Mugabe’s speech was bizarre and disjointed. He declared that Zimbabweans were “generally peaceably disposed people . . . with a givenness to resolving our differences ourselves, and with a level of dignity, discipline, and restraint so rare to many other nations.” He announced an entrepreneurial and business-development program, and encouraged the nation to put “shoulder to the wheel” and prepare for the agricultural season. In a rambling conclusion, he promised he would preside over a meeting of the same ZANU-P.F. Party that had fired him that day. It became clear that this was not Mugabe’s last speech but, rather, his last stand.

The following day, deflated Zimbabweans traded rumors via text and WhatsApp messages: Mugabe was hanging on, he did not even know that he had been fired, he would serve out his full term. That afternoon, Parliament placed a motion to impeach him on the grounds that ranged from the comical to the serious: not only had he grown so infirm that he fell asleep at international meetings to the “horror, consternation, and shame of Zimbabweans,” he had also abetted corruption by his favored G40 ministers. Faced with the humiliation of his failures being dragged into the open in Parliament, Mugabe finally resigned.

On Friday, Mnangagwa will be sworn in as President. Continued street celebrations are expected, but uncertainty hangs over Zimbabwe. It is unclear if the country’s economy can recover from the endemic poverty brought on by years of international sanctions designed to isolate Zimbabwe and force Mugabe from power. It is also uncertain whether the military, the jack-in-the-box that pushed Mugabe out of office, will be content to return to its box. And it is not clear what kind of leader Mnangagwa will be. In his only statement since the crisis began, Zimbabwe’s next President said that rebuilding the nation to its “full glory is not a job for ZANU-P.F. alone.” Whether Mnangagwa plans to govern inclusively and break with the Mugabe past remains to be seen.

What is undeniable is the widespread joy among Zimbabweans at the fall of Mugabe. In the end, Zimbabwe’s founding father was a pathetic figure, hounded out of office by his party, his legacy in ruins, undone by vanity that blinded him from seeing that the nation he brought into being was, finally, bigger than he was.

Petina Gappah is an international lawyer and a writer from Zimbabwe. She is the author of a novel and two short-story collections, including “Rotten Row,” which will be published in the U.K. by Faber & Faber in November.

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