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The Rest

Nov 16, 2017

A brief history of Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s fallen dictator

The Zimbabwean coup was triggered by army commander General Constantine Chiwenga threatening on Monday to "step in" to calm recent political tensions.

Professor Damien Kingsbury

Crikey international affairs commentator

According to army spokesman Major General Sibusiso Moyo, the Zimbabwean army took over the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) early yesterday morning to read out a statement denying there had been a military coup. In classic military coup double-speak, what had happened was there had been a “bloodless peaceful transition” of power.

Moyo said that the military crack-down underway was targeting “criminals” around Mugabe. Moya added that “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy”. This, presumably, means that Mugabe will ‘resign’ as President and allow the army-friendly former Vice-President Mnangagwa to assume the presidency.

The coup was triggered by army commander General Constantine Chiwenga threatening on Monday to “step in” to calm political tensions over Mugabe last week sacking Mnangagwa. The ZANU-PF responded by accusing Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct”, which precipitated the coup.

If it is possible to set aside the irony, what has happened is that Zimbabwe’s army, which has increasingly directly controlled the country’s politics over the past couple of decades, has decided that its geriatric 93-year-old President is no longer fit for office. This view was strengthened when Mugabe sacked his heir apparent, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, apparently in favour of his wife, Grace Mugabe.

Mnangagwa appears to have been instrumental in the coup. In a tweet under his name, the Vice-President said:

“Zimbabweans stay calm &remain tuned to national news.

“I’m back in the Country &will be quite busy over the next few days. My communication​ with you will now be via formal broadcasting channels so I’m unlikely to use the twitter handle. Thank you all for the support & solidarity”

Given the army now controls the “formal broadcasting channels”, it would appear that the Vice-President has the direct support of the army — if he’s not, in fact, its puppet.

In recent years, it has become apparent that Mugabe has not been the power that he once was. It has also been clear that he has been kept in his position by a clique of senior army officers, who have largely directed his actions.

As a personal observation, I was fortunate enough to see Robert Mugabe speak to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1983, just three short years after Zimbabwe achieved independence. Mugabe was then at the peak of his powers: charismatic, almost mesmerising, still exuding the idealism that led to the end of colonial rule. If I was to become disillusioned, that was naught compared with the subsequent experiences of Zimbabwe’s citizens.

Ethno-political fighting broke out in 1982 between Mugabe’s nationalist Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), aligned with the Shona tribe, and Joshua Nkomo’s then more Soviet-leaning Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), aligned with the Ndebele tribe. 

Multi-ethnic post-colonial states have a strong tendency to build political loyalty around ethnicity rather than values, and to bestow favor through patron-client patronage. In simple terms, this leads to conflict between the ethnic “haves” and the ethnic “have nots”.  

After considerable blood-letting, described by the CIA at the time as a Shona ZANU attempt to “wipe out” the Ndebele ZAPU, the two leaders agreed to join together as the ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Mugabe would remain as President and Nkomo would be Vice-President in what was agreed would be a one party state. By this stage, whatever idealism that had been associated with Zimbabwe’s bid for independence was effectively gone.

Mugabe turned out to be just another African dictator, if perhaps starting from a higher rhetorical plane and thus having that much further to fall. When Nkomo died (of natural causes) in 1999, the Mugabe group’s power was complete.  

The overthrow of Robert Mugabe is far from his powerful, idealistic speech to the UN in 1983. But the only thing that has really changed is that the last semblance of a link between Zimbabwe’s aspirations for “liberation” at independence and the events of this week have finally dispelled the mythological chimera they had long since become.

*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics. He is currently writing a book for Routledge on politics in developing countries.   

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5 thoughts on “A brief history of Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s fallen dictator

  1. je ba

    If you are going the ethnic description route then please get it right. ZANU overwhelmingly Shona. ZAPU base was in Ndebele speaking country.

    1. kyle Hargraves

      Its not at all obvious, at least not to me, as to whom this observation might be directed. Nevertheless the author makes a sound point. Analytic biography and autobiography of the region from the 1840s to the 1950s discusses the tribalism is extensive detail and the subsequent effects that “tribalism” had on government administration of hospitals or any form of infrastructure extending to domestic service.

      Indeed the tribalism is responsible, in very large measure, for the economic inefficiencies that compromise every country in the continent (with minor exceptions such as Botswana – but to no great extent). The tribalism and the birth rates of circa 4.x% are destined to make the entire continent uninhabitable and hence ungovernable by the middle of the century.

      For those who don’t care for the conclusion I invite such people to compare any country in Africa (but it will be more instructive to select a country from Niger or Chad or Sudan or any country south of these countries) and compare the birth rate with a country in Europe that has an equivalent current population. Applying the compound interest formula (from school) the net population may be easily determined for 2060 or whatever year for either country.
      [A good exercise for a 1st or 2nd yr Economics student]

      Speaking for myself I was “going” the “thumb-nail historical description route”

  2. Woopwoop

    An interesting but depressing read.
    Once again, Zimbabwe shows that a democracy can’t function without solid institutions and a widely shared belief in them.

  3. AR

    As W/W said, interesting but depressing reading.
    I’d lost hope for Zimbabwe decades ago so let us hope for some sort of dawn.

  4. kyle Hargraves

    For the purpose of keeping it, moderately, brief suffice to say that no one in the region considered rule under Mugabe to be in any way superior (by any criterion) than government under Ian Smith. The deficiency of the article by Professor Kingsbury resides not with the criticism of Mugabe (as somehow being the sole cause) but with the absence of reference to the sequence of events from c. 1960 to 1979; conditions that deliberately compromised the wellbeing of Rhodesia by successive British governments.

    Smith was the first (and one might say in hindsight the only) Rhodesian PM to be appointed after a parliamentary vote of no confidence in then PM Mr Field in March 1964. As an aside Smith was deputy to Field. From then on it was “up hill” for Smith’s government. The then British PM, Harold Wilson, did all he could to distabilise Smith and Rhodesia as a country. Smith was specifically excluded from the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in 1964 and subsequently. Then there were incessant trade sanctions imposed by Britain applying to everything from soap and razor blades to pharmaceuticals.

    The British High Commissioner to Rhodesia refused to meet Smith upon Smith’s appointment; by Parliament incidentally! I think that may have been a good time to expel the High Commissioner. Moreover, Smith declared his policies in full-page statements in newspapers and observed every policy. The observance of every stated policy is no longer observable within any country of the Commonwealth nowadays. Smith also made a point of declaring when he was leaving the country and when he was returning to Rhodesia. In terms of war service he was an accomplished fighter pilot for the RAF. Rhodesia, as country, snapped out of it in 1968 (changed flag etc.) but it was all a bit “too late”.

    Rhodesia obtained Responsible Government from Britain in 1923 and thereafter did have a literacy suffrage. However, the governments of Smith (and Field) were democracies (and hence the justification for the first sentence of the second paragraph). The pretense was over by 1987 when Smith ceased to be leader of the Opposition. Notwithstanding the meddling by Mugabe in the region in regard to other countries – a feature which contributed to the ten year period of inflation and subsequently, hyper inflation; another was the confiscation of private property from whites – and the visits by personages such as the Archbishop of Canterbury the country under Mugabe was never a “going concern” . As an aside, not at any time did a British government deem it necessary to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe for the abuses of Mugabe’s government that, inter alia, effected the hyper inflation.

    It’s a pity that Smith died a decade ago; he would, I think, liked to have seen this result – which won’t mean a lot to anyone under 50 years of age.

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