Mugabe is out, but don't cheer because Zimbabwe's military is in

Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe

By Prof. Al Mariam

In December 2016, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) announced incumbent Robert Mugabe will be its sole presidential candidate in 2018. In February 2017, Mugabe’s wife Grace told supporters that if her nonagenarian husband “dies, we will field his corpse as a candidate.”  Mugabe chimed in declaring “there is no replacement, successor who is acceptable (to the people) as I am.” Last month, Mrs. Mugabe warned of a “coup plot.”

The best-laid plans of mice and (wo)men to continue Mugabe’s reign from the grave came to an abrupt end on November 15 when General S. B. Moyo declared Mugabe “and his family are safe and sound” and assured Zimbabweans there is no “military takeover of government,” only the “targeting criminals around (Mugabe) causing social and economic suffering in the country.” A day earlier, General Constantine Chiwenga defiantly warned the military “will not hesitate to step in to protect our revolution.”

Despite this apparently new interest in preserving democracy, for 37 years, the military was an indispensable part of a fossilized oligarchy which betrayed the “revolution” and bankrupted Zimbabwe.

Chiwenga acted because Grace-by-Mugabe-proxy was purging ZANU-PF leaders, particularly longtime vice president, liberation fighter and close Chiwenga ally Emmerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed the “Crocodile” because he is “power-hungry, corrupt and a master of repression.”

Chiwenga cynically invokes the specter of a betrayed “revolution” to legitimize the military’s intervention as a patriotic act in the imagination of Zimbabweans. But the fact remains Chiwenga saw a power vacuum in Grace Mugabe’s power play to replace her husband and filled it with his ally Mnangagwa.  

So, is Chiwenga’s soft coup d’etat, “bloodless correction” still a military takeover of government?

The African Union condemned “what seems like a coup” and “demanded an immediate return to constitutional order.”  Mugabe’s nemesis and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai condemned the coup as “unconstitutional,” hectoring  legitimate change can come only “by the ballot box.”

Mugabe, the world’s oldest leader, is Zimbabwe’s only president since that country gained its independence in 1980. He was dubbed “hero of African liberation” for his role in dismantling white minority rule when Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia.  

Mugabe’s tenure in office began with great promise. In his 1980 “Address to the Nation” as Prime Minister-elect, Mugabe declared:

Only a government that subjects itself to the rule of law has any moral right to demand of its citizens obedience to the rule of law. Our Constitution equally circumscribes the powers of the government by declaring certain civil rights and freedoms as fundamental. We intend to uphold these fundamental rights and freedoms to the full.

Yet Mugabe’s 37 year-rule was notorious for its flagrant disregard of the rule of law and constitutional governance. In its 2016 report, Human Rights Watch condemned "intensified repression” and “disregard for the country’s 2013 constitution.” The 2017 U.S. State Department Human Rights report lamented Mugabe’s persecution of “non-ZANU-PF parties and civil society activists for abduction, arrest, torture, abuse” and disregard for “the rule of law.”

Mugabe completely destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy inflicting great hardship on that nation of nearly 17 million people. In 2017, Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is 95 percent. In 2009, Zimbabwe had a hyperinflationrate of 231 million percent. In 37 years, Mugabe transformed Zimbabwe from a bread basket to a basket case with an estimated three million Zimbabweans exiled.

But is Zimbabwe jumping from the frying pan of civilian dictatorship to the open fire of military authoritarianism?

The Zimbabwean military has been an integral part of Mugabe’s kleptocracy and today, according to a Zimbabwe Institute paper, “virtually controls the major institutions of the state and formal policy making structures and processes of the country.” The military’s top leadership “have teamed up with politicians and businessmen to form political and economic interest groups venturing into lucrative business ventures, such as platinum and gold mining.”

The Zimbabwean generals are trying to convince the world that they have not staged a military takeover but seek to rid the government of corrupt criminals and restore constitutional governance. Their hidden agenda is to play kingmaker in a post-Mugabe civilian government.

In just a few days, Chiwenga and his co-conspirators managed to orchestrate a ZANU-PF party leadership call for Mugabe’s resignation. They trotted out Mugabe for first time since the “coup” for a graduation ceremony, only to display him “falling asleep in his chair as his eyes closed and his head lolled,” as Reuters reported. A convenient public relations coup for the military.

They swiftly moved to anoint Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor, arrange Mugabe’s expulsion from the party and set a short deadline for him to choose between a dignified resignation and the final coup de grâce.

Oblivious to the fait accompli, Mugabe emphatically announced he will preside at the upcoming party’s congress. The die is cast and apparently he will resign. General Chiwenga and his co-conspirators succeeded in replacing a 93-year old Tweedledee with a 75-year-old Tweedledum, without their fingerprints anywhere on the coup that is, supposedly, not a military takeover.

Zimbabwe’s generals are playing the familiar myth of a “democratic coup d’etat” in Africa. Over the past five decades, 79 out of the over 300 coup attempts in Africa have been "successful". But Africa’s military have proved to be “no better than civilians when it comes to running governments,” according to Major Jimmi Wangome of the Kenya Army. The military has instead plunged “the continent into further suffering and turmoil.”

Time will tell if Zimbabwe will be able to escape this burden of African history. Chiwenga and his co-conspirators are manifestly more concerned about preserving the special privileges of the liberation revolutionaries than the promises of the anti-colonial revolution. Mnangagwa’s anointing is proof positive that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Sadly, any post-Mugabe civilian government could only exist if it makes a Faustian bargain with the military.

Alemayehu (Al) Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, a constitutional lawyer and Senior Editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies.

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