Robert and Grace Mugabe in 2013. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user DandjkRoberts.
I have been following the news for half a century, ever since my fifth-grade teacher made the entire class subscribe to The New York Times. And there has never been a time in my memory when the news coming out of present-day Zimbabwe wasn’t either bad or worse.
The country’s sad history of colonialism, apartheid and autocratic repression goes back well before my memory, of course – all the way back to Cecil Rhodes, for whom the area was once named. Rhodes’ mining operation led to years of warfare, culminating in the United Kingdom’s annexation of the region in 1923. As with many struggles for self-determination in former colonial areas, the country’s civil war in the 1960s and ‘70s became a Cold War proxy. According to government statistics, more than 20,000 died, including more than 8,000 civilians.
White rule ended in 1980, more than a decade before similar progress occurred in nearby South Africa. But while democracy – imperfect and immature, granted, but genuine – took root in South Africa, it never had a chance in Zimbabwe.
The reasons are complex, but perhaps the most critical factor was leadership. South Africa had Nelson Mandela; Zimbabwe had no such inspirational figure. Instead, its people had Robert Mugabe, who in the decades since has become globally synonymous with misrule.
Despite a communist background, Mugabe at first sold himself as the more pro-Western and pro-democratic of two prospective leaders as Zimbabwe moved toward self-determination. But as early as 1982, he demonstrated that he was willing to take violent measures against his opposition; he accused his major rival of plotting a coup and launched a massacre in the Matabeleland region of his own nation, largely focused on the ethnic minority of which his rival was a part. By the late 1980s, Mugabe had consolidated his power and shepherded his country toward a de facto one-party political system.
Not only was Mugabe ruthless, he was notorious for corruption and social mismanagement. His “land reform” program seized about 4,500 commercial farms and handed them over to senior party officials, who did not know how to manage the operations, or to small-time producers without the resources to keep the farms thriving. The result is that, in a country once so food-rich it was called “Africa’s breadbasket,” today about a quarter of the population requires food aid to survive.
Over time, Mugabe became increasingly brazen about suppressing political dissent. Morgan Tsvangirai, a politician from a rival party, made significant progress in opposing Mugabe in the early 2000s, only to be thwarted by a campaign of voter intimidation, media censorship and fraud. Tsvangirai ran against Mugabe a second time in 2008, and almost certainly would have won a free election. Instead, Mugabe’s political party ran violent interference that left hundreds of Zimbabweans dead, jailed or missing.
Now, after 37 years in power, 93-year-old Mugabe was laying the groundwork to pass control to his much-younger wife and her offspring. Former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, formerly seen as the most likely candidate to succeed Mugabe, was removed from office in early November. Observers suggested this decision cleared the way for 52-year-old Grace Mugabe to take over as the heir apparent. It seemed Mugabe was moving toward establishing a family dynasty.
The nation’s military intervened. While the leaders nominally kept Mugabe in power, at least in the coup’s opening hours, it seems likely that he will be a figurehead at best – if he survives the transfer, physically and politically, at all. As of this writing, Mugabe was under house arrest in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Grace Mugabe’s whereabouts are unknown, though there has been speculation that she fled to Namibia. The military has, however, arrested several of her high-profile supporters within Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.
Mnangagwa has strong military support, so it is possible that this action may be a bid to put him back in line for the presidency. Regardless, the army has claimed that “this is not a military takeover of government.” Yet soldiers took control of the parliament buildings, state television, the Harare airport and Mugabe’s home. It is too early to say how events will continue to unfold.
Military coups are not, in the main, good things. In a real democracy, the armed forces are meant to serve society; coups often invert that arrangement. But sometimes there is no other practical choice, and the only sensible course is to hope for minimal bloodshed and prompt establishment of genuine freedom. Such an outcome is far from guaranteed in Zimbabwe. But for that nation’s unfortunate and long-suffering population, things could scarcely get worse. I’m ready to finally hear some good news from the place.