After 37 years of rule, Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest leader and one of Africa’s longest serving presidents, has finally lost power. In an unprecedented, unpredictable, and at times unbelievable series of events, the one-time liberation hero was deposed by the military and his recently sacked vice-president, with the people of Zimbabwe cheering and dancing in the streets.
Now that the party is over and the revelers have gone home, time has come for quiet reflection. Was this a victory for democracy? Or was it a military coup? What does the fall of Mugabe mean for Zimbabwe, and for other African countries?
Let’s be clear about one thing: this was a military coup. Call it a “soft coup,” if you like, but however many times the generals and the judges repeat that there were no violations of the constitution, it remains the case that by placing President Mugabe under house arrest and eventually forcing him to resign, the military deployed and acted without civilian authorization and oversight. Call it a “military-assisted transition,” expressing the hope that the soldiers merely put an end to Mugabe’s despotism and increasing irrationalism, but be aware that a dangerous precedent might be set by such a designation.
If unpopular leaders can be removed by the generals to only muted protests and even tacit approval by regional organizations and the international community, then the coup — however “soft” at first sight — might again become an established route to power. Given the frequency of military coups in Africa’s recent past, and the fact that in the 1970s more than half of all African countries were governed by military regimes, this point merits careful reflection, not blind celebration. President Museveni in Uganda, another aging and increasingly authoritarian leader, has already paid attention, announcing a pay increase for the military only days after Mugabe’s fall.
Is it possible that democracy nevertheless can result from the military’s intervention, that good things can follow from bad, and that Zimbabweans will finally enjoy the freedom and prosperity they crave and deserve? When the soldiers confined Mugabe and his wife to their luxurious home, Zimbabweans made common cause with the armed forces, demanding the president’s resignation. The military, for their part, happily let the people fill the streets, fully aware that such public display of anger against Mugabe and the status quo would legitimize their actions. For a brief moment, the interests of the generals and the protesters aligned.
It would be a grave mistake, however, to assume that they also shared the same democratic aspirations. As many close observers of Zimbabwe have commented, the fall of Mugabe was as much a fight for control of ZANU-PF as it was about democracy and the future of the country. The victory of Mr. Mnangagwa and the military was not primarily a victory for democracy, but a triumph of one faction of the ruling party over another. More specifically, it demonstrates the enduring power of the old guard against a younger generation of politicians with no experience in the nation’s war of liberation. Led by Mugabe’s deeply unpopular wife Grace, this younger faction of ZANU-PF was outmaneuvered by Mr. Mnangagwa — a.k.a. the Crocodile — and his military allies, thereby ensuring their continued position at the centre of power and wealth. Similar power struggles are ongoing in many other countries, including South Africa, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, and Togo.
Democracy rarely — if ever — comes from the top and even less so from the military. It is not bestowed upon the people by elites or generals. Instead, it results from political struggles by democrats. Zimbabwe’s new president is no democrat, and neither are his military allies.
As his nickname indicates, Mr. Mnangagwa is no softie either, but is instead known (and feared) as Mugabe’s enforcer, the previous head of the Central Intelligence Organization, or secret police, and for his alleged role in the 1983–84 massacres of the Ndebele in Matabeleland, a centre of political opposition to Mugabe’s regime. As many as 20,000 people were killed. Perhaps only someone as ruthless as a crocodile could outplay a “wily fox” like President Mugabe, which is why some think the almost unthinkable; that Mr. Mnangagwa might be even worse for freedom and human rights than his predecessor.
But let’s not be too pessimistic. After all, it is hard not to see the fall of an increasingly rambling 93-year-old autocrat as an opportunity for positive change. President Mnangagwa made promising overtures towards change and inclusion in his inaugural speech, and stressed the need to work together to overcome the enormity of the country’s economic challenges. Let “bygones be bygones,” he urged Zimbabweans, perhaps in recognition of his own implication in past abuses and atrocities. “The task before us is bigger than competing for political office,” he continued.
But elections are scheduled for June 2018, and from his long experience at the heart of Zimbabwean politics, the Crocodile knows a thing or two about winning elections and about oppressing and intimidating the opposition. In the short time between now and June, it might be difficult to put in place the conditions for a free and fair ballot. A transitional government incorporating various opposition leaders seems equally unlikely, and not necessarily a better option. It would also, in all likelihood, be met with international and regional condemnation.
In the moment of quiet reflection, the haunting question is whether Zimbabwe can avoid a Faustian bargain with a crocodile, where the momentary satisfaction of seeing Mugabe fall from grace is traded for a yet deeper entrenchment of the power of the old guard and their military allies. In the spirit of optimism, I prefer to hope that Zimbabwe’s citizens and opposition are unwilling to be robbed of their freedom once again, and that they will continue to push for democratic change. Perhaps then the new president and his military supporters will be forced to become the good democrats they claim to be.