Zimbabwe and the African Tragedy


There is a temptation to hail the outcome of the ‘military coup’ in Zimbabwe that eventually led to the ouster of President Robert Mugabe as a triumph of popular will. That would be a myopic reading of the situation. While the resignation came amid popular discontent fuelled largely by the military and a faction of his own political party, there is an inconvenient truth that we should not shy away from: In Africa, power still does not belong to the people!

Meanwhile, for the generation who know only Mugabe the dictator, it may be necessary to highlight the fact that he did not start that way. He was at some point in history, an African hero. At the risk of his life, Mugabe had led a bloody guerrilla war against the white colonial rulers of Rhodesia (as his country was then called) who jailed him for 10 years over a “subversive speech” he made in 1964. When he was released a decade later, Mugabe did not relent as he merely crossed into the neighbouring Mozambique to continue his struggle. With independence in 1980, he was elected the first prime minister and six years later, the president.

Mugabe’s first decade in office was marked by improvement in the lives of the Zimbabweans and he was well regarded across the world as a good leader of his people. But the moment Mugabe became consumed by an overriding ambition to stay in power in perpetuity, the problem started. He became intolerant and repressive while his land reform policy was marred in controversy.It didn’t take long before the economy collapsed and with it the value of the national currency. Corruption became endemic and by the time he left office on Tuesday, more than 80 percent of his country’s young population were unemployed.

However, the genesis of the crisis of Zimbabwe can be traced to 1979 when the Lancaster House Accords agreed to an equitable compensation in the distribution of farmlands in the country that were held by the British.Even when there were justifications for the policy, the British government refused to fulfil its part of the bargain and acting in collaboration with other western powers, used the issue to bring down the economy of Zimbabwe and ultimately, Mugabe.

I recall that a few days before the March 2002 election, the then Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Francis Sengwe (a friend of our own ‘Comrade’ Kayode Komolafe) visited THISDAY and he explained how the land issue touches on the pride and sovereignty of his country. “There are a few white people who individually own plots of farmland as big as the size of Imo and Abia states combined. Where is the justice and equity in that? Our parents suffered in the hands of these people. My parents worked in a tobacco farm owned by a white man and we had nothing; in our own country. President Mugabe is only trying to correct some of these imbalances and the British would not allow him to have any peace.”

What the foregoing suggests is that amid the global euphoria that has greeted the ouster of Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe, it is important to remember the hypocrisy of the British government on the land issue. At the end of the day, whatever may be the other sins of Mugabe, it was the mismanaged land reform, not the fact that he stayed too long in power or that he was a dictator that accounted for the challenge of his last two decades in office fuelled largely from Britain. That of course does not excuse the fact that he overstayed his welcome and became a nuisance.

As it would happen, the more the international pressure visited on Mugabe on account of the land issue, the more he became desperate about regime protection at the expense of the welfare of his country of 16 million people. Yet throughout, he was enabled by a class of other leaders especially those regarded as war veterans, who believe it is their birthright to rule Zimbabwe because they fought for independence.

To understand this power game better, we may have to go back to recent elections when a very unpopular Mugabe faced the greatest challenges of his leadership. For instance, before the 2002 general elections, all the senior military commanders in the country declared they would serve under no president except Mugabe. In turn, Mugabe signed into law an Electoral Act which gave the armed forces a legal role in national elections for the first time in Zimbabwe’s history. Section 17 of the controversial legislation allowed the heads of the “service commissions”(defined in the Act as the army, air force, police and prison service) to second personnel to serve as “constituency election officers, deputy constituency elections officers, assistant constituency elections officers and polling officers”.

Six years later, the opposition was far stronger against Mugabe. Following a presidential election held on 29 March 2008 believed to have been won by Mr Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), it took more than a month for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to announce that while Tsvangirai may have secured 47.9% of the votes against Mugabe’s 43.2%, there was no outright winner hence a run-off was needed. But shortly before that poll, slated for 27 June, Mugabe vowed that he would never accept ‘traitors’ taking over power in Zimbabwe. “It shall never happen … as long as I am alive and those who fought for the country are alive; we are prepared to fight for our country and to go to war for it.”

In pursuit of that agenda, military commanders and Mugabe’s hirelings went on the offensive against opposition politicians and due to the violence, Tsvangirai announced on 22 June 2008 that he was withdrawing from the run-off because, as he said, the lives of his supporters were in danger. The election went ahead as scheduled and even though Mugabe’s (Zanu-PF) ruling party lost its majority in the House of Assembly for the first time (as the opposition won more seats) he still went on to secure 85.5 percent of the total votes cast to continue in office.

In all the foregoing perversions of democratic will, Mugabe always had behind him the military commanders who treated him like a god. The real challenge for Mugabe, however, came when it recently became obvious that his young and ambitious wife, Grace, was remote-controlling him in a not-so-subtle bid to move from ‘The Other Room’ to the presidency of Zimbabwe. Following the removal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, army commander Constantino Chiwenga had warned that the military would act if purges against former war liberation fighters did not cease. But Mugabe was too drunk in love to listen and he paid the ultimate political price for that.

In the tragedy of Zimbabwe was an arrogance that bordered on entitlement, almost as if the country belongs to a few men on account that they fought for independence. It was that same entitlement that fed into the coup that eventually ousted Mugabe. If ‘The Crocodile’ had not been sacked and there were no surreptitious moves by Mugabe to make his wife succeed him, there would have been no coup. At the end, the military commanders and their political collaborators, led by the man who has now inherited power, merely used the people to achieve a predetermined end.

Now that he has, by a sleight of hand, become the main man in Zimbabwe, I believe it will serveMnangagwa well to lead the cult of personalities within the ZANU-PF to outgrow their sense of entitlement.The immediate challenge facing Zimbabwe today is that of ensuring good governance, providing jobs for the restless young citizens, deepening democracy and fostering national unity.

I wish ‘The Crocodile’ the best of luck as he assumes the mantle of leadership in Zimbabwe.

The Book of Jonathan

A day to the public presentation of my book, “Against The Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria” in April this year, I got a call from the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Anyim Pius Anyim, who said someone had given him a copy and that he had read it. After the usual pleasantries, he asked, “but why did oga (President Jonathan) say that about Stella (Oduah)?”

Since I didn’t know how to respond to such question, I simply allowed Anyim to talk. He told me of how people within their circle were angry that Jonathan simply threw Oduah under the bus by using her removal as a justification for his fight against corruption.

Although I couldn’t understand the point Anyim was making considering that Oduah’s saga played out in the public glare and President Jonathan merely echoed an open secret, I can now see the bigger picture after readingBolaji Abdullahi’s very insightful book, “On a Platter of Gold: How Jonathan won and lost Nigeria”. In the book, Oduah gave a counter-narrative which presented the manner in which she left Jonathan’s cabinet as a product of negotiation between the two of them. Excerpts:

“Did Diezani ask you to sack me”, she asked the president.

“No, she did not”, a troubled Jonathan answered. “But I am confused. Tell me what I should do now.”

“Why don’t you just announce it, since we have got to this stage? But if I go now, you would not get the credit for it. May be you should just wait and announce it with the rest.”

By the account that followed, President Jonathan actually waited and added the name of Oduah among a list of other members of the federal executive council who were said to be leaving to seek other political offices. What makes Abdullahi’s book rather fascinating is that his former cabinet colleagues provided a lot of background information that enriched the narrative. But it is also a well-researched book with penetrating insights on the factors that combined both to throw up Jonathan from the obscurity of a teaching job to the pinnacle of power and to throw him down as the first incumbent president to be defeated in Nigeria.

Although Abdullahi was a minister under Jonathan for almost three years before he was removed on account of politics and he is currently the spokesman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), he has produced a most scholarly work. Reading the book, especially against the background of the ongoing political developments in Zimbabwe, one cannot but agree with Mr. Mo Ibrahim’s summation that “Africa’s history over the last 50 years has been blighted by two areas of weakness. These have been capacity – the ability to design and deliver policies; and accountability – how well a state answers to its people.”

That essentially is the thrust of the blurb to Abdullahi’s book by Wale Adebanwi, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University, who put the whole narrative in perspective. The “selective outrage regarding some fundamental crises which members of the elite used in propelling themselves to power”, according to Adebanwi, “emphasises how the various factions of the Nigerian political elite are gifted in the art of the capture and recapture of power but largely vacuous in the art of building and sustaining a good society”.

  • You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com where I have posted a March 2002 piece I wrote on Zimbabwe as well as other old columns.