Few tears may be shed for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who was effectively deposed by the military last week. While the armed forces insisted that they have not launched a coup, a threat of impeachment by the parliament has apparently forced his hand and a media outlet reported that the president has agreed to the terms of his resignation. However the situation develops, one thing seems certain: It is an ignominious end to the career of one of Africa’s greatest leaders — and one that is long overdue.
A Marxist revolutionary who helped found the Zimbabwe African National Unity in 1963, Mugabe was arrested and imprisoned for 10 years by the authorities in Rhodesia, the name of the country when it won independence from Britain and was run by former colonialists. Upon his release, Mugabe directed the guerrilla struggle against white rule from exile in Mozambique. The campaign produced a political agreement that would extend the vote to all citizens — effectively ending white rule — and change the country’s name to Zimbabwe. That fight and its success provided the foundation for Mugabe’s legacy and image as one of the lions of the black liberation movement and a historical figure in the fight against colonialism and imperialism.
In 1980, Mugabe was awarded for his efforts — and for preaching reconciliation — by being elected the first prime minister of the new country. After taking office, he shed the more extreme elements of his Marxist rhetoric and governed pragmatically. But as is so often the case, power proved seductive and Mugabe first amended the constitution to allow himself to stay in power, then pursued more aggressive and destructive methods to perpetuate his rule.
Violence was not unprecedented. In 1983, long-standing tribal rivalries spurred his government to accuse the country’s second-largest ethnic group, the Ndebele, with disloyalty and to launch a campaign to break them. Similar tactics were used against the opposition in the late 1990s as the public rejected some of Mugabe’s policies: The rejection of constitutional reform that would boost his power was especially infuriating to him. Mugabe responded by seizing land held by white settlers, claiming to distribute it to poor blacks who had fought in the liberation struggle. In reality, the land was given to his supporters or to buy off aggrieved groups who felt that they had not sufficiently benefited as Mugabe bestowed spoils on his backers.
That led to an economic collapse. The whites who lost their land were among Zimbabwe’s most efficient and productive farmers. The disgruntled veterans and cronies who were rewarded with those properties had no idea what they were doing. As a result, Zimbabwe lost both its most valuable exports along with critical sources of government revenue. Chronic shortages followed, with international lending institutions reluctant to help because of endemic corruption and Zimbabwe’s past failures.
The central bank printed money without heed to the consequences, producing hyperinflation estimated as high as 89.7 sextillion percent. The national economy has been reduced by 20 percent during his reign and unemployment has reached 90 percent of the working population. It is reckoned that as much as 25 percent of the country’s 17 million people are malnourished and lack food. Unable to feed themselves, 3 million to 5 million people are thought to have left Zimbabwe in recent years.
Economic mismanagement and chronic starvation did not spur the military to take action against Mugabe. What proved intolerable was the power grab by his wife, Grace. His former secretary, 41 years younger than her husband and whose sole apparent qualification for office is her marriage, got her husband to remove from office Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president who stood between Ms. Mugabe and the presidency. That outraged his supporters in the military, who were most concerned that they would lose privileges to which they had grown accustomed to a group of young politicians who surround the president’s wife.
Top-ranking military officials demanded Mnangagwa’s reinstatement. When that did not occur, the military placed Mugabe under house arrest. While all concerned insist that there has been no coup and that he remains in power, there are “negotiations” to determine the country’s future and by most accounts Mugabe will have little role in it — and his wife will have none. Although Mugabe was removed from office by the central committee of the ruling Zanu-PF party, he stunned the audience by not announcing his resignation in a nationally televised speech Sunday. The Central Committee then warned him that failure to relinquish office will trigger impeachment proceedings.
It is a sad ending for a career that began with such promise. Mugabe’s descent into autocracy, capriciousness, corruption and tyranny was not ordained, but it is all too common in Africa. The tragedy is that Zimbabwe had the means to avoid its implosion and collapse. Rather than demanding that Mugabe adhere to the rule of law, other parts of the power structure joined him in exploiting institutions of the state to their advantage. And neighbors and regional powers that could have made Mugabe pay for his rapaciousness, indulged him instead. Is it unlikely that those lessons have been learned.
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