LONDON – Barely a week before Zimbabwe’s military ousted President Robert Mugabe in November 2017, its top commander visited Beijing. Exactly what he discussed with his People’s Liberation Army counterparts has never been disclosed. But the conclusion Gen. Constantino Chiwenga reached seemed clear — that the 93-year-old leader was losing his grip, and that the only way to save the broader regime was to get him out.
Now it has been the turn of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to be ousted by the military that had kept him in power for almost three decades. That followed a similar cycle of protest in Algeria earlier this year that also concluded with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s removal by an army he once led. Both countries are now entering a messy period of transition — but the lesson from similar events elsewhere would be that while the figure at the top might change, the military-dominated power structures beneath may prove much harder to shift from power.
The 2011 Arab Spring that toppled strongmen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen — and brought catastrophic war to Syria — largely bypassed Sudan and Algeria. But popular frustrations with the leadership in both countries have been simmering for years. Those earlier revolts demonstrated several possible outcomes — almost none particularly close to what the initial demonstrators hoped for. In Yemen and Libya, the removal of a dictator was followed by outright war and chaos — while Syria demonstrates just how much brutality and energy such regimes can exert to survive. In Egypt, a period of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood was followed by another military takeover.
The transition from one strongman to another suits not just those in charge but also the two nations that have since 2011 emerged as much more powerful supporters of autocratic systems — Russia and China. Events in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Syria in particular have shown both countries capable of subtly shaping events, even if they cannot outright control them.
Indeed, in some respects, perhaps amongst the most interesting lessons of these most recent coups is what they may tell us about future leadership change in Russia and China, the world’s two most powerful autocratic states.
Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin appears at any immediate risk — indeed, having eradicated rivals and pushed their personalities on their countries like no one since Mao or Stalin, they are arguably at the peak of their powers. But that, of course, could equally have once been said of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Sudan’s al-Bashir, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and a host of other ultimately deposed leaders. Xi and Putin are aged 65 and 66, respectively, a decade younger than al-Bashir, and almost a quarter of a century more youthful than Mugabe when he was forced from power. The lesson for both, however, is that age and opposition will catch up with them eventually.
Both Moscow and Beijing found the Arab Spring alarming, not least because of fears that Western-backed unrest might threaten them at home as well. Putin’s Syria intervention showed just how much effort Moscow was willing to make to shore up its allies and interests, demonstrated once again with more limited support in Venezuela. China, meanwhile, has continued to bolster its ties to often corrupt and autocratic regimes in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, including the provision of surveillance technology seen as an attempt to export the kind of authoritarianism increasingly seen in mainland China.
What events in Zimbabwe showed particularly graphically, however, was the limits of that support to any individual. While Putin’s support for Syria has been very much based around keeping Bashar Assad in power, the Chinese state appears to be signaling that it sees its relationships much more with institutions and systems than with individuals.
That’s somewhat ironic, given the increasing personalization of Xi’s rule in China. Still, the fall of al-Bashir has given even Chinese government newspapers the opportunity to publicly discuss the challenges of succession planning in an autocracy. A column in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper described the recent coups as symptomatic of the “collective dilemma” of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the column criticized Western efforts to export democracy, saying it had simply led to instability, conflict, communalism and secession. The writer in particular blamed the internationally backed breakaway of South Sudan, which took oil revenue from the government in Khartoum, for helping produce the current crisis. But it offered little in the way of alternative models to replace and refresh failing or simply aging leaders.
Part of managing that process, of course, may be simply offering a way out. While Mubarak, al-Bashir and others have often found themselves imprisoned, their eventual fate can be rather more comfortable. Mugabe, for example, has clearly maintained his expensive medical privileges — he is currently reported to be undergoing treatment in Singapore, something out of reach for almost all his compatriots.
One model might be that offered to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose departure from office and replacement with Putin were widely rumored to have come with safeguards for his personal welfare. While ousted leaders have often faced the loss of much of their wealth, they remain relatively comfortable.
Where this leaves wider populations with clear demands for change is a very different matter. Ousting an aging leader, with or without the support of the military, clearly acts as something of a safety valve. But if it is seen to have changed nothing at all, it may simply be storing up trouble for the future.
Reuters columnist Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.