The 93-year-old President who had outwitted so many opponents and conjured so many crises in the past has now lost military, party and popular support — By Mrinal Roy
There was exuberant joy in the streets of Harare, in Parliament and across Zimbabwe on Tuesday last at the news of the resignation of the country’s 93 year old President Robert Mugabe after 37 years of an iron rule. It was a momentous and special moment in the history of Zimbabwe. The man who had led Zimbabwe’s fight for independence in the 1970’s and had ruled Zimbabwe as from independence in 1980 had finally stepped down leaving the country in a terrible mess. It is the end of the road for him. There was spontaneous jubilation as tens of thousands of cheering Zimbabweans took to the streets to clamour their freedom from a regime and a political system which had brought tremendous hardships to the people.. Robert Mugabe is now history. Zimbabweans are hopeful and looking forward to a far better future.
This salubrious change was triggered by the army led by its chief, General Constantin Chiwenga who took power a week ago and put President Mugabe in house arrest. The army chief took pains to assure the people and the international community that the military has no intention of taking permanent control of government but simply wanted Mugabe to leave office to bring about a smooth change at the head the country. Despite the undemocratic rule and harshness of the Mugabe regime, the international community is averse to and prompt to condemn military action of any kind against those in power. However, the overall sentiment across the world has been largely positive. The army action set off a series of events which finally led to Mugabe’s resignation.
On Sunday last, the ruling ZANU-PF party voted to remove Robert Mugabe as President and head of the party and appointed Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice-president to succeed him. It is generally surmised that it is Mugabe’s decision to fire the latter two weeks ago which triggered the military takeover. Massive crowds marched in the streets of Harare, Bulawayo and other cities calling for Mugabe’s resignation and demanded that SADC and the African Union not interfere in the present crisis which will be resolved internally. Robert Mugabe who had outwitted so many opponents and conjured so many crises in the past had now lost military, party and popular support.
He was given until Monday noon to resign as President failing which impeachment proceedings in accordance with the Zimbabwean Constitution would be initiated against him. As he did not resign on Monday, the ZANU-PF opened debate in Parliament on Tuesday on an impeachment motion against Mugabe accusing him of various wrongdoings, of being the cause of Zimbabwe’s disastrous economic situation and of no longer having the physical capacity because of his advanced age, to run the government. Robert Mugabe’s decision to resign as President on Tuesday therefore brought tremendous relief and rejoicing in the country. It spared him the ignominy of a removal from office by impeachment. It above all ushered prospects of a new dawn for the people of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe’s rule especially after 2000 was a blemish on democracy in Africa. Despite the aura of bringing independence through armed struggle to the country he has been accused of being a dictator responsible for the economic mismanagement of the country, widespread corruption, racial discrimination, human rights abuses and the suppression of political opponents. His ouster from power is therefore a warning shot to the many rulers in Africa such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda or Uganda whose undemocratic rule is propped by the abolition of presidential term limits, repression against all forms of opposition and curbs on the democratic rights of the people.
Status quo or a new dawn?
Robert Mugabe will be replaced by the 75 year old ex-Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa who was one of his closest aides and is one of the most powerful officials within the ruling Zanu-PF party. He was also a leader in Zimbabwe’s fight for freedom. He has occupied several key cabinet posts in Mugabe’s government and been responsible for security and intelligence services in the Mugabe regime. He inter alia helped Mugabe retain power by brokering a power sharing agreement with the opposition after the widely contested general elections in 2008. He has also assured Mugabe’s re-election in the 2013 polls. He has repeatedly curbed Zimbabwe’s opposition under Mugabe’s rule. He is expected to be sworn in as President on Friday 24 November.
Will he bring about the much needed policy reforms to conjure Zimbabwe appalling social and economic situation and respond to the people’s clamour for true democracy in the country? Or is the intent simply to preserve and perpetuate a contested political system? This remains to be seen. Mugabe leaves a heavy legacy. Misguided policies have left the Zimbabwean economy in shambles. The economy has shrunk significantly since 2000. There is a 95% unemployment rate, which is the world largest and poverty is widespread. Political strife and repression are recurrent. Economic growth fell from 1.4 percent in 2015 to 0.7 percent in 2016.
Zimbabwe which has for long been one of the main exporters of food in Africa now suffers from food shortages to feed its own population. A collapsed currency and an outdated manufacturing sector requiring massive investments for equipment upgrades and operational efficiency showcase the appalling state of the economy as well as the challenges and uncertainties facing the country. It is a shame for those who have visited Zimbabwe, that a country with such immense potential has been despoiled by patent mismanagement and appalling governance. Real per capita incomes have fallen by 15 per cent since independence in 1980. Bold and innovative policies will be urgently required to reverse the trend and meet the hopes and aspirations of the people.
The legitimacy of free and fair elections
The resignation of Mugabe cannot be the finality of what is urgently required to pull Zimbabwe out of the doldrums and give substance to the legitimate hopes of a substantially better socio-economic and political order in the country. A mere change of President at the head of the State without fundamental democratic changes to reverse autocratic rule over the country is tantamount to perpetuating a decried political system. There is also an urgent need for economic reforms to comfort and support economic actors, boost growth and create employment to help improve the livelihoods of people and reduce endemic poverty. The country has immense human capital and good infrastructure. The post Mugabe era must above all herald a sea change in the prospects of the country.
A mere change of President without the legitimacy of free and fair elections cannot therefore be the way forward. In the light of the above, it is therefore essential that steps are taken for consultations with all political parties to prepare and organize general elections within a short timeline. The country must also have a unity of purpose regarding the democratic and socio-economic blueprint of the society Zimbabweans want to live in after decades of profound division. Power must therefore be returned to the people to enable them in the light of the fundamental reforms, altruism and policy framework proposed by different parties to make the democratic choice of who to trust and entrust with the future of the country. A new President and government must obtain legitimacy through free and fair elections.
In whatever country we live in, democracy is about standing up for absolute core values of freedom, equality, and inclusiveness. It is about ideals and an ethos of fairness and sharing. It is about putting service to the people and the country first. It is about upholding and demanding the highest standards of ethics and probity from the political class. Democracy can only be safeguarded if people from all walks of life are prepared to stand up and fight for it. Sitting on the fence can only help those who want to subvert and scuttle it. We owe it to freedom which was won with such difficulty by the freedom fighters of our respective countries to unwaveringly defend these fundamental anchors of democracy against thick and thin.
* Published in print edition on 24 November 2017