When Robert Mugabe took his oath of office in 1980, he was a hero. Sounding poised and confident, he removed the gold-rimmed spectacles that had begun to slip awkwardly from his face, as if seeking to remove any impediment between himself and his duty. “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Zimbabwe,” he said. But he has not lived up to that promise and, 37 years later, his country is in military hands, standing on a precipice of uncertainty.
In the decade leading up to his oath on the podium, Mugabe had made a name for himself as a hero in the guerilla war against white minority rule. Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, had been ruled as a British colony for almost a century.
Mugabe swore to be faithful and bear true allegiance to the country he served. Yet, in 1987, he changed the constitution, making himself president. In 1980, he preached conciliation between the races. But then he encouraged the violent seizure of white-owned land. And he oversaw ruthless campaigns against his enemies, his country’s economy faltered, sham elections were held, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses perpetuated. He is no hero of democracy. He is a strongman.
But with Wednesday’s bloodless coup by the army, Zimbabwe risks jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. “We are only targeting criminals around him,” said a military official, in a televised broadcast, of Mugabe. “This is not a military takeover of government.” It was a spectacular act of doublespeak. By yesterday it was plain that Mugabe – who remained under house arrest – was the biggest criminal caught. Reports suggested Mugabe’s wife Grace had fled to Namibia, Dubai or Malaysia, though she was more likely still in Harare.
Mugabe’s tenure may have seen great harm done to his country. But his removal ushers in the potential for the revival of old conflicts. Does this mean that the international community must now – to borrow a phrase from Brother Valentino’s calypso Stay Up Zimbabwe – prepare for a bloody river? All will depend on the attitude of the army, the effectiveness of the intervention of a group of African leaders this week, and Mugabe himself.
It is hoped there will be a peaceful transition of power; that all parties will commit to a democratic solution, and that all legitimate legal processes involved be allowed to run their course.
The last thing the people of Zimbabwe need is a deterioration into political instability. They have already suffered much socially and economically. Zimbabwe is rich in resources such as gold, diamonds and platinum. Yet, the economy is hindered by runaway inflation, corruption, and a poor fiscal and regulatory framework.
Mugabe’s age is not the issue (he is 93 but had promised to rule until 100). He must realise the world has changed since the 1970s. Yet, he appears to have retained the same modus operandi. He presided during the violent hounding of opposition politician Morgan Tsvangirai, who in 2008 pulled out of presidential elections which were deemed rigged.
But it is Mugabe’s desire to install his wife Grace as his successor that appears to have been his undoing. A few days ago he dismissed vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa in a move that was believed to have been meant to clear the path to power for Grace. It was all a repeat of the axing of Joice Mujuru in 2014.
With the army in charge, however, Mugabe’s hold on power is now at an end. He must resign and a peaceful transition of power must be brokered, involving free and fair democratic elections. Zimbabwe must not be allowed to descend into chaos. It must stay up but under new leadership.