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Wednesday 15 August 2018
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The Mugabe syndrome

Prof Ramesh Deosaran writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Syndrome. This is described as “a concurrent group of symptoms of a disease: a characteristic combination of emotions, behaviour, etc.” (Concise Oxford). What was 93-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s syndrome that led to his tragic downfall, having been the dominant ruler of Zimbabwe since1980. It was tragic after all the well-known good he did for decolonizing Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and with Bob Marley style, helping Africa to stand up for its rights.

This ambivalence was summarised by our own Emancipation Support Committee head, Khafra Kambon, who said last week: “Mugabe challenged those who oppressed Africa for centuries and who continue to oppress. His resignation if it had not been forced, I would have accepted because of his age at which there can be lapses in judgment. A forced resignation is tragic as it can tarnish his legacy.” (Newsday, Nov 23)

Exactly, but why did he wait? This is the argument in British doctor-politician David Owen’s book, In Sickness and in Power: leaders as they age in office for unduly long periods end up doing bizarre things, unconsciously falling victim to the addictive pathology of political power. People’s hunger for a hero helps contribute to the phenomenon. And democracy often suffers along the way.

It is fairly well established that leaders, especially aged ones, who insist on retaining power for unduly long periods eventually fall victim to “a concurrent group of symptoms, emotions and behaviours” that attract their tragic downfall. This syndrome is eloquently expressed this way: “Political power, the fumes of it invade the brain and make men giddy, proud and vain.”

No wonder some democracies, like the United States, have created two-term limits for their presidents. This political conditionality not merely gives somebody else “a chance,” but equally so, to save the power-addicted leader from himself or herself. Even his most loyal admirer should sensibly recognise that having battled Ian Smith’s white minority government during the 70s, robustly negotiated Zimbabwe’s independence in 1979, then for 37 long, tiring years, from Prime Minister to President, it was time overdue for the 93-year-old to go.

Especially with a dismally fractured, collapsed economy, runaway inflation and exchange rates, high unemployment and political oppression. Further oppression becomes the option for survival, tormented by growing factions and jealousies.

Mugabe recently faced stiff pressures to resign by the same army that once protected him, by the same war-time veterans who fought with him, by his former henchmen who killed for him. What went wrong? He inherited the addictive syndrome. That is the problem that often faces the charismatic leader: the one who led, was called upon to lead and who, as many years pass by with diminishing public support, is flattered into retaining power by the fawning clique stitched around him.

His noble task of political mobilisation was once necessary for stabilization. But without any acceptable successor, tightened dictatorship–benevolent or oppressive–emerged as disguised democracy, a puzzle in the psychology of politics. Among the specific symptoms of the “power addictive” syndrome are denial, delusion, seclusion, dependency, detachment, extreme suspiciousness, self-aggrandisement, obsession with loyalty, vulnerable to gossip and news-carriers.

While other leaders do possess one or more of these traits, they are more profound in formerly charismatic leaders whose time has run out. So it seemed with Mugabe. And to help poison the syndrome, he dared to promise the presidency to his attractive wife, Grace whose reputation was already under serious question. Reportedly encouraged by his wife were his expulsions of several popular officials, reaching to his former henchman, Emmerson Mnangagwa (“crocodile man”) who, to escape possible assassination, fled to nearby Mozambique, hoping to return in early triumph. As if the stage was already set for this, Mugabe under-rated Mnangagwa’s cultivated popularity with the army.

With Mnangagwa now as temporary president (until next year elections), the army pledged to do no harm to Mugabe. The crowded euphoria will soon be eroded by the fiery election campaign next year. Mutual hostilities have already begun between Mnangagwa’s party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangiral. The road ahead looks rough before the required recovery begins.


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