Big Saturday Read: the return of Robert Mugabe
As Zimbabweans and many others around the world waited for Robert Mugabe to announce his resignation on the evening of 19th November 2017, his press conference turned out to be one huge anti-climax. With a group of visibly uneasy generals by his side, Mugabe rambled on for a long time before announcing, “Asante Sana!” That’s Swahili for thank you. And that’s was it. Mugabe wasn’t going anywhere. There were many gasps around the world as Mugabe collected his papers, mumbling that it was a long speech before dragging himself out of the room.
What was that all about? It was the question on many people asked, albeit with no expectation of an immediate answer because nobody could offer one. Mugabe had lived to fight another day.
It seemed Mugabe was the only person who did not know what was going on around him. He was not moved by the extraordinary events and the weight of resentment throughout the country. Thousands of Zimbabweans had marched in the streets of Harare the previous day, calling for his departure. His party had convened a hastily arranged meeting where they fired him as the leader. They had also issued an ultimatum for him to resign by midday the following day or face a parliamentary motion of impeachment. He was surrounded by the military, reportedly under house arrest, after it had taken over government a few days earlier. In short, a coup was underway, but Mugabe chose to pretend that it was all normal.
Of course, he was conscious of what was going on. He knew that a coup was underway and he was the main target. But he thought he could buy his way out by feigning meekness and accommodation. He thought condonation of the drastic measures that the generals had taken would buy him a few more weeks. He had spoken about settling the issue at the ZANU PF Congress, which was due in a few weeks from that time. In his speech, he acknowledged military’s drastic action but he tried to play it down as if it meant little, saying they had acted in good faith. The generals could easily have taken the bait but if they had, they would surely have felt the full wrath of Mugabe afterwards. Instead, they pressed on. By 21 November, the pressure was so severe that Mugabe was forced to hand in his resignation. For a long time, he was a master of deception. He had tried to deceive the generals by appearing to be forgiving them. If they had relented at that stage, they would be singing the blues.
Only the most strident denialists would insist that there was no coup. It was a coup and you do not have to be sympathetic to Mugabe to acknowledge that fact. The generals knew they were carrying out a coup, hence the efforts to sanitize it and claim that it wasn’t a coup when no-one had made the allegation. Did it matter that it was a coup? Not to the thousands who marched on 18 November and those who supported them. Mugabe had to go, by any means necessary. They believed Mugabe had overstayed his welcome. They had tried many times to vote him out of power but they had been thwarted through multiple means, including force and election-rigging.
Even the opposition parties which normally called for the military not to intervene in political affairs welcomed the coup, which they politely referred to as a “military intervention”. There was some irony to it: it was the military that had kept Mugabe in power, and it was the military which was now removing him from power. No-one in the opposition had any tears for Mugabe or dared to challenge the illegality associated with his removal.
That is the context in which Mugabe left office. He walked away from the scene a deeply disappointed and bitter man. He was also probably in shock and frightened. After ruling with an iron fist and commanding what seemed to be unstinting loyalty among his subordinates, he never thought they could turn against him. He was so comfortable in his seat of power that he was probably the most travelled leader in the world, clocking thousands of air miles every month. It was not the behaviour of a man who feared a coup. He fought desperately for a week before he finally caved in as the pressure mounted.
At the time, I pointed out how Mugabe was a stubborn character who would fight to the very end. That he did, refusing to go even when it was clear that he days were numbered. He had lost command of the very pillar of power upon which he depended: the military. He now says he resigned in order to avoid bloodshed, following the advice of religious friends, probably the trusted Jesuit, Father Fidelis Mukonori, who has been a loyal pillar for many years. It suggests if he had been left to his devices, he was prepared to hang on and fight to the bitter end.
The burning ember
Exactly four months after military vehicles rolled into Harare to start the process that led to his ignominious departure, Mugabe was back in front of the cameras. It may have been a coincidence that his first public appearance since the coup came on 15 March, the equivalent of the Ides of March in ancient Rome. It was a day that the Romans set as a deadline for settling debts. Here, Mugabe, the old warrior appeared for the first time to call on his debts. In his mind, the new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa owes him his life. I worked tirelessly to save him from the gallows during our time in jail, he said. I brought him to the government. I nurtured him. But he betrayed me. This was the language of a man calling his debts.
Mugabe used his first public appearance to tell his own side of the story about the events that led to his departure. There is no ambiguity about his view of events. It was a coup de tat, he said emphatically, removing any doubt whatsoever as to his view of the events in November. The speech was a total contrast to his last statement when he tried to sanitize the military action in the hope of buying more time. Mnangagwa is the president because of the army, he said. “He could never have assumed the presidency without the army … it was truly a military takeover,” Mugabe added in the press conference.
There is much about Mugabe that is disagreeable and even deplorable but it is hard to fault his assessment of events. There is nothing to be gained from denying the obvious. It was a coup and the authors are aware that it was hence the desperate need to restore legitimacy through an early election. It would be interesting to get Mugabe's view of the court order which was issued by Justice George Chiweshe on the day of Mnangagwa's inauguration. It was a bizarre case in which the judge pronounced that the military was constitutional - itself another effort to sanitise the coup. Interestingly, the order was granted "by consent" and Mugabe was one of the cited respndents. Did he really consent to that court order? It would be good to hear Mugabe's view because that remains one of the strangest cases from the courts. If there was impropriety and misrepresentation, it must be exposed. If he did consent to the order them surely his case against the coup is much weaker than he says.
But of course, Mugabe is also a bitter man. He feels betrayed. Watching him speak, Mugabe is a man who is still to come to terms with the reality of what happened and the authors of this demise. This was an “Et Tu Brute” moment for Mugabe. When Julius Caesar saw that friend Brutus was among his assassins, he observed in dismay that one so close to him had been so treacherous. Here, listening to Mugabe talk about Mnangagwa, it could be summed up in a similar fashion, “Even you, Emmerson?”
It is painful for Mugabe to imagine that his protégé, the man who still calls him “Father” was among the authors of his downfall. Told by an interviewer that Mnangagwa still calls him father, Mugabe acknowledged but added that sometimes sons can disobey their father. Their relationship has been a complex affair. Mugabe is clearly a wounded man, and the wounds cut deep into the tender regions of the heart. He feels betrayed. For a long time, Mnangagwa had played the subservient role, doing all for his boss that Mugabe forgot that the same force that Mnangagwa used against opponents could be turned against him. He is now wallowing in self-pity, unable to accept that power has slipped away and will never return.
Mugabe forgets that he was also the author of his demise, that the action that precipitated his downfall was the sacking of Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa also felt betrayed. He must think about it many times and rue the fact that he acted with uncharacteristic haste, firing Mnangagwa when he could easily have waited a few more weeks for the Extraordinary Congress was almost due. He also committed the cardinal leadership sin – he hit the viper but left it to recover and respond. Mugabe should have known that Mnangagwa and Chiwenga were tight. It’s not surprising that the viper came back to bite him soon afterwards.
It’s obviously not the end that Mugabe had in mind when he sat at the apex of power for so long. He had always believed he would go on his own terms. He had managed to thwart all opposition voices, using brutal means more often than not. Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina and the 2008 presidential run-off election violence being the most prominent examples in a long list.
Mugabe complains that loyal arms of the security services such as intelligence and police were neutralized by the army. He complains that some of them were bashed while others are still missing. He forgets that there are many victims who lost their lives or had their homes and limbs broken during his lengthy rule. Just a week ago, the family and friends of Itai Dzamara, a democracy activist who was abducted and has never been seen since 2015 were remembering him on the day of his disappearance. Hundreds were killed in 2008 as Mugabe sought to claw back into contention after losing the first round of elections to Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe’s return is a reminder of one of the laws of power, as described by Robert Greene. “All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely. (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way) If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smoulders, a fire will eventually break out. More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation. The enemy will recover and will seek revenge. Crush him, not only in body but in spirit”. The authors of the coup faced a dilemma: they could have gone the full distance and crushed G40 completely, but then all pretence that it was not a coup would have been lost. They would have faced rejection from those they were trying to fool into believing that it wasn’t a coup. The other choice was to execute a half-baked coup – a coup in which they could pretend that it was not a coup and gain acceptance. The risk was that it would allow the enemy to escape and possibly return to haunt them. As it happened, the enemy was wounded but it has recovered and is now plotting revenge. They left a smouldering ember. But will it create a fire big enough to affect them? That remains to be seen, but this helps us to understand what is happening between Mugabe and his former lieutenant, Mnangagwa.
But what exactly does Mugabe want? What is the end game?
At 94, he could have accepted his fate to spend the rest of his life without much bother, perhaps writing his memoirs. After all, his successor had appeared to be magnanimous. Why is he risking his peace and comfort and even the security of his own family by challenging the new administration? Is it really a matter of principle – he’s talking a good game as if he is a democrat – or is it mere bitterness?
In an interview with ITV, he denied that he still wants to be president, arguing that he only wants his successor to be properly elected. He calls the coup a disgrace. Surprisingly, Mugabe wants to present himself as a democrat and constitutionalist. But looking at his career and the way he used and abused the law to his advantage, he is at best only interested in constitutional formalism rather than substantive constitutionalism. Throughout his career, he has been happy just to tick the boxes of formal compliance, without any commitment to substantive compliance. That’s why he believes he was perfectly elected as president in June 2008 even though the election was widely condemned and he was forced into a coalition arrangement. The fact that it was the military that ensured he retained power is lost on him. He condemns Mnangagwa for being assisted by the military to acquire power in 2017 but forgets that it was the same military which assisted him to retain power in 2008. It is arguable that without the military Mnangagwa would not be president today. But it is also arguable that without the military Mugabe would not have been president after March 2008. It is the case of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.
It is a pitiful sight for someone who had a distinguished early career as a liberator, but there are also signs of delusions of grandeur – a false sense of his own importance. Even though it looks utterly impossible, somehow, he thinks he still has an important role to play in Zimbabwean politics. He is refusing to believe and accept that his time is long gone. But he believes he is still relevant. “We must undo this disgrace which we have imposed on ourselves. We don’t deserve it,” he said. How can this be done? His sense of self-importance means he wants to be formally invited. “I don’t hate Emmerson. I brought him into government. I would want to work with him. But he must be proper. He is improper where he is! Illegal!” He says he is willing to discuss with Mnangagwa to undo the illegality. “I’m willing to discuss. I’m willing to assist in that process. But I must be invited, properly invited to that discussion”.
Despite the belligerent tone, Mugabe seems to be extending an olive branch to his successor because, in his mind, he still has the leverage to make or break the peace. He thinks Mnangagwa is desperate for the olive branch. He does not understand that while Mnangagwa understands the paucity of legitimacy in his administration, the cure for it lies in the next elections. In his mind, he does not need Mugabe in order to correct the illegitimacy. Mugabe is, therefore, overestimating his own importance in the process of undoing the illegalities of the coup. At least he acknowledges, in response to a question, that he may be ignored, in which he says he will wait for elections.
Besides, Mugabe’s intervention is too late. He is trying to close the stable doors when the horses have already bolted. Mnangagwa has already worked to gain the trust and support of key actors on the international platform. China, Russia, Britain, European Union, the African Union and SADC have all embraced him in various degrees, the illegalities of the coup notwithstanding. If Mugabe wanted to have a role in the process, he should have protested earlier, not four months after the event and just a few more months to the next elections.
In addition, Mugabe underestimates the revulsion with which he is held by many Zimbabweans. The interviews suggest that he remains utterly delusional about his following in the country. He has not quite grasped the depth of resentment which was on display on 18 November when thousands marched against him. He thinks they were just opposition supporters. He does not appreciate that his own people in ZANU PF were at the forefront of the uprising. The people around him should be honest and tell him that people are actually happy he is no longer in power and that all they want is for him to stay away.
Mugabe is also goading Mnangagwa into a fight in order to wreck his strategy to gain legitimacy. In his quest for legitimacy, Mnangagwa has been pushing a charm offensive in the West and among Zimbabweans. He has been magnanimous towards the opposition. He has appeared calm and in control of the situation and his own emotions. But the initial noises made by Mugabe in the last few weeks seem to have rattled Mnangagwa and his administration. There was some panic as shown by the sudden about-turn by state media which used to deify him and had treated him with respect since his sacking. There is a certain tone of vengefulness and pettiness that has appeared in their response to Mugabe’s challenge. This reflects some frustration by the administration over Mugabe’s reappearance but also some insecurities on their part. The latest response to Mugabe’s television appearance was, however, a lot calmer and more measured. Nevertheless, actions will be more telling than words.
The irony of all this, which is lost on Mugabe, is that if anyone had done what he did at the press conference during his reign, that person would probably have been arrested and accused of insulting the president or undermining his authority. So many people were arrested and detained for insulting Mugabe or undermining his authority merely because they challenged his rule. Dzamara was abducted during his reign merely because he called on him to resign on grounds that he had failed. Yet he had the temerity during the interviews to claim that Zimbabwe has always prided itself in being a democracy. He does not appreciate that for many people, it was nothing more than an authoritarian regime.
Mugabe’s first appearance may also be read as a public cry for attention. He feels isolated. After more than 50 years in the thick of politics and 37 years of them in the spotlight of power, it is lonely out there. It is not easy to start a new life at 93, readjusting to the routine of ordinary life. He probably finds himself bored to death outside the corridors of power. Now without power, he feels that he is being harassed and mistreated. Mugabe wants to reverse the narrative that Mnangagwa has given to the world, that he is well-looked after. When Mnangagwa made his maiden appearance as president at the AU Summit in January, he got loud applause when he announced that Mugabe was safe. For all his failings, Mugabe still commands respect among his former peers on the African stage. Mugabe wants their protection from Mnangagwa whom he feels is harassing his family and those around him.
In the interview with SABC, he shook his head several times as he complained bitterly over the arrest and alleged persecution of former allies. He complained about how the Mnangagwa administration is harassing his workers by asking them questions over the whereabouts of his allies who fled the country at the height of the coup. Again, the irony of the many Zimbabweans who faced such and worse treatment under his rule is also lost on him. “Where is our remorse? Where is our conscience?” an exasperated Mugabe asks rhetorically, oblivious to the fact that these are the very questions many Zimbabweans asked during his long rule. They never got answers. Even now, he is reluctant to show remorse for Gukurahundi.
There was, however, one part of the SABC interview which reminded discerning observers that in Mugabe and Mnangagwa, one is dealing with side A and side B of the same record, at least in relation to issues like Gukurahundi. Both men are in denial over the past. Mnangagwa refuses to deal with the Gukurahundi issue, insisting that bygones must be allowed to remain bygones. For his part, Mugabe went one step further and tried to justify the excesses in the 1980s. It is a hot potato for both men, one over which for all their current differences, they are united in denial. Back in the 1980s, Mugabe issued a certificate of immunity to Mnangagwa and the security services over prosecutions relating to the operations in Matebeleland. If Mugabe were ever dragged to court for Gukurahundi or the 2008 election violence, it would drag Mnangagwa and others in the current administration. Listening to Mugabe trying to justify Gukurahundi, one can see why it is important to have an open process for handling the past. Only when everyone concerned is given a chance to tell their story will the truth become clearer and maybe there will be some opportunities for closure.
The trouble with Mugabe is that in judging his own performance, he has always used a very low standard. That’s why, when the ITV interviewer told him that people blamed him for ruining the country, he scoffed at that suggestion, saying instead that there was “greater prosperity” in Zimbabwe, compared to other African countries. While he acknowledged that he had made some errors” in respect of human rights violations, Mugabe was adamant that “it wasn’t that bad in comparison to other countries”. It’s not surprising perhaps that as Zimbabwe collapsed under the weight of misrule, he still believed he was doing pretty well because he saw worse in other African countries. But he did not see the ones that had been worse off 20 years ago, like Rwanda, but had since caught up and surpassed Zimbabwe in a number of respects. He inherited a sound economy but by the time he was forced out of power, the economy was in seriously bad shape.
Perhaps the most telling point is that in all the interviews and press conference, Mugabe did not address the plight of the people who are still carrying the weight of problems inherited from his time as president. He is only concerned with his loss of power and the fact that his former allies betrayed him. As usual, it is all about Mugabe. He could have picked on how his successor has so far failed to deal with the economic and social challenges, but he probably realized he lacks the moral authority to challenge him on that score. But Mugabe is no longer a problem for the opposition. He was a problem when he had power. He is now a problem for Mnangagwa and ZANU PF. The opposition has no business getting involved in that fight. As Napoleon said, never interrupt the enemy when he’s making a mistake. Mugabe is their mistake and they must be allowed to solve it without the opposition’s interference.
For his part, Mugabe will be happy that he still commands attention and that he gave his own side of the story. He will not be a candidate in the next elections but he would support the National Patriotic Front, a new party that has emerged from the ashes of the G40 faction which lost to Mnangagwa’s Lacoste faction in the succession race. Deep down, Mugabe would love to return to ZANU PF. That is his political home. He is a deeply wounded man. His pride was damaged and there is a deep sense of bitterness towards those who betrayed him. But if e had one more chance, h would go back home. e has known no other home since its formation in 1963 and as one of the remaining founding fathers who gathered at Enos Nkala's home in the bustling township of Highfield to form the party, the sense of loss is deep. But it is a cold dish that he has served others before.
All the while, his wife Grace was close by, keeping a close eye on her husband. In his last years in power, she became the chief instigator of his ignominious fall. She decided to take on Mugabe’s former allies, shouting them down, humiliating and embarrassing them publicly. There was a time when she seemed unstoppable and she could do whatever she wanted. But there she was now, four months after her husband was deposed, escorting foreign journalists at their lavish mansion to interview her husband. A number of foreign media were banned during Mugabe’s rule. Now they rely on them having been ostracized by state media. Here too, the irony is lost on them.
But perhaps the greatest irony in all this is that the Mugabes regard themselves as victims. They have no idea how much hurt and despair they caused across the country and that most Zimbabweans are not interested at all in their return. Someone must take Mugabe on the side so that they can whisper together. They must tell him the truth. They must be honest with him. Perhaps in his mind, he can still throw one last punch.
As for the authors of the coup, the group that advocated for total annihilation may be looking at their allies and saying, we told you so, as “more is lost though stopping halfway than through total annihilation”. The return of Mugabe is the price of the half-hearted coup. But what do they do now? Go after the man and confirm his claims of harassment or ignore him and let him rant? That is Mnangagwa's problem to deal with. The opposition must focus on its business. There is a temptation to jump onto the bandwagon. But Mugabe is not their problem anymore, whatever ill-feeling his appearance generates.