“Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”
These are the questions that Stephen Greenblatt asks in his 2018 book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. Two years before, the Harvard professor had written an op-ed in the New York Times in which he asked “how a great country could wind up being governed by a sociopath”. Greenblatt resorted to Shakespeare to explain how a nation could succumb to the rule of a tyrant. It was a warning of what might happen; a fear that a man whom he thought unsuitable for office would be elected. The presidential election that followed weeks later confirmed his worst fears. In 2018, the op-ed grew into a book.
One of the key points advanced by Greenblatt is that the rise of tyrants and their ability to maintain power is promoted by a coterie of enablers. He looks to Shakespeare’s plays to show how tyrants in his plays benefited from a variety of enablers.
It is a truism that throughout the course of history despots have never ruled alone. They never have the capacity to achieve that feat on their own. Instead, they rely on a variety of individuals and groups who help them to gain power and later to maintain it. These individuals and groups are what we call "enablers". They are the subject of this article in the Zimbabwean political context. The framework is not limited to Zimbabwe but can apply to other countries.
Greenblatt’s critics argue that he overstretches Shakespeare in order to criticise the current US President, whom he does not cite in his work. It is not my intention to rely on Shakespeare’s work in this article. I am however drawn to the idea of enablers in the context of repressive regimes. This is useful in examining Mnangagwa’s rise to power and how he has maintained it for the past two years. I argue that he has benefited from an assortment of enablers even though some of them try to wriggle out of responsibility that comes with their role.
This is essential because if repressive regimes benefit from enablers, it should be a good idea to raise the costs of being an enabler. If enablers are pillars of a repressive regime, identifying and holding enablers to account is a good strategy of eroding the power of repressive authoritarian regimes.
Being soft and tolerant of enablers on the other hand simply increases incentives for enabling repression. More people would be drawn to enabling repressive regimes, thereby strengthening and keeping them in power. Raising the costs of enabling should create disncentives to joining and assisting them.
Who are these enablers and what motivates them?
I will start by sketching the motley collection of enablers, drawing examples from the Zimbabwean political context where relevant. The reader may, of course, read examples into the text as they see fit.
Military as primary enablers
It is now common cause that Mnangagwa’s rise to power was through a military coup. The military commanders, led by Retired General Constantino Chiwenga are therefore his primary enablers. Mnangagwa had been sacked by the then president, Robert Mugabe. He fled into exile fearing for his life and liberty. He would not have been president had the military not launched a coup against Mugabe.
The military remain an important enabler, guaranteeing his presidency against existential threats, including elections and demonstrations. Twice the military gunned down citizens who were protesting against Mnangagwa, thwarting potential revolts and warning citizens against similar action. The police have also joined in, banning protests and using excessive force to stop any demonstrations.
The rent-seekers and profiteers
Some people are surprised when they see elites in business and intellectual circles milling around and busily associating themselves with a repressive regime. People might expect such enlightened elites to exercise better judgment. Instead, they happily accept roles as presidential and ministerial advisers. Their usual justification is that they are doing so for the love of country.
This justification is peddled despite abundant evidence, both present and historical, that the ruler is significantly ill-equipped for the job. It offends the mind to imagine that a man who has been in government for nearly forty years, a time during which the country and the world around him has changed so much could possibly have any fresh and progressive ideas that could propel and sail the country in the right direction.
The chief motivation for these business and intellectual elites is that they might profit personally from proximity to power. The decision to work with the regime is driven by demands of one’s personal political economy. There are diverse and unlimited rents available for collection from being close to power. It may be lucrative consultancy contracts and tenders, licences handed out by the state, influential roles in state entities and corporations, including board appointments. Being close to power might open new lines of income, even if it is of an illicit nature. This includes charging third party fees for opening doors to the president or ministers – the so-called “cash for access” scam.
More than money
However, rents are not limited to those that command monetary value. Sometimes the mere ability to influence government policy in a desired direction is enough motivation - driven by a personal, even narcissistic desire to leave a personal mark. Sometimes proximity to power opens doors to third parties who would otherwise never give you attention.
Furthermore, influential roles in government may be part of resume-building which is useful when applying for future jobs particularly in international organisations. Some, driven by megalomania, may fancy themselves kingmakers, fulfilling personal destiny and ambition. Those who are religiously inclined might even see themselves as serving a divine mission.
Of these profit-seekers, Greenblatt writes, “they know perfectly well how destructive he is, but they are confident that they will stay ahead of the tide of evil or manage to seize some profit from it”. In their exaggerated sense of self-importance and wisdom they think they can overcome the repressive ruler and his weaknesses and do well for all and themselves. They genuinely think they can stay ahead of his game and rescue the nation from his folly.
When questioned on their roles, they are only too happy to distance themselves from the regime, describing themselves as “professionals” who are fulfilling a specific mandate as that mandate can be severed from the rest of the regime. They are keen to emphasise their independence from the regime. They not only sell this fiction of independence and detachment to others; they also believe it. The belief is well-entrenched in the figment of their imagination and we shall see later how it encourages bad behavior.
The regime is crafty and cunning
What these business and intellectual elites do not understand is that their mere presence in the regime structures is enough for the authoritarian leaders. While the elites think they are using the regime, the reality is the other way round. It is the regime that is using them. This is because the repressive regime is more cunning than they imagine. The elites are useful to the regime because they provide a facade of normalcy around the regime.
Thefore, their presence goes some way to legitimating the regime; giving the impression that it is good enough to be embraced by respectable professionals who are not even ZANU PF members. With them on board, the regime can claim that it is both inclusive and tolerant. The reality is, of course, very different, because the regime remains intensely hostile towards its political opponents.
Therefore, the more the elites appear anti-regime while still within and around the regime, the more they serve the purpose as its sanitisers. Contrary to their fantasies, they are never ahead of the regime; the regime is always ahead of them, profiting from their presence in its structures immeasurable ways. If accused of being intolerant of critics, the regime can always point to the elites in its structures such as the Presidential Advisory Council and say it accomodates its critics.
In fact, the more these elites criticise the regime from within, the more they bolster the regime's pretence of being tolerant. The regime doesn't mind their criticism because it knows they don't carry much traction among its real opponents. It tolerates them because they are harmless to the regime's project.
The use of excessive force by the Mnangagwa regime over the past two years has left some of its advisers deeply embarrassed and conflicted. But they also fear the consequences of disembarking from a system whose greed, callousness and repressive nature they have witnessed from their ring-side seats. Some feel that they now carry so much information about the regime that it is dangerous to get out even against their conscience.
There are some who take a gamble, hoping to profit their reputations by speaking out against the regime. However, while some may be forthright, the majority qualify their criticism of the regime with praise for the leader, contrary to the common wisdom that the buck stops with the leader.
“Change from Within” Fantasists
While personal profit-making may be a more selfish motive of some enablers, it is also fair to recognise that there are some who go in genuinely believing that they can make a difference. Unlike the personal profit-seekers, this group has in its ranks fantasists who believe they can actually use their influence to do good. They know very well that the regime is bad but they choose to see beyond it and think they can be of good influence. They believe, very unreasonably, that the regime of men with irredeemable qualities can somehow be redeemed.
This group includes those who claim to be pursuing “change from within”, something that has long been shown to be an impossibility in ZANU PF. In fact, those who try to change it from within have found that they end up being the ones who have are changed once they are within the regime. They may start from the periphery wearing the label of “technocrats” but soon enough, they will find themselves deep in the cesspool, wearing scarfs and chanting ridiculous slogans..
They are fantasists because they have to create a fictional world in place of the reality before them. In the process they end up normalising the abnormal to use what is now a common cliché. As Greenblatt writes, “They see perfectly well that he has done this and that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalise what is not normal”. That is how local enablers forget Gukurahundi and the rulers part in it.
It is this normalisation of the abnormal that makes these enablers invaluable to the regime. The regime wants individuals and groups that can sanitise it. They arrange exclusive interviews with major international media. They attend cocktail parties and breakfast meetings in the diplomatic circuit. They ghost-write newspaper articles for the ruler and his Ministers. They mount strong defences for the regime on social media and at conferences.
To the world they don’t see themselves as regime enablers while they do want their work to be appreciated and rewarded by the regime. Interestingly, they are very pleased to take credit if things go right, but they seek absolution when things go pear-shaped.
The Dutiful Enforcers
There is a category of enablers that sustains the repressive regime through carrying out acts of repression. This includes the military and police, which we saw as primary enablers in Mnangagwa’s rise to power. It includes people who get angry on behalf of the regime. It may be that they are paid to do so, as a social spate between characters linked to the regime revealed this week.
These enablers, Greenblatt says, “take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression”. Even if they don’t do it, they are happy to see the regime doing utterly despicable things. If asked why, they simply say they are carrying out orders and they are in no position to question. It’s not a good defence to violate human rights in the name of carrying out orders. However, long after the end of the brutal Nazi rule, elderly men and women are still being dragged to account because they were enablers.
There has been a spate of abductions of political and civil society activists. This has extended to trade unionists and comedians whose work is regarded as critical of the regime. Although the exact identity of the abductors has never been established, suspicion rests on the state, which has a duty to protect. The fact that the state has never apprehended anyone or shown seriousness in investigating cases of abduction and sometimes torture doesn’t help the government’s cause.
Ordinary citizens can also be enablers without holding any office or obeying any official orders. In his book The Dictatorship Syndrome, Egyptian author Al Alswany calls this the concept of “good citizenship” in the narrow sense in that citizens become compliant with the repressive regime, seeing this as a sign of a "good citizen". "Good citizens" in this sense seek to avoid bad consequences of opposing the regime and might even profit from it. In our context, the "good citizens" can expect freebies from the regime.
But their role is more sinister. In a world typical of George Orwell’s 1984, they assume the role of sentinels and enforcers of the regime. They report fellow citizens to authorities for going out of line. This is why a group of people reported a man to the police because he had dressed his dog in a T-shirt emblazoned with Mnangagwa’s image. The police went on to charge the man with disorderly conduct. He had to pay an admission of guilt fine to avoid further harassment. Similar cases were commonplace during the Mugabe era.
Others who fall into this category of enablers include senior civil servants who, against their terms of engagement and professionalism, start behaving like ruling party commissars and activists. They become complicit in the corruption of the state and its abuse of state institutions. It includes political referees such as officials who run elections, as well as judicial officers in the courts of law and prosecutors who take a partisan role. Officials recruited to investigate corruption shield the corrupt instead of prosecuting them. Phantom offices are created to give an appearance that they are doing something when in fact they are simply blowing hot air. Instead of serving the state, they serve the ruling party. Instead of safeguarding the integrity of institutions, they manipulate and abuse them for the benefit of the ruling party. By promoting the regime as opposed to the state, they become complicit in its repressive rule.
Co-opted opposition elites
Elites in the opposition become enablers when they are co-opted by the regime. Instead of holding the government to account, as the opposition ought to do, the parties become supporters of the regime. Ironically they do so in the name of the elastic and amorphous “national interest”. They fulfil the prediction that instead of fighting for reform, some opposition leaders are merely fighting to join the ruling establishment. They are enablers because they hope to profit from associating with the ruling party.
In Zimbabwe, the coterie of opposition leaders operating under the POLAD platform are a classic illustration of this type of enablers. They are operating as allies to the regime rather than opponents. They seek to profit from this association. Already, they are making demands for a budget allocation, which includes international travel and conferences. This group has become an opposition to the official opposition more than they are an opposition to the government. Already the regime is parading one of the POLAD members as it’s latest recruit having apparently decided to “re-join” ZANU PF.
Enabling through participation
However, opposition elites can also unwittingly become enablers of the regime when they provide society to the regime. Participating in institutions that are dominated by the regime is highly risky. On the one hand, it makes sense for the opposition to occupy strategic spaces to ensure that it opposes effectively. It can’t be charged with enabling the regime if it is using the space to oppose.
On the other hand, participation in those institutions renders them legitimate. This legitimacy is in turn lent to the regime as a whole. The view that the regime lacks legitimacy when the opposition is participating in institutions that are run and controlled by the regime is hard to sustain. The opposition takes a great risk when it sits in that space between challenging the legitimacy of the regime and taking part in regime-dominated institutions. It has to strike a balance in favour of effective opposition against the risk of legitimating the regime.
Another problem is when in the name of professional obligations opposition leaders do business with regime elites. As many critics have observed, it’s counter-intuitive for opposition leaders who accuse regime elites of corruption or political violence to defend them when they are charged with corruption or political violence. Lawyer-politicians in the opposition might justify their position on professional ethics but this conveniently overlooks the importance of political ethics. What makes sense in the court of law will be very ugly in the court of politics because they become professional enablers of the regime.
It is hard to imagine Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo representing white supremacists of the apartheid regime on racial discrimination charges while at the same time fighting apartheid. It would have left their supporters flummoxed and they would be enablers of the regime they were fighting.
Lobbyists and media
There is another set of enablers often in foreign capitals and international media. When Mnangagwa came to power there was a concerted effort to profile him as the new kid on the block. He was sold to the world as a pragmatist; as a man whom the estranged West could do business with. Major international media such as the Financial Times gave him acres of space and domestic enablers were proud to announce their contribution to arranging these high profile interviews.
Over the course of the past two years the regime has engaged international lobby firms in Washington D.C. These lobbyists are supposed to sanitise the image of the regime and open doors of re-engagement with the West. They are paid a lot of money for their image-vacuuming efforts. By painting a rosy picture of the regime, and ignoring the stark realities of brutality, the media would also play an enabling role.
Foreign and regional leaders
Dictators and repressive regimes also have enablers in the international community. During the Cold War era, dictators aligned themselves with either the USA or the Soviet Union. Nowadays, China has become a big player while Russia is having a resurgence of influence in various parts of the world.
Mnangagwa’s rise benefited from the support given to the coup by the region and international actors who were happy to look aside and pretend that it was not a coup. The complicit actors could not even call it a coup, preferring the amorphous term “military-assisted transition”.
The enablers made frantic efforts to promote Mnangagwa on the international scene, hastily getting him to Davos for the World Economic Forum a few weeks after the coup. Mnangagwa’s spectacular failure was self-inflicted and had nothing to do with a lack of willing enablers.
In recent months Dr Stergomina Tax, the Executive Secretary of SADC has become a prominent voice that is partial towards the regime. While it may be argued in her favour that she is merely carrying out her mandate as a regional civil servant, her critics think she is going over and above the bounds of duty to promote the regime’s agenda. She could avoid these perceptions by taking a more balanced approach to a deeply divided nation and also calling out the regime when it violates human rights. Instead she and SADC are often conspicuous by their silence in the face of state-sponsored violence.
Countering Moral hazard
Now that the types and motivations of enablers have been outlined, the question that remains is how to respond to enablers? The opposite of enablers are the resistors; those who disagree with and challenge the regime. Resistors are people who refuse to be swept by the tide. They see through the facade presented by the regime. They stand firm, as a matter of principle, against the repressive regime because it is the right thing to do.
Even within political parties, resistors refuse to toe the line. They are prepared to defy the regime’s leadership in order to protect institutions. In government, resistors fight to maintain the independence and integrity of institutions. This may cost them their jobs but they consider it a worthy price to pay for upholding institutional integrity. There used to be MPs in this mould in the past, the likes of Sydney Malunga and Lazarus Nzarayebani, who as ZANU PF parliamentary backbenchers were prepared to critique and challenge the Mugabe government. It is hard to find this kind of resistors in the current and more recent parliament.
Those who turn
Sometimes enablers can turn into resistors. The switch can be triggered by various factors. It could be that they are sacked by the regime. They may have lost out in factional battles and end up finding a home in opposition circles. There were a number of enablers of the Mugabe regime who lost out at the time of the coup. They have since morphed into stern critics and opponents of the regime..
The opposition is unsure how to handle these enablers-turned-resistors. On one hand, it perceives them as holders of vital secrets of the ruling party and the electoral system and thinks they might be useful allies. The theory is that if the opposition wants to beat long-standing ruling parties, it needs former agents of the regime on their side. The case for this is driven by experiences in other African countries which had previously endured long term dictatorships. More often than not the opposition triumphed having embraced former regime enablers.
Nevertheless, this has so far proved to be fanciful at best in Zimbabwe as none of the resistors has ever demonstrated with clarity how they manipulated the electoral system and how to stop it. They all seem ignorant of the way the system works or they just develop selective amnesia.
On the other hand, these former enablers tend to have a sordid record, especially the harsh and unforgiving ways by which they dealt with the opposition. There is often a disjuncture between opposition elites and the ordinary supporters. Whereas opposition elites see strategic value in embracing former enablers, ordinary supporters are more cautious and circumspect. This skepticism is informed by the supporters’ bad experience at the hands of former enablers when they were serving the regime.
It would also be a mistake to assume that former regime enablers who were sacked by the regime necessarily joined the opposition. The fact that they lost out in their factional battles only means they have been excluded in the meantime but it does not mean they have revoked and repudiated their political values. Indeed, if given a chance, and this has happened more than once before, they might rejoin the regime and become enablers once again. In these cases, the opposition has merely been a temporary sanctuary for the outcasts. The opposition has learnt this to its cost on previous occasions but these lessons are easily forgotten.
In some cases enablers might leave the regime because their contractual relationship has ended. This does not mean they cease to be regime enablers. It simply means they no longer have a formal connection to the regime. They are no longer being paid to perform their contractual duty in service of the regime. Indeed, if given another opportunity, these professional enablers would work again with the regime.
Performers on a theatrical stage
One explanation for this is what we might call the “performance theory”. These professional enablers do not see themselves as enablers. They just see themselves as independent professionals performing a contractual obligation. This is a delusion that makes them comfortable. In fact, they have a two-in-one personality, which allows them to accomplish two roles at once without one affecting the other.
Perhaps the best way to explain this double personality phenomenon is via the analogy of an actor performing on a theatrical stage. When on stage the person gets into character, assuming the personality of a villain, let’s say Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As Macbeth, the person can do bad deeds but still retain their individual personality, to which they revert once the play is finished.
The difference between theatre and reality is that what contractual enablers do is not merely a piece of drama. As Macbeth on stage, the acts have no real consequences on others. The actions of professional enablers on the other hand do have real and serious consequences for other people. They hurt people. Think of lawyers who help dictators to siphon proceeds of corruption to overseas hideouts in tax havens. They enable dictators while hurting poor communities.
Think of retired statesmen who participate in inquiries designed to present a fake image that something is being done about political violence when it’s a mere facade to hoodwink the nation and the international community.
Think of intellectuals who take on roles to advise the regime and give an appearance of civility when the same regime egregiously uses violence against citizens and they remain quiet and carry on working with the regime when this happens.
Yet, these professional enablers can easily distance themselves from their contractual personas serving a vicious regime. It helps them to avoid taking personal responsibility for their actions. After all, they were merely actors in those roles, they say. Charles Dickens’ readers may remember the character Wemmick in Great Expectations. When Pip asks Wemmick if the boss Mr Jaggers had ever seen Wemmick's castle, the latter responds,
“No; the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me …”
For Wemmick, the professional Wemmick has no connection at all with the domestic Wemick in the privacy of his home. The two are completely different personalities. This allows him to be harsh and business-like at work where he is a debt clerk, and to be kind, soft and more amiable at home.
Many enablers are like Wemmick. Ironically, this separation of personas gives enablers incentives to do, support or simply turn a blind eye to the most heinous things that are done by the repressive regime. These are probably the most devious and dangerous set of enablers: they have a mask which renders them almost invisible. They prop up the repressive regime behind the scenes without taking personal responsibility for their actions.
Interestingly, at some point, at the end of the performance on stage, this type of enabler can discard their actor persona and begin to speak like smart, eloquent and reasonable people. This is unsurprising because they are actually gifted individuals which leads people to ask: how can such a smart person have believed this repressive regime? Some might even feel sorry for them, believing them to have been well-meaning after all. They doubt their own questions. Some say the enabler should apologise which is met with disdain; the argument being what did they do to owe anyone an apology.
If we follow the performance theory, what is happening here is quite natural to the world of contractual enablers. The person that is commenting critically on the regime is not the contractual enabler. This is the other personality, the real person after the performance on stage is done, the contract being the stage. Once the contract is done the actor is gone. Their job is done. But true to form, they leave just about enough room to revert to character if asked to do so again.
In theatre, the audience can distinguish between the person in real life and as an actor. We are also invited to do the same in respect of contractual enablers of repressive regime and regrettably in our gullibility, we gleefully accept this invitation. What we fail to see is that in doing so, and in cheering regime enablers, we also become indirect enablers.
But this is precisely how repressive regimes survive. They are built around networks of enablers, some of whom are very visible, others less so, but ultimately the bulk of the population is roped in as the supporting act of enablers; rather like etxras in a movie or audiences that admire and applaud enablers, out of gullibility or because we are simply overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of shocking brutality.
Paying a price for enabling
The moral hazard of accepting enablers without intense scrutiny and criticism is that devious individuals will serve repressive regimes knowing too well that whenever they are discarded or when they choose to leave, they can do so without consequences. Would-be enablers must know that there is a price to pay for being an enabler.
In some cases, enablers might face prosecution, especially where crimes have been committed. There has been a steady growth of prosecution of enablers of tyrants since the Nuremberg trials when Hitler’s enablers were prosecuted for the Holocaust. Over the years enablers of genocidal regimes have been punished. The Hague is currently hearing a genocide case against Myanmar.
But the price of being an enabler of repressive regimes is not always paid in the courts of law. That price might be loss of reputation, credibility and respect of enablers among peers and in the eyes of the public. Once lost, it is very hard to regain the trust and confidence of those around you. This is a lonely place to be, one which no amount of wealth can correct. History is a hard task-master. In the long run, this can be far worse than loss of monetary value or even personal liberty.
Yet, society in its supreme wisdom is also forgiving of those who, in moments of poor judgment, may have taken wrong turns. Society acknowledges that its members are fallible. Law enforcement agencies that fight organized crime (such as the mafia) find that sometimes it is helpful to work with pentiti (those who have repented) when pursuing bigger criminals in those criminal syndicates. The same principle may be adapted in the political sphere, where enablers who turn might become useful in the opposition struggles against entrenched repressive regimes.
The process of acceptance is however fraught with risks and challenges. The initial reaction is usually skeptical and hostile. This is not because people are vindictive but a reflection of the hurt caused by enablers during their time working with the repressive regime, especially if they were vocal and loud. The criticism and skepticism is part of the price to be paid for being a regime enabler. This skepticism might thaw over time, depending on how the former enabler conducts themselves. Once hurt, the public is wary that a former enabler might return to their old ways if an opportunity arises. As I have already said, this is not helped by the fact that these reversals have happened more than once before.
Society values humility and genuineness, two qualities that, regrettably, many people are reluctant to embrace despite the advantage they might give them. If repressive regimes profit from the work of enablers, it follows that incentives that encourage enablers must be minimized. Challenging and robustly critiquing regime enablers is a necessary part of this process.