Zimbabwe stands on a historical crossroad as it looks forward to free herself from her most remembered freedom fighter – Robert Mugabe. Raising both loud applause and grave concerns throughout his political career, Mugabe ruled the nation for nearly four decades and has at best, a mixed legacy. Considered a (grand)father figure in the initial years of his rule, the megalomaniacal despot has occupied a problematic place in the public memory. Forced out of office earlier this year staged by his own military, Mr. Mugabe now sits under house arrest. Zimbabwe awaits her first general election in post-independence history without Robert Mugabe on the ticket. Amidst the euphoria and apprehension, Zimbabwe is juggling hope and hazard as the electoral landscape seems laden with pitfalls and landmines. It would be safe to say that the former President is so deeply intertwined with the history and politics of Zimbabwe, that his legacy – even in absentia – will form the crux of the nation’s politics.
Who is Mugabe?
In late 1970s, Mugabe led the violent revolution against the white minority ruling what was then Rhodesia and renamed the land, Zimbabwe – the Shona term for a house. In the first, post-independence general elections of 1980, Mr. Mugabe (pictured above) and his Zanu PF party were victorious and he assumed the office of Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. The initial years were remarkably positive. At a time when other South African countries were beset with apartheid and inequality, Zimbabwe stood out as the “breadbasket of Africa.” White minorities – former oppressors – were embraced as part of the national culture in a largely harmonious environment.
Brawl in the Breadbasket
The socio-economic heydays did not last long. From the late 1983 to 1987, Mugabe’s government with its North Korean trained Fifth Brigade launched a crippling massacre against its political rivals – ZAPU Party – in what is known as Gukurahundi, a Shona language euphemism used to refer to early spells of rain which wash away the chaff ahead of the spring harvest. As the Mugabe government returned to power in 1990, it was faced with crippling strikes by doctors, nurses and civil servants, which forced it to use land reform as an election ploy in 1997.
At the time, ownership of about 70% of farm lands lay with only 0.6% of white farmers. The government launched an offensive land reform program that saw white farmers abused, and threatened into submission. They were ousted from their farms by the native black citizens, who were largely suffering from unemployment. The farms were brutally invaded by the natives and captured in the name of transferring resources from the white minority to Zimbabweans – unleashing a spate of racial violence. Profiting from the chaos, now President Mugabe siphoned off vast swathes of lands and distributed them among his close supporters, building a network of tutelage for consolidating personal power. Until 2017, the government and Mr. Mugabe, had expressed no intention of prosecuting anyone for the violence.
However, handing out farms to ill-trained individuals who lacked capital to farm profitably meant that agricultural output collapsed. A cash crop agricultural market hinged on the ability of wealthy white farmers to monetize the farms, with capital and resources out of the picture, Zimbabwe suffered a series of droughts soon after the land reforms program.
Crippling a Currency
International sanctions following the human rights violations, coupled with falling agricultural productivity, crippled Zimbabwe’s economy. Falling industrial output spun inflation in the economy. A debt ridden government attempted to compensate stark absence of food by generating excess currency – with predictable results. Inflation shot through the roof, at one point it reached an astonishing 79,600,000,000% and Zimbabwe was transformed from an example of failed integration to a case study in economic mismanagement. The fall of his nation’s currency, due to mismanagement and arrogance, foreshadowed the fall of Mugabe himself.
Nearly four decades into his presidency, Mr. Mugabe succeeded in making himself the center of the political power dynamic in Zimbabwe. The former President is well known for repressing criticism and ‘getting rid’ of political opponents. As if this was not enough, there are reports of villages having been destroyed, simply because they dared to vote for opposition parties. If his legacy as a war hero/freedom fighter was his launch-pad into Zimbabwean politics, his authoritarian nature kept detractors at bay. If inflation and scarcity were the hallmarks of Mugabe’s economic legacy, human rights violations became synonymous with his regime – not unlike China and Russia, the only two reliable allies he has cultivated since the beginning of the millennia.
The Gucci, the Crocodile and the Tanks
Invincible perhaps, but Mr. Mugabe is not immortal. 93 years old and reportedly in ill-health, the President needed a successor who could take forward his legacy – while ensuring his security for the remainder of his life. This is where the divide in his party began to erupt into the open. Emmerson Mnangagwa (pictured below), known as “The Crocodile”, is Mr. Mugabe’s Vice President and longtime confidante. To many, he seemed to be his natural successor as he too was a freedom fighter, and served to the ends of ZANU PF with a chequered human rights record.
However, the crocodile was pushed away from swamp in early November, as the President fired Mnangagwa noting
“...the Vice President has consistently and persistently exhibited traits of disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability.”
His replacement was Grace Mugabe (pictured below) – the former secretary and second wife of Mr. Mugabe. Her notoriety with the public is visible from her title, “Gucci Grace” – a reference to her lavish lifestyle in one of the world’s poorest countries. With the crocodile and his skin out of the way, it seemed to many that Mrs. Grace Mugabe would be the next President of Zimbabwe.
Until, however, the Zimbabwean Army defected in favor of Mr. Mnangagwa and marched into the capital, Harare on November 14, 2017, taking control of all government buildings and public media. A military statement then assured the world,
“...this is not a military takeover of the government.”
But it was very much a coup de grace that resulted in the house arrest of the President and the Vice President. While both were declared safe and sound, Mr. Mnangagwa was sworn in as the new President of Zimbabwe. Upon taking office, he called a general election for July 30, 2018.
Heading to the Polls
As the euphoria surrounding the end of Mr. Mugabe’s tenure subsided, concerns over the future emerged. Zimbabwe has a history of “free and fair elections” turning into a convoluted mess of violence, sectarian conflict and good old rigging. The elections in 2008 saw a delay of over 5 weeks in declaration of the results during which over 270 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were murdered. The elections in 2013, were peaceful but rigged and the current President has a history of having aided Mr. Mugabe in expansive electoral fraud.
The 2018 elections will see many African observer groups, such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), African Union (AU) and South African Development Community (SADC) pointed out many “errors” and “irregularities” in the 2013 elections, some of which include skewed voter registration rigged to favor rural voters (usual supporters of the Zanu PF), duplication of names, and physical intimidations on voting day. These were corroborated by western observers as well.
While the electoral rolls this time around suggest a fairer poll, other concerns remain. Chief among them is the fact that the military has not yet explicitly pledged to serve under any party other than the Zanu PF that wins the polls. In addition, violence seems to be returning as a suicide attack at the rally of President Mnangagwa on June 23rd proved. While both the President and MDC leader Nelson Chamisa called for calm, it is unclear if the commitment to democracy will persist for long.
Violence and crackdown during 2008 elections. Source: allafrica.com.
A whopping 23 people, including the Crocodile, are contesting for the President’s chair this year. Then there are concerns surrounding Mugabe's political role. Hours before the polls, he has already gone on record to say that any suggestion to justify his removal as 'not a coup', was 'nonsense'. Such statements in a close election could easily infuriate the warring factions and lead to an outbreak of violence of the kind in 2008. The citizens of Zimbabwe are high on hope, with a pinch of regret for their fallen father, who had turned into a despot. Political commentators like Tau Tawenga continue to draw parallels between the current euphoria and that of the 1980s. They warn that Zimbabwe should not be blinded by this brief spell of relative freedom and should rather focus on strengthening the Constitution and the polity.
Will Zimbabwe make the most of the post-Mugabe era or will the nation fall prey to the same issues, albeit in the hands of different leaders? One can only hope that 2018 brings true freedom to the former breadbasket of Africa.
About The Author
Rahul Chaudhary is a literature student at Hansraj College. He is interested in social work and has worked with multiple NGOs and organizations. Having written for online portals, magazines, blogs and more he is well experienced with handling content. His tenacious interest in social issues and art has allowed him to work with organizations like the World Comics Network, Project FUEL and many other education-awareness projects. Still working for various journals and awareness initiatives, he continues to write on issues close to his heart as he explores the world beyond his comfort zone.