Nothing to cheer in Zimbabwe fias-coup
Those replacing Mugabe want to rationalise his regime, not overthrow it.
After ruling Zimbabwe for 37 years, President Robert Mugabe has finally been deposed – whether the 93-year old knows it yet, or not. Nobody should want to defend Mugabe. But sadly there is nothing to celebrate in the manner of his overthrow.
Mugabe was not brought down by any popular revolt or demand for greater democracy. Instead he has effectively been ‘reshuffled’ out of office by other senior members of the ruling bureaucracy in the military and his Zanu-PF party, with the tacit support of leaders of the ‘international community’.
The likely result will be a slightly rationalised version of the old autocratic order – unless the Zimbabwean people, currently reduced to the role of stage army in the elites’ internal dramas, can take their own hand in deciding the outcome.
There can rarely have been a more bizarre-looking ‘revolution’ than the Zimbabwean coup-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.
First the military seize power from the formally elected president on Thursday. The generals use the national TV channel occupied at gunpoint to insist that their armed coup ‘is not a military coup’. Then, instead of exiling, imprisoning or executing the deposed dictator in time-honoured style, they dress up Mugabe in academic finery and send him off to give out some university degrees.
Next, officials in Mugabe’s own party, Zanu-PF, stage-manage a demonstration through the capital, Harare, demanding that the president — in reality already the ex-president – ‘must go’. We witness the unusual spectacle of a ‘people’s march’, apparently seeking to depose an authoritarian government, yet being directed by soldiers and backed by the generals. Elsewhere there are no reports of any street-fighting, gunfire, or anything much at all happening in Harare. International leaders from the African Union, the United Nations, the Western powers and China (Zimbabwe’s new senior investment partner) all urge a speedy return to ‘democratic’ or at least ‘constitutional’ government.
After weekend talks involving international representatives, it is reported that Mugabe has accepted the inevitable and agreed to resign. To seal the deal, Zanu-PF officials vote to remove him as party leader. Mugabe duly appears on live TV on Sunday to say goodbye to the nation – but instead assures the Zimbabwean people that he remains their president, is not going anywhere just yet, and will be presiding over the December congress of the ruling party that just ousted him.
The result, according to the UK media on Monday morning, is ‘Chaos in Zimbabwe’. We might call it a fias-coup.
This is a very 21st-century coup – an age when everybody must pay lip service to democracy in principle, even while trashing it in practice. We are a long way from the Cold War era when the Western powers and the Soviet Union could shamelessly order or support coups in Africa and across the developing world – such as the infamous US and Belgian-backed overthrow and execution of Patrice Lumumba, African nationalist leader and first prime minister of the independent Republic of the Congo, in 1961.
Today, by contrast, even a military takeover has to be dressed up as an exercise in restoring democratic and constitutional government if it is to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the world. Hence the carry-on of the coup that dare not speak its name, and the tortuous (but torture-free) attempts to get Mugabe to sign his own political death warrant and hand over power by the book. The outraged top-level attacks on Mugabe for ‘refusing to stick to the script’ in his TV address confirmed that the ‘constitutional’ process was choreographed by coup leaders.
But whatever they call it, this is a coup, nothing to do with democracy. And the double-speaking international powers know it. When regional and world leaders demand a return to democratic and constitutional government, what they really mean is: ‘We want stability above all, just dress it up as best as you can.’ And stability rather than any radical change is an aim shared by those within Zimbabwe who have acted against their old ally and leader Mugabe.
The French expression coup d’état can literally be translated as ‘stroke of state’. That captures the essence of what has happened in Zimbabwe – a blow by state forces against a few at the top of the state apparatus. It is a palace coup, apparently triggered by President Mugabe sacking his long-time deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa and trying to make his unpopular wife Grace Mugabe his chosen successor. The old guard in the Zanu-PF political and military machine has stepped in to stop ‘Gucci Grace’ and her younger courtly clique taking over. The coup’s aim is to rationalise the state’s affairs and preserve the political status quo, perhaps on a more legitimate-looking basis, rather than overthrowing it.
Expect to hear the ramping-up of anti-Mugabe rhetoric, as Zimbabwe’s new rulers and international observers seek to blame his rule alone for all the country’s problems. There is already reported talk of ‘mad Mugabe’ in Zanu-PF circles; the death of celebrity mass murderer Charles Manson might even provide a timely comparison. It is not necessary to defend Mugabe to question aspects of this rewriting of history.
Despite the British press long since branding him ‘Africa’s Hitler’, Mugabe did not come to power in a fascist coup. He was leader of the liberation movement that fought an armed struggle to overthrow the white minority state of Rhodesia in the 1960s and 70s. He spent 10 years in the racist state’s prisons for sedition – perhaps a useful reminder to disillusioned fans of the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi that being a political prisoner provides no guarantee of freedom-loving politics. Mugabe was then known as a Marxist, a label now being reattached to his political corpse. But, as with other nationalist leaders in the developing world, that had more to do with courting support from the Soviet Union than any political convictions.
When national independence was created in 1980, under the Lancaster House Agreement brokered by Margaret Thatcher’s British government, Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe first as prime minister and then as president. The dictatorial regime he created was a hybrid of Stalinist state control and old tribal alliances, behind the facade of questionable elections. As Mugabe moved to shore up support from the poor rural black population by dispossessing the remaining wealthy white farmers, he was increasingly demonised in the West. His destabilising and violent land-reform policies have since been blamed for the economic ruin of Zimbabwe, once known as Africa’s bread basket. The decisive role of punitive Western sanctions in damaging Zimbabwe’s economy has been erased from history.
In recent years, Mugabe’s rule has appeared increasingly autocratic and illegitimate, brought to a head by his clumsy attempt to create a monarchical-style dynasty via his wife. So his old allies from the liberation war in the military and political wings of Zanu-PF have finally stepped in to try to preserve a more rational version of Mugabeism without Mugabe, under the leadership of the restored veteran Mnangagwa. The new leader of Zanu-PF is known as the ‘the Crocodile’, and has about the same regard for freedom and democracy as his reptilian namesake has for human or animal rights. One sober Zimbabwean quoted in the UK media suggests that, rather than simply replacing Mugabe, they would need to ‘kill about 5,000’ Zanu-PF hacks and officials to change things.
So, is there any chance of political progress post-Mugabe? There is no point looking to the Western powers or the international community to help. From the first, their interest has been in seeing stable rule in former colonies such as Zimbabwe. China hates nothing more than unstable allies. And the West is little better; that was clear in the original Lancaster House Agreement, under which the old British colonialists sought to preserve order by pressuring the liberation movement to accept that there would be no reform of the white minority-owned land system for 10 years after independence, storing up unrest for the future.
Later disastrous interventions by the West and especially the UK, imposing economic and political sanctions on Zimbabwe, helped to keep Mugabe in power. Despite his reputation for fixing elections, the dictatorial president did maintain considerable support for many years, notably in poorer rural areas, by playing the anti-imperialist card. His cynical ploy chimed with the feelings of impoverished Zimbabweans who had no wish to return to colonial rule.
More recently the West has revealed its moral hypocrisy and opportunism by losing interest in Mugabe and Zimbabwe. As Tim Black noted on spiked at the time, whereas Mugabe’s dubious ‘victory’ over Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the 2008 election had attracted international opprobrium, when Mugabe crushed the MDC and won re-election again in 2013 the international community barely batted an eyelid. By then the West had other international fish to fry, and Zimbabwe was all-but forgotten.
It is worth recalling that, just weeks before his downfall, the quiet rehabilitation of the erstwhile ‘Hitler’ Mugabe had reached the point where the World Health Organisation attempted to appoint him as a ‘goodwill ambassador’ promoting healthy lifestyles; never mind the spread of malnourishment and collapse of Zimbabwe’s health system under his rule, let him preach to the world about the evils of smoking, drinking and unhealthy diets!
No, the only real hope for change in Zimbabwe lies with its people. At present the masses are seen as impotent spectators to events in Harare. When the military took over, there was no Turkey-style mobilisation of popular opposition to the coup, and no mass celebrations, either.
The Zanu-PF elite only sought to bring the people on briefly as a stage army for the anti-Mugabe march, to show popular support for his removal, before sending them back to the sidelines. (A lack of serious commitment to this advertised ‘day of rage’ among the actual marchers was suggested by the relatively relaxed atmosphere and the array of home-made banners; one man waved a scrap of paper demanding ‘Wenger Out’, while another was reported asking the generals to ‘hurry up with their coup’ to avoid spoiling the weekend’s drinking.)
When Mugabe proved resistant to resigning, war veterans’ leader Chris Mutsvangwa threatened that ‘We’ll bring the crowds back if he does not go’ – a contemptuous statement that revealed the top-down view of ‘the crowds’ as mere pawns in the internal power games of the Zanu-PF elite. No opposition movement exists today to give people an alternative voice of their own. Tsvangirai’s rump Movement for Democratic Change moves far more in the diplomatic salons and media studios of the West than on the streets of Zimbabwe.
Yet the future remains to be decided. There is a vacuum at the heart of Zimbabwean politics, as an illegitimate government falls without the rise of any real political opposition. The question is, who will fill it? More instability seems certain as the Zanu-PF factions vie for power within the post-Mugabe state. And once the genie of political change is out of the bottle, it is not always easy for the elites to contain events or silence the demand for more democracy.
The notion of the disempowered Zimbabwean masses taking their destiny into their own hands might seem a distant prospect today. But as Mugabe and his allies have been reminding them for the past 40 years, they have overcome greater odds and overthrown an oppressive power before…
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
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