For the better of the past 40 years, Robert Mugabe ate the Zimbabwe revolution.
Then, with his 94th birthday a few weeks away, he overplayed his hand. On November 6, Mugabe sacked his vice president, liberation war comrade and once close ally Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The military, which sees itself as the custodian of the Chimurenga (liberation struggle), couldn’t take it any more. Mugabe had dispatched many liberation war heroes he viewed as threats before; the difference this time was he ousted Mnangagwa to get his erratic and corrupt wife Grace first in line to succeed him.
The army pounced. Uncle Bob was out of a job, and the allies of Grace, whom the military described as “criminals,” were scattered or detained.
Armed forces chief Gen Constantino Chiwenga seemed reluctant to claim the prize for himself, so probably power will return to the Mnangagwa wing of the ruling Zanu-PF.
Infamous as a ruthless Mugabe enforcer, Mnangagwa is not the man to reform Zimbabwe. But people were so fed up with Mugabe and the extent to which he trashed the country’s economy, anyone but Comrade Bob is seen as a better alternative.
However, momentous as the events of the past few days have been in Zimbabwe, their true import is not that Mugabe, who once boasted that he was immune to military coups, was felled. Rather it is what they tell us about the future of Africa’s liberation/revolutionary party regimes.
Until Tuesday, no long-ruling leader of an African liberation party regime had lost office in a national election, through an internal power struggle, in a coup, been killed by rivals, or stepped down through weariness but on his own terms, as Angola’s former strongman Jóse Eduardo dos Santos did in August after 38 years as president.
Indeed, globally, it had really only happened to the Sandinista’s Daniel Ortega who lost in the 1990 Nicaraguan presidential election.
Mugabe is the first of that class to go down in this way. The club of African Big Men who have been in power for over 30 years also shrank.
With the earlier exit of dos Santos and now the ouster of Mugabe, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni moved up the incumbent rankings into fourth place, at 31 years in office, behind the Congo Republic’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has now clocked 32 years, then Cameroon’s Paul Biya at 33, and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, perched at the top with 37 years under his belt.
So, first, though more African leaders are scrapping term limits and changing constitutions so they can stay in officer longer, the support system for extended rule on the continent is collapsing. There are fewer and fewer septuagenarian and octogenarian despots’ shoulders to cry on. It’s getting to be a lonely business. Amid the gloom, this is a welcome green shoot.
It also seems that Africa’s 20th century ruling liberation movements cannot reinvent themselves for the 21st century around their founder leaders.
The biggest threats to their survival is not always the opposition. It’s themselves, and their leaders.
Perhaps the classic examples of this today are the SPLM in South Sudan, the NRM in Uganda, and the African National Congress in South Africa. They will all have to make some very hard decisions soon.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]