We brought you colonialism, now we’ll teach you democracy

Wednesday December 6 2017

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa officiates the swearing-in ceremony of his Cabinet at State House in Harare on December 4, 2017. PHOTO | PHILIMON BULAWAYO | REUTERS 

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So finally, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is gone. It is clear from the ways things developed after he was deposed, that his departure has been cause for mass celebration around the continent. But as it is often said, one man’s poison is another man’s meat.

Comrade Bob, as some were wont to call him, will also be missed by many, especially pan-Africanists and anti-imperialists who revelled in his defiant anti-West diatribes. I know someone who works himself into a genuine rage each time Mugabe is criticised or attacked.

And no, he does not say Mugabe was a saint. Nor does he not sympathise with ordinary Zimbabweans who put up with him for so long, at great cost to themselves, their families and their country.

Only, he argues, Zimbabwe would not have gone the way it did “had it not been for imperialists who saw it as their business to pursue regime change” in a country where it was not up to them to decide who led it.

Anyway, all that is now behind us. It matters not who likes Comrade Bob and who does not. Zimbabwe is now in the hands of its new leader.

The really important question now is what next. Answers came flooding in even before it was clear when Bob would be stepping down. As if on cue, correspondents of the “international media” in the country were already prescribing what Zimbabweans needed.

Democracy was high on their list. Now, of course, “democracy” can be a good subject for a long debate as to what it means exactly, and whether what it means ought to be universal or specific to a particular context, taking into account historical, cultural, and other peculiarities.

In Africa, however, democracy seems to amount to something straightforward and applicable to all countries without modification: Regular, adversarial electoral contests. The contests pit different factions of the same political elites against each other, mobilised in loosely organised groups that are usually not worthy of the label political party, with none pursuing more than power and the privileges that go with it.

And as we have seen so many times in so many places, these contests rarely solve outstanding problems.

More often than not, indeed, they create new ones and exacerbate old ones, often leaving bitter ethnic and other divisions in their wake. If we were to learn any lessons from the many repeated episodes of these contests, one of them would be that they are not to be recommended for societies that are just emerging from decades of autocratic rule with zero experience of peaceful, issue-based political competition.

It is pretty much predictable that, with its history of divisive and violent electoral contests, with most of the contestants still alive and likely to be facing off with each other again, amid unresolved grievances, the last thing Zimbabwe needs are adversarial do-or-die, winner-takes-all elections so soon after their collective sigh of relief at seeing Comrade Bob step down.

Listening to all the punditry by democracy ideologues selling the usual standard fare, it is clear that they see no merit in the argument that Zimbabwe is sorely in need of a period of respite when the long-suffering masses and those who aspire to lead them should try to define collectively the kind of country they want to live in and how to bring it about.

Fortunately, there are signs that Zimbabweans, obviously weary of the fruitless contests that have served only to worsen their plight, see wisdom in suspending hostilities and turning their attention to examining the past with a view to righting its wrongs, achieving closure, and starting afresh on a clean slate.

The words of a victim of the 1980s counter-insurgency campaign in Matebeleland, Gukurahundi, capture the new spirit: “President Mnangagwa has an opportunity to unify Zimbabweans and revive the economy, but first he needs to take responsibility for the things he did under Robert Mugabe.”

Perhaps most emblematic of the will to change course are the words of former deputy prime minister Arthur Mtambara, a Mugabe and Zanu-PF opponent of note: “It is imperative for the new leadership to help Zimbabwe move away from its difficult past. It is imperative that the current events in Zimbabwe foster a break with the past and lead to the Zimbabwe we want. The current struggles must be kept inclusive, beyond and broader than Zanu-PF.

Only an inclusive government can extricate Zimbabwe from its multifaceted problems. We need an inclusive, magnanimous and national interest-driven definition of the content and direction of this Zimbabwe moment.”

In this, Zimbabwe can learn from our own neighbourhood. What Mtambara is proposing for Zimbabwe is what the Rwandans have been working on, with remarkable results, for the past 24 years since the cataclysm that left many convinced that Rwanda would forever be a basket case.

There are some legitimate questions: Given that power sharing within a “unity government” was tried before (2009-2013) without success, does it stand a chance of succeeding this time round? Only a sorcerer would attempt an answer. One would like to believe, though, that in the lessons of that failure lie the seeds of success this time round.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]