Welcome to Mugabe-ism without Mugabe

26 Nov 2017

When the Madagascan army deposed President Marc Ravalomanana in 2009 and replaced with Andry Rajoelina, the message from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was strongly-worded and unequivocal. A public statement that the regional body put out said that it "strongly condemns in the strongest terms the circumstances that led to the ousting of a democratically elected president of Madagascar.” It called for the restoration of constitutional order and warned that if Rajoelina did not comply with its decisions, the "SADC shall in collaboration with the African Union and the United Nations consider other options to restore constitutional normalcy.”

When the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), deposed President Robert Mugabe a fortnight ago, the SADC Organ Troika held an emergency meeting in Gaborone following which it released a statement that reaffirmed the body’s commitment to the African Union Constitutive Act and its own Democratic Principles “as they relate to the unconstitutional removal of democratically-elected governments.” The Troika “noted with great concern the unfolding situation in the Republic of Zimbabwe” and “called upon all stakeholders in Zimbabwe to settle the political challenges through peaceful means.” No condemnation of the coup plotters, no threat of military action (that is exactly what “other options” meant in Madagascan case) and the language was equivocation writ large. With regard to the latter, reaffirming commitment “as they relate to the unconstitutional removal of democratically-elected governments” is not as precise as “strongly condemns in the strongest terms the circumstances that led to the ousting of a democratically elected president of Madagascar.”

There is absolutely no question about what a coup d’etat is but the leader of Zimbabwe’s, General Constantino Chiwenga, insisted that what he had contrived was not one. By not disputing this claim, SADC essentially gave legitimacy to the false claim. .  According to the New York Times, a Zim war veteran leader, who knew about the coup beforehand, flew to South Africa and managed to convince SADC Chairperson, President Jacob Zuma, to not publicly refer to the coup as a coup. Try to understand what Chiwenga said in the context of a rather unusual law enforcement challenge at a popular Gaborone West butchery that occurred some time back. When cornered and later found hiding in a deep freezer, a nocturnal petty thief protested his innocence by insisting that he was actually waiting for the first Route 2 taxi-buses – or “combis” as they are commonly known

SADC needs to refurbish its understanding of what a coup is in the context of an army that is actually part of the party in power. Beyond its official mandate, ZDF is the armed wing of ZANU-PF, which has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. When Mugabe has given orders to brutalise members of the opposition, such task fell to the ZDF. That the ZDF is part of ZANU-PF was confirmed by Chiwenga at a press conference that he addressed two days before the coup when he spoke not about national security but party politics.

“The current purging and cleansing process in ZANU-PF which so far is targeting mostly members associated with our liberation history is a serious cause for concern for us in the defense forces," Chiwenga said.

The ZDF commander is concerned about the purging and cleansing of ZANU-PF struggle veterans and not those of other political parties. Were that the case, he would have long waged a coup to protest the purging and cleansing of war veterans who happened to belong to Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) or Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Within those movements themselves, it is likely there is internal purging and cleansing of struggle veterans that Chiwenga is obviously not too concerned about. As a matter of fact, when he commanded the First Brigade, Chiwenga is alleged to have participated in Gukurahundi, a genocidal campaign that was executed by the Fifth Brigade and mostly targetted ZAPU members in Matebeleland.

By claiming ability to deal with coups SADC has over-reached itself it doesn’t have processes for dealing with conflict situations in which the army is part of the party in power in an officially unacknowledged but discernible manner. A pattern could also be emerging here. SADC has intervened militarily in Lesotho and threatened to do so in Madagascar. The language of the Troika make clear the fact that it had no plans to do so in Zimbabwe. The latter is a large country with a military as large with members who gained war experience during the liberation struggle and possibly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the other hand, Lesotho and Madagascar are just small nations whose armies can be easily cowed into submission.

SADC’s assertions about adherence to democratic principles are, at best, a charade and at worst, a scam that is being perpetrated on an unwitting regional populace. The body’s aversion to coups is not fundamentally different to similar collective sentiment (that’s subtracting President Ian Khama) about the International Criminal Court (ICC). Opposition to both is motivated not by principle but an impulse for self-preservation. Given the extent of autocracy and greed on the continent generally and on the region particularly, the spectre of prosecution at The Hague or being toppled in a military coup forever looms large. Political leaders take out insurance policies in the form of the AU’s Constitutive Act and rejection of the ICC as well as SADC’s Democratic Principles. The racial motivation of the ICC can’t be denied but if African leaders were really interested in democracy, they would adhere to its basic principles. If SADC genuinely cared about democracy, it would ensure underlying political conditions in member countries enable it to thrive. Say Botswana parties reach a stalemate on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and the situation deteriorates to a point where, to quote Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, “we are ready to pay with our lives.” Would SADC intervene when Keorapetse is paying with his life or when the government is subverting democratic process to force the use of EVMs?

Democracy in the context of post-liberation regimes is but a mirage and, Mugabe’s 37-year misrule and the chaos it produced are a symptom of the curse of liberation-struggle movements. The lesson from history is that with few exceptions (like South Africa and Somaliland) liberation movements don’t ever successfully evolve into wholesome democratic entities. They come to life in the bush as military formations and necessarily have to function outside democratic norms. They have an all-powerful leader who oversees a top-down command-and-control structure. Tragically, when the struggle ends, liberation movements form governments that all too often reflect in attitudes and com­position, their bush character. They don’t have adequate sensitivity to needs of the new political dispensation and given the contest for supremacy among such movements, the victorious one fails to establish sufficient basis for national identity and integration.

Three years ago, South Africa’s Brenthurst Foundation and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung co-hosted an international dialogue of leading struggle veterans, policy makers and experts in Cadenabbia, Italy. In order to enable frank and critical analysis, one of the rules for the dialogue was that contributions of individual participants could not be acknowledged by name. What came out was a no-names-no-pack-drill account that summarises participants’ impressions of what post-liberation regimes have become. In one respect, this account helps explain why the army’s ouster of Mugabe has been termed “Operation Restore Legacy.” (Generally, the coup’s messaging has been not a little but way off. For an army that has carried out high profile operations that have brought it into international disrepute, the “operation” tag was certainly not a stroke of genius. Given what ZANU-PF’s legacy was before Mugabe’s wife started meddling, announcing plans to “restore” is not wise choice of words.)

A document that summarises the Cadenabbia dialogue says that now in control of the apparatus of state power, post-liberation regimes have a powerful temptation to use that power – augmented and legitimised by the incorporation of former fighters into the security services – to repress forms of dissent; they can scarcely be expected to promote democracy because they are themselves non-democratic in origin; despite the rapid gen­erational change underway in African societies, they have an obsession with hyping their heroic contribu­tion when a significant portion of the population (the youth) has no personal mem­ory of the struggle at all; they are unable to distinguish the relatively straightforward objectives of the struggle and the much more complex needs of development and peacetime governance; they readily transform themselves into corporate states, in which a cadre of former senior fighters joins with other established interests to con­stitute a monolithic power block that excludes ordinary people; former fighters may establish their own businesses in sectors that are sensitive to politi­cal favours, or else be co-opted by existing companies in order to smooth relations with the regime; leadership change is made all the more difficult by the fact that leaders of liberation movements often come to power while they are still relatively young, and are consequently in a position to remain in office for a very considerable time; they regard themselves, not just as straightforward governments, but as the embodiment of the very state that they sought to establish through struggle; and in their own minds, they are permanently enti­tled to govern and don’t ever recognise that the liberation credit is finite. Most tragically, caught in a time warp they are unable to craft a fresh vision for the future. You have there a perfect description of South Africa’s ANC, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, Angola’s MPLA, Namibia’s SWAPO and Mozambique’s FRELIMO. As it happens, the latter – which are all ill-formed democratic entities - have a big say in the conception and superintendence of SADC’s democratic processes.

Christopher Clapham, a British scholar who attended the Cadenabbia dialogue, draws a grim conclusion about these movements: “Nowhere in Africa … has a liberation movement transformed itself seamlessly into a national government.” A month before the ANC celebrated its centenary, a South African politician, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, had implored the party to “drop struggle politics” with a similarly headlined op-ed in the country’s Sunday Times newspaper.

There is some euphoria about what is currently happening in Zimbabwe but the reality is that while Mugabe may be history, the structure and culture that he expertly put together over the past 37 years is Zimbabwe’s present and for now, its future. Someone (James Hamill at the University of Leicester) has provided useful language to describe the mirage that is now shimmering in the distance north of the Ramokgwebana border gate: “Mugabe-ism without Mugabe.” The new Zimbabwean leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was the Minister of Security during Gukurahundi and thus a Mugabe enforcer. Mnangagwa’s attempt to distance himself from this genocidal campaign suggests that one of the very first things that he will have to do is craft what at least sounds like a half-believable, non-patronising alibi.

But just in case, you dispute assertions about Zimbabwe entering a Mugabeism without Mugabe phase, listen to what the President-erect Mnangagwa said upon his return to Zimbabwe. Assuming a partisan tone, he chided detractors who "bark and complain" about ZANU-PF, adding dismissively, "Let them bark while we carry on ruling this country." By “we” he was referring to “members associated with our liberation history” while talking to an audience of young people who have no memory of the liberation war.