For all their claim to being each other’s nemesis, Ian Khama and Robert Mugabe are in many respects like identical twins.
Robert Mugabe was a strong-willed, no blows barred isolationist ideologue who pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth, pushed it to the brink as a result of biting economic sanctions and who grudgingly held elections but never accepted the results that gave anybody else victory other than himself.
In an hour of madness that sent the economy sprinting to the bottom, Mugabe not only seized white owned farms that he then doled out to his cronies, he also sent foreign investors packing after he made it difficult for them to repatriate their profits before passing laws that made it illegal for non-citizens to be majority holders of stock in their own companies. He liked to portray himself and his country as victims of a hostile world. Imperialists, he often called them.
“Zimbabwe will never be a colony again,” he once said unprovoked.
At the United Nations he often appointed himself Africa’s chief spokesperson who was all too happy to stand up to the bullies, railing against America and the Great Britain.
It never occurred to him that privately, a good number of his own countrymen perceived him as a bully on their doorstep.
And happy they were to see him sent off by the same army that had all along facilitated his heinous behavior.
Mugabe’s successor, Emerson Mnangagwa has in a way an easy task at hand.
He has to undo Mugabe’s toxic legacy of a near forty year misrule; overhaul the economy, reform that country’s politics including its view of the world, restore it to the glory from where Mugabe had withdrawn it – in short Mnangagwa has to pull Zimbabwe out from the dead and put it back to life.
All Mnangagwa needs to do is to say ‘I stand against all that Mugabe stood for’ and the ducks will fall into line.
Like Mnangagwa, Botswana’s Mokgweetsi Masisi will be required to do very few things right for him to outdo his predecessor – by a mile and a half.
You can hate Mugabe and Khama for their half-baked policies that sent their respective countries to ruin but still take heart from the immeasurable lessons that these two men taught their countries and respective peoples.
Zimbabweans needed Mugabe’s ruthlessness to help them get over with the euphoria of liberation politics. Botswana needed Khama’s brash legalistic approach to politics to help the country get over its vague attachment to exceptionalism.
During his tenure, Khama worked tirelessly to bring democracy to every corner of the world, except his own country.
After Khama, Botswana is a typical African country.
And Batswana readily accept it as such.
Either country had to go through a rough stretch and get close to the brink for it to come to terms with realism.
In totally unintended ways, the two men have through their gross defects become portals of great potential for their successors.
As a result neither Mnangagwa nor Masisi will need to do much to outdo their predecessor.
Neither successor should feign any surprise that the bars have been set so low for both of them.
They have their predecessors to thank.
That by itself does not elicit much excitement, certainly not for Masisi who has pretentions of intellectual verve, but also not for Mnangagwa who has lived under Mugabe’s shadow for over half a century while patiently waiting for his turn at the throne.
But still for either of the successors there can only be one outcome; success.
Mugabe so much soiled Zimbabwe that after him the country can only go up.
And it’s beginning to show.
Investors are now filing their way back into Zimbabwe. International interest on Zimbabwe has never been this high ÔÇô certainly not since the days when an errant Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence.
Zimbabweans in the Diaspora cannot wait to come back home.
Mnangagwa was this week in Davos, Switzerland rubbing shoulders with the world’s elite – big guns that had among them Donald Trump, the President of the United States.
In Davos, Mnangagwa’s speech was allotted prime time and broadcast live on many of the world’s leading television stations.
After that speech he gave numerous interviews including to some of the world’s most premier newspapers.
That would never happen under Mugabe ÔÇô an international pariah that had turned his country into the same.
The message was clear: Zimbabwe is back.
And the Zimbabweans cannot have enough of Mnangagwa. Every time he opens his mouth he finds a receptive audience ready to listen to him. After Mugabe, nothing can be worse. Thus Mnangagwa is like Santa Claus, bearing all the goodies. At least for now everybody has conveniently forgotten about his past; that for all of Mugabe’s long reign of terror, Mnangagwa was never too far away ÔÇô always a heartbeat away.
Botswana craves the same change that Zimbabwe is going through.
Mnangagwa and Masisi have similar patients.
Exactly what medicine Mnangagwa’s ascent is administering to Zimbabwe, Masisi too has to prescribe it to Botswana when he gets his turn in two months.
For two men the outcome will be the same, just as the net effect of their predecessors was in a big way of similar impact to their respective countries.