Why Mugabe’s rightful ouster may not usher in democracy overnight for Zimbabwe

There was understandable joy after Mugabe resigned but questions need to be asked in the same breath as to why this is happening after 37 years

It was obvious watching the celebratory scenes beamed on TV from Harare that this was a momentous time in the life of many people in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, the only president many of them have known in their lifetime, finally resigned after 37 years in power and an extraordinary sequence of events that were precipitated by the nonagenarian’s decision to fire his powerful vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa on November 6.

By now the details are familiar enough to anyone with even a passing interest in the southern African nation’s affairs but the question that is conspicuously absent — willfully or otherwise — is why have the stalwarts who all benefited from Mugabe’s dictatorial reign of corruption, intimidation and bribery all decided now is the best time to oust their leader.

Make no mistake this is no eulogy for Mugabe, a feckless and corrupt man who has left a once prosperous nation in ruins. This is undoubtedly what he deserves; that he manages to leave office with a modicum of dignity still intact is testament to the fact this coup — despite the military’s best efforts to say otherwise — is all about redistribution of what’s left of Zimbabwe’s wealth for the minute elite and not motivated by a love of country, democracy or poverty-stricken Zimbabweans.

According to a report by Jason Burke, the Guardian’s correspondent in Harare, “in the capital [Harere], the roads are potholed, outside they are cracked and crumbling. Banks are so short of cash that people wait hours to withdraw even tiny sums. The only jobs are in government service, yet salaries are rarely paid. The best and the brightest have long fled abroad. Warehouses are empty, fields lie fallow. The busiest store in rural villages is the “bottle shop”, selling dirt-cheap spirits.”

This paints a grim picture of a country that has been looted and pillaged by Mugabe and his cronies, the same powerful members of his Zanu-PF party who were threatened by Grace, Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife’s naked ambition to succeed her husband. Nicknamed “Gucci Grace” for her penchant for expensive shopping, including a reported £75,000 spree in one afternoon in Paris a few years back, Grace at first had no interest in politics. She began as a typist in the State House in the early 90s until she caught Mugabe’s eyes and an affair ensued between her and the man 41 years her senior. Grace was a single mother at the time, Mugabe was married to Sally, his first wife, who was dying of cancer at the time and who apparently gave her consent to the union. By all accounts the Zimbabwean public never warmed to Grace as much as they did to Sally, and her fiery temper has certainly done nothing to help her curry favour in the court of public opinion. There was the alleged assault on the South African model she met in the company of her sons in August, and instead of turning herself in to the authorities, she fled back home instead. Grace was given diplomatic immunity in the end.

Grace Mugabe’s ascent to political relevance began in 2014 at the urging of Jonathan Moyo, an ambitious Zanu-PF politician, who in a bid to save himself, saw the First Lady as a valuable tool to achieve his goal. In 2004 Moyo was on the bad books of Mugabe for a failed power move plotted alongside, ironically, Mnangagwa. The former VP was unscathed in the fallout but Moyo wasn’t so lucky. Yet he worked his way back to prominence until 2014 when Mugabe referred to him as a “weevil’. Desperate to secure his own future he began working with Grace. First she became the leader of the women’s wing of Zanu-PF, gaining a seat at the table of the party. Next she orchestrated the ouster of Joice Mujuru, her husband’s vice president, for allegedly plotting against the president. Mnangagwa was appointed. Grace in conjunction with Moyo led the G-40 faction of the Zanu-PF, a coalition of young party members backing the First Lady to succeed the president before his demise. Time wasn’t on their side, which is why Grace plotted Mnangagwa’s exit in order to become VP first and then president later. Crucially, Mnangagwa’s Lacoste — Crocodile — faction were patient, confident that they would sweep to power after Mugabe’s demise simply because they had the backing of the Zimbabwe Defence Force. Most of those behind the former VP fought side by side with Mugabe in the Liberation war. They all benefited immensely from Mugabe’s reign and were content to let him have his way. Then Grace happened.

What happens in the immediate future is clear. Mnangagwa, at 75, will become Zimbabwe’s next president. The international community for years has shown it is comfortable with a Mnangagwa presidency. South Africa, the regional leader, has shown tacit support even if they’re unwilling to admit. Same goes for China. Chinese businessmen have invested millions of dollars in the failed state and the government maintains a strategic partnership with the ZDF. Business will continue as usual.

The elections scheduled for next summer will almost certainly not hold, yet it’s inconceivable to see how Mnangagwa wins a genuinely free and fair election. The 75-year-old is a pragmatist and unwedded to the liberation dogma espoused by his predecessor; he recognizes the need for foreign investment, a better relationship with the EU and US in a bid to revitalize an economy that has been left to struggle badly under Mugabe. There’s a reasonable chance he’ll end up being like Paul Kagame in Rwanda, a benevolent dictator who the West can tolerate despite his inability to tolerate dissent. The problem for Mnangagwa, however, is all of these are policy positions, excellent as they are, but his reputation as Mugabe’s henchman particularly the alleged purging of Joshua Nkomo’s opposition during the 1983 Matabeleland massacre precedes him with Zimbabweans. He needs a veneer of respectability, which is why there are rumours he could form a unity government of sorts with Mujuru, now an opposition leader, and the ailing Morgan Tsvangarai, who for all his faults, remains Zimbabwe’s favourite politician.

What happens to the poor people of Zimbabwe is less clear. Will there ever be a functioning democracy? For how long will Mnangagwa, responsible for dismantling Mugabe’s opposition, stay in power? There are no obvious answers to these important questions. This is an internecine conflict playing out on the world stage. This intervention is simply jobs for the boys, veterans who chose to sit idly in the face of inequality — and in many cases they encouraged it — and only decided to act when their share of the national pie was threatened. There’s nothing in this that favours the ordinary Zimbabwean, and while Mugabe’s exit is the right step, there’s a gnawing feeling that it could be in the wrong direction.

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