Mugabe in a tight spot


President Robert Mugabe must be a very lonely man today. All his peers are gone or are on their way out. Botswana President Ketumile Masire, one of Southern Africa’s longest serving presidents, is leaving at the end of March, before the end of his term, paving way for his deputy Festus Mogae. Lesotho’s ageing Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle has said he will not contest the general elections scheduled any time from April but within three months after that although the break-away party he founded last year, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, wanted him to continue as leader. South African President Nelson Mandela will be leaving next year and literally handed over power to his deputy Thabo Mbeki in December.

His other colleagues Julius Nyerere and Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Tanzania both vacated office voluntarily, making Tanzania one of the few African countries that has two surviving retired Heads of State. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia is now an opposition leader having been defeated by Frederick Chiluba in 1991 and being barred from contesting the 1996 elections. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the man who ruled Malawi with an iron hand until Bakili Muluzi ousted him in 1994, is now dead.

Only Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, whose countries were ravaged by war for years and are too preoccupied with rebuilding their countries, remain. Namibia’s Sam Nunjoma, though old, is a new comer and is perhaps his closest ally at the moment. He has already said he wants to stay for a third term and the country’s constitution, once hailed as one of the best on the continent, is being amended to accommodate him.

Although Mugabe still has four more years in office, the mass demonstrations organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in December and the “food” riots of January 19 to 21 must have jolted him because, for the first time in the 18 years that he has been at the helm of the country, Zimbabweans revolted against the way he is running the country and have been “calling for his head”. Though played down by the local mainline media, the message from the rioters was clear: “Step down.” One demonstrator during the December stay-away was quoted by Time magazine as saying: “We are saying ‘Down with Mugabe’. We are fed up with him.”

During the recent food riots it was common talk that the riots would continue for at least a week or until the government stepped down. It was only when the army was deployed into the high density suburbs and Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa had clearly stated that the army was going to shoot because they were not trained to use baton sticks that calm returned to the high density areas where most of the looting and disturbances were. Police had been completely outmanoeuvred.

With the situation almost back to normal, the dollar almost stable against the hard currencies, the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange on the recovery, donors reportedly coming forward with much needed aid, people are now wondering whether this is not the right time for President Mugabe, who celebrated his 74th birthday on February 21, to step down while people still have some respect for him.

“If I were Mugabe I would step down at the nearest clearing of the clouds with whatever scraps of dignity I might still have,” one political analyst said. “The ordinary person in Zimbabwe is now fed up and is very unhappy with the way things are. And on his 74th birthday Mugabe would really be wise to say this is the last 21st February birthday that we will celebrate with me as Head of State.”

But it is not only the average Zimbabwean that is not happy with the way things are. Even his lieutenants now also appear to be unhappy. Some are reported to be openly saying Mugabe is not only out of touch but is now “a liability to the party”. Masvingo provincial leader, Dzikamai Mavhaire probably summed it up when he told Parliament: “We, parliamentarians, seem to be useless. We are just there to give ZANU-PF the required majority number of seats.”

Mavhaire was debating a motion to change the country’s constitution and limit the president’s term to two five-year terms. At the moment the president’s term is six years and one can contest as many times as one wants. Debating the same motion, Magwegwe-Pumula MP Norman Zikhali said MPs were not rebelling against the ruling party or the executive. They were merely expressing the sentiments of the people they represented.

This would have been unheard of a few years ago. But even the village party leaders, considered the backbone of Mugabe’s support, now openly defy him as they did on December 5 when they bluntly told him that they could not accept the proposed tax increases. Analysts, however, say despite the disgruntlement which most people believe is still simmering and only waiting to explode, President Mugabe is likely to stay on until his term expires in 2002.

“He has a lot of spite for his underlings so he doesn’t really see a Zimbabwe without him at the helm,” one analyst said. “I think he is going to try to hold on until 2002. If he was thinking of stepping down, he would have let Joshua Nkomo go. A rational person would have let Joshua Nkomo go. A rational person would have allowed Mze (Simon Muzenda) to go. He (Mugabe) is the youngest of the three. As he holds on and as he continues to persuade these old guard to stay on, he is saying it’s not time to go. You want to set a dangerous precedent for me to go.”

Joshua Nkomo will be 81 and Muzenda 76 this year.

Once a very popular and charismatic leader, President Mugabe has over the years lost the support of the average Zimbabwean, especially the urban voter, because of the way he has been handling national affairs. He has brushed off national problems as petty issues, a thing some people have described as arrogance at its worst.

He ignored the national strike by civil servants in 1996, went off to the South African sea resort of Cape Town on a honeymoon with his new bride while the country was almost paralysed. From Cape Town he went to attend the Southern African Development Community Summit in Maseru, Lesotho. From Maseru, he flew into the country only to lambaste the striking civil servants before taking off for Nairobi to open an agricultural show there. It was only after he realised that the civil servants were not giving in that he bowed to the pressure and awarded them salary increases and bonuses that had not been budgeted for.

When war veterans took to the streets last year demanding to meet him as their patron and air their grievances, he ignored them for months. He only met them when there were increasing threats of insurrection. And as he had done with the civil servants the year before, he awarded them gratuities and pensions that had not been budgeted for.

The same happened with the demonstrations by workers in December. While Harare was on fire, he had the audacity to give his State of the Nation address which completely ignored the chaos across the road leaving most Zimbabweans wondering what country he was talking about in his address.

During the food riots in January, although some reports said he was on leave, in a typical example of how “out of touch” he has become, he appeared on national television (and on the front page of the national daily) admiring the tobacco crop of an indigenous farmer. Instead of commenting on the worst riots to rock the country, he did not even mention them and instead dwelt on the land issue which, though very important, was more of an insult to most of the urban rioters since they were complaining about price increases. Some were heard to say they did not want the land but jobs.

Once regarded as a “clean” leader who even tried to introduce a leadership code through which all political leaders had to register their assets, although the results of the exercise were never published, President Mugabe has lost a lot of credibility because of the way he has dealt with those believed to be corrupt and those close to him who have been awarded tenders in a manner that is not very transparent. Most of the government leaders involved in the Willowgate car scandal have now been taken back. Nothing has happened to those allegedly involved in the VIP housing scandal. The same applies to those who “looted” the War Victims Compensation Fund where the biggest beneficiary was his brother-in-law Reward Marufu.

His nephew Leo Mugabe is “everywhere”. He won the tender to construct the new Harare International Airport amid a lot of controversy which resulted in some countries even withdrawing their aid. Up to now the project has not really taken off and is now estimated at $1.7 billion. He is also into the cellular phone saga as a shareholder in Telecel.

His other nephew is in Joy TV. Observers say, no matter how hard President Mugabe tries to distance himself and make it look like his nephews are in business on their own, it is very difficult for people to swallow. They are too young and “came from nowhere”. Besides, some have even argued, Leo is not that powerful that parliamentarians who had refused to approve a loan for the airport would change their minds for him. The only person who commands that kind of loyalty is President Mugabe himself.

To make matters worse, a lot of people are infuriated by the way he seems to give preference to external affairs and overseas trips. People, especially students and “netters” have nicknamed him, at one time or another: “Vasco da Gama, Visiting President, and Mu Non-Res” (for non resident President), just to name a few.

While some argue that he has been making blunders because he is misinformed by his lieutenants, others argue that while there may be an element of truth in this, Mugabe, who obtained several degrees through correspondence while in detention and after and continued to obtain more as head of government, is a well read person. He is quite aware of what is happening but he ignores it hoping that it will pass. And it looks he has simply stopped caring. Some believe that one of his major problems is that he is not getting as much support and advice from the First Lady, Grace, as he got from Sally.

Sally, these people argue was a political force in her own right and was a pillar in his life. Sally, who was a member of the ruling party’s politburo, was so powerful that those who wanted to forge ahead had to bow to her. Those who helped her especially to check on those she considered political threats to her husband were adequately rewarded.

Grace made it clear that she would avoid politics and concentrate on charity. But her biggest problem is that she is generally regarded as an opportunist whose main aim is to secure a future for herself and her three children, at any cost. Besides her $6 million dollar mansion, there have been reports, difficult to ascertain, that she now owns, out of the blue, several businesses. During the riots, some looters are said to have ransacked one supermarket chain simply because they claimed it did not belong to the so-called owner but to the First Lady.

Some people also complained that she wasted taxpayer’s money by building a mansion she did not want to occupy. “She is a disgrace,” one resident was quoted by The Sunday Times of London as saying during the foods riots. “How can the government go about putting up taxes and asking the people to be patient when a house like that (reportedly with 32 rooms) is built and then left empty?”

She has not endeared herself with cabinet ministers either who claim she is denying them access to the President. The same paper quotes one as saying: “one has to crawl on one’s belly like a crocodile on ground spread with fresh dung, bare-footed and clapping one’s hands, before you can get past her to see the emperor.”

It must be obvious therefore, even to President Mugabe, that he is losing his grip.

Some commentators are already drawing parallels between the present Zimbabwe and Kenneth Kaunda’s last days eight years ago. Among the similarities according to one commentator are: the budget crisis, the exchange rate collapse, business confidence at an 18-year low, mounting industrial unrest and food riots. The only difference with Zambia is that while in Zambia there was a united, powerful opposition in the form of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, there is no mass opposition party in Zimbabwe, although there appears to be moves to form some coalition.

And according to The Financial Times, even “those with plenty of ammunition to criticise the government – business leaders- seem reluctant to accept that a change in leadership, if not in government, is needed to redeem the situation”. The commandeering of corporate foreign currency accounts last November, curbs on forward cover transactions and the partial re-imposition of food price controls suggest that Mr Mugabe is not the man to champion economic reform,” The Financial Times says. “Yet…business leaders maintain that the country’s problems would be solved provided business, government and labour all pulled together.”

Having won its biggest victory largely through the spontaneous response to its call for a national strike on December 9, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions now seems to be more aware of where the power rests- the people. For the first time in years, it is the “povo” that is calling the shots.

“Unless people see actual changes in personnel at the top, they are going to continue to be dissatisfied with the status quo,” one observer said. “If a new team was appointed into the cabinet, or if a new president came into office, people would say let’s give them a chance. They would get something like one or two or three years to improve the lot of Zimbabweans but if there is no change in leadership, the people are going to continue to be hitting the streets for concessions.”-

Events over the past two years seem to confirm this. “Civil servants went on strike in 1996 and they won,” the observer noted. “Nurses and doctors went on strike and they won. War veterans demonstrated and they won. The ZCTU organised a nation-wide strike and they won. And after the riots of 1998 the people again won. So the message to the people clearly is ‘if you hit the streets you win’. Eventually they will make some outrageous demands, like we want the whole cabinet to stand down, or even the President and Vice-Presidents to stand down. If the government says no, people will take- t o the streets, expecting to win.”

With all these odds against him, one is bound to ask, why is President Mugabe not simply retiring while the going is still good? “It is sheer naivety, which says I am invincible,” one observer said. “Another reason why he might actually stay on is sheer senility. The situation is collapsing around him and he doesn’t even realise it. Of course the so-called dead wood around him might be saying sweet nothings in his ears, giving him a picture that all is well. He may actually have a totally misconstrued idea about Zimbabwe.”

Though as an elected leader, President Mugabe has every right to stay in power until his term expires, he could also be doing some damage to the country. Right now, some people are even scared of what will happen when he goes. Although he has pointed out that it is not his duty to groom his successor, he has kept the same old guard in power and shut out young hopefuls that there could be chaos when he goes.

One observer bluntly put it: “He is not thinking of the nation by holding on to the geriatrics who could be wiped (through natural deaths because they are simply old) within a few months of each other leaving a vacuum.”

Only time will tell. But Zimbabweans will not have to wait too long. The ruling ZANU-PF will be holding its congress next year at which it will elect the party leadership to last until 2 004. This will be the ideal time for Mugabe to step down and give room to his successor as president of the party. Even if he continues as President of the State, at least the nation as well as investors, will be assured of a smooth transition.

While this may have been unthinkable in the past, since the party leader has always been the head of state or government, it is now accepted that it can be done. South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela –though leaders here do not always want to be compared with Pretoria– has set a precedent worth emulating. It would score a few points for Mugabe if he does the same.


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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