Updated: Feb 12
Having observed intensely the recent events in Zimbabwe, I found myself remembering a favourite Ancient Greek legend. As a boy, I was infatuated with the plight of Hercules and his 12 Labours. In order to restore his honour and repent his sin of murdering his family, Hercules had to complete 12 impossible labours. One of these labours included destroying the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra was a beast so formidable that even if you cut off one of its heads two more would replace it.
I believe that Zimbabwe is now facing a Hydra of sorts. Before I further articulate my mythological anecdote it is important to understand the story of the deposed Robert Mugabe, the current situation in Zimbabwe, and what it means for its future.
Robert Mugabe, as many who have followed the story may know, was the former President of Zimbabwe for the last 37 years. His grip on power was unchallenged, his opponents nowhere to be seen. Simon Tisdall of the Guardian describes Mugabe as a “cunning” and “intellectual character” possibly an allusion to Mugabe’s background as a teacher. So how is it that a former teacher became the leader of a country for nearly forty years?
Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, was ruled by a white minority since its colonisation by the British Empire in 1890. During his time as teacher Mugabe began to loathe this system of governance and embraced African Nationalism as well as the works of Lenin and Karl Marx. This inevitably led Mugabe to join several political parties in the early 1960s before settling for The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) in 1963.
A decade or so later in 1977 Mugabe seized power within his party. Having served time in prison Mugabe was able to gather a following which allowed him to gain control of ZANU-PF’s political body and military wing. His affection for Marxist ideals, particularly those of the Mao interpretation, allowed Mugabe to receive a majority of military equipment from China. This helped ZANU-PF’s fight against the Government during the “Rhodesian Bush War”. The war eventually ended with the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, with Mugabe signing the accords ending minority rule in Rhodesia. The next year Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and a general election was soon held which Mugabe won with ease. It should be here where the story ends, yet the Mugabe story was only beginning.
Mugabe soon began to experience leadership paranoia, with his brutal handling of the Matabeleland. In 1982, in an effort to crackdown on dissent from the Zimbabwe Africa People’s Union (ZAPU), Mugabe sent his North Korean trained Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland North. According to The International Association of Genocide Scholars this expedition “cost over 20,000 lives”. The accusations were discredited and dismissed highlighting the strong authoritarian nature of Mugabe’s early rule. Eventually, Mugabe would invite and, successfully, merge his party ZANU-PF with ZAPU. This merger essentially established a “de facto” one-party state with him in total control.
Politically Mugabe controlled Zimbabwe inside out, however his decisions would soon negatively impact the economy. Within the first year of the new millennium, Mugabe instigated a constitutional reform that essentially expanded presidential powers, further empowering his position as head of state. Shortly after Mugabe encouraged the seizure of white-owned land leading to widespread violence. According to Rhoda E Howard-Hassmann, Zimbabwe had generated more than two million tons of maize in 2000 but by 2008 only generated a mere 450,000 tons. Furthermore, a growing issue of inflation began to rage rampant. Andrew Norman highlights in his book Mugabe: Teacher, Revolutionary, Tyrant that inflation rates by 2008 had exceeded 100,000% creating a nation of “trillionaires”. The economy has hardly changed since then, and thus the events of the last two weeks seemed in many ways expected.
Since then Mugabe’s reign has hardly changed course, which has lead to the events that the world has witnessed over the last few weeks. The military rolled into the capital of Harare on the 15th nine days after Mugabe fired his former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. This eventually lead to Mugabe stepping down on the 21st of November signalling mass jubilation nationwide, as Mugabe’s 39-year-old rule had finally ended. Now Democracy could finally prevail!
Recent reports suggest that the resignation of Mugabe was achieved through compromise. According to Elias Mambo of the Zimbabwe Independent Mugabe has been “granted full immunity and a US$10 million lump sum payment, full monthly salary, medical cover, security as well as protection of his private properties,”. In addition, Father Fidelis Mukonori, the Jesuit priest, who aided the negotiations of Mugabe’s resignation has claimed that Mugabe will still provide a political role in Mnangagwa’s presidency. None of this information indicates any degree of transparency in the transfer of power from Mugabe to Mnangagwa. It also highlights a concerning issue of whether this transfer of power means any fundamental change to Zimbabwe’s governance.
In 2011 Muammar Gaddafi’s military dictatorship ended after a mass uprising from the Arab world during the Arab Spring. Every western country and media believed finally democracy would come to a country that desperately needed it. Now Libya is an embroiled in a land war between armed militias including ISIS as the Government continues to wage an exhausting war on Islamic extremists. The same could be said for Egypt. Following jubilant celebrations and euphoria, at the overthrow of a corrupt government, the country is now under a Military Dictatorship.
Now although what has occurred in Zimbabwe may have elements parallel to what occurred during the Arab Spring, it is fundamentally different. The Arab Spring was a movement initiated by the majority of each country’s population. Zimbabwe’s so-called ‘coup’ did not involve the people. What really happened was that the ruling party ZANU-PF had grown tired of their dear old Robert.
Having turned 93 this year, the party had noticed the growing confidence of the opposition parties in openly protesting the President. They feared the repercussions of allowing poor Rob from holding onto his power, that the party would face mass criticism or worse; eventual civil war. The party elite recognized this fear emphatically when Mnangagwa was replaced by “Gucci” Grace Mugabe, Mugabe’s wife. They recognized the hatred towards this nepotism Mugabe had instated within their party and worried this would weaken their power. Therefore, in order to hold onto their power, ZANU-PF conspired with the military and positioned Mnangagwa as the next leader of the party and country.
ZANU-PF played this strategy well as they understood that the removal of Mugabe by any means would play well for the rest of Zimbabwe’s population. Zimbabweans became blinded by their joy of seeing the removal of Mugabe that they failed to notice that the party that served with him remains. Activists have recently expressed concerned over the potential “human rights crackdown” that Mnangagwa may potentially carry out as his track record under Mugabe seems disconcerting. A concern which by no means has anything to do with the nickname “the Crocodile” Mnangagwa carries.
Mugabe, therefore, may have been the Zimbabwean Hydra’s first head to have been chopped off. This beheading does not, unfortunately, mean the Hydra has been slain, however. The Hydra’s head has been replaced by two more, the military and Emmerson Mnangagwa. For the people of Zimbabwe, they must remain vigilant and continue to fight for their democratic rights. Rather than replacing one strongman with another they must confront the corrupt menace of their ruling party.