Robert Mugabe once said, “I will never, never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.” He repeated the word “never” four times.
If he was speaking in defence of his citizenship rights, I would have agreed with him. For like Mugabe, I am a passport-holding citizen of the same country. Like him, “I will never, never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine. I am a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans”.
Citizenship is where the similarities between Mugabe and I end. Mugabe has been a politician of dubious democratic credentials.
At the time he made that statement, in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections in which he and his ZANU-PF party lost to Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, Mugabe was rebutting demands that he step down – which is what losers in a democratic election are supposed to do. He showed that same stubborn resistance to change as power was stripped from him, literally at gunpoint, over the last eight days. However subtly they made it look, the army – under the same generals who said they would not allow Tsvangirai to take office as President in 2008 – pushed Mugabe from the presidency this week, and look set to install the man Mugabe fired as his vice-president a fortnight earlier, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Known by his followers as Ngwena, which means crocodile, Mnangagwa is reported to have escaped the hangman’s noose under the pre-independence white government after being convicted for murder and terror offences. He served a 10-year jail term instead, before being deported to Zambia.
Mnangagwa memorably confessed, during a surreal Damascene moment, that he had been “trained to kill”, but that he had become a Bible-believing Christian and had turned to God for salvation. It was a good time to do so, for his ZANU-PF government was in the early days of an unpredictable, internationally-brokered coalition government that took shape in early 2009.
Tsvangirai, a reformist, had become Prime Minister in the coalition – and nominally, Mnangagwa’s boss – but real power remained in the hands of Mugabe, who stayed on as President. After the initial hopefulness, it became a lop-sided coalition administration that ended with the 2013 elections, which Mugabe and ZANU-PF handsomely won to be able to govern on their own once more.
Today Mugabe’s resistance has been broken, but not by the ballot. Forced into an eight-day hiatus which started on November 14 when troops seized the state broadcaster, put Mugabe under house arrest and sent tanks into central Harare, the man who dared the courts, the constitution, international opinion, a referendum loss in the year 2000, even the 2008 election defeat, to retain near-imperial powers for 37 years, was abruptly diminished to a captive in his own home at the whims of General Constantine Chiwenga, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces chief. It was painful to watch – painful even for me, by no means a Mugabe admirer.
I should have wished Mugabe all the misery and humiliation the generals could possibly have heaped on him in these last eight days. I should have applauded the sight of his hunched frame, his sagging eyes, and the pathetic speech he gave on live television on 16 November which everyone thought would be a resignation speech, but which was a rambling call for unity and forgiveness.
If ZANU-PF could forgive the erstwhile white rulers of the country when they first came to power in 1980, surely they could now forgive each other for any “misunderstandings”, Mugabe said. Forgiveness? That is a fragile concept in ZANU-PF.
The whites may have spent two decades of “forgiveness” on their spacious farms and in their lordly mansions, but it was thrown right back in their faces when the Zimbabwean electorate rejected Mugabe’s constitutional proposals removing constraints on compulsory land acquisitions, in the year 2000. It was a first national poll defeat for Mugabe, and he took it badly. The whites, barely 0.3 per cent of the electorate, were blamed for “turning out in their thousands” to vote against the reforms. At least a dozen whites paid with their lives, and many more were savagely attacked and dispossessed, as a land redistribution exercise driven by vengeance, and led by mobs rather than government agricultural experts, swung into gear.
I should have rejoiced and danced, like my fellow-countrymen, at this slow-motion humiliation of Mugabe, but I did not. Why? Mugabe’s removal was a military operation. The military are meant to be used in defensive and offensive actions against security threats to a nation. But they are not constitutionally authorized to remove a Head of State, however errant the Head of State might be. The role of removing an incompetent Head of State – which, let it be said, Mugabe was – is vested in another institution: parliament. Zimbabwe has a parliament, and a constitution, and a constitutional court.
The parliament was only engaged on the eighth and final day of the crisis, two days after Mugabe’s party announced on Sunday that it had dislodged him as party president. The courts have had no bearing on the resolution of the crisis. But the army certainly had. The generals, their troops, and their tanks are conspicuous on television grabs, performing the roles that the Zimbabwe Republic Police are mandated to do.
Where are the police, who were visible every few kilometres along city roads and inter-city highways when I was in Zimbabwe barely three months ago? Why should I celebrate a military-driven change of my country’s civilian leadership? What will stop the military from doing something similar in the future? And what message might the success of this military action send to generals across Africa and elsewhere?
Clayton Peel, a former journalist with The Chronicle newspaper in Zimbabwe, is now Chair of Media and Film Studies at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.