Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

The confusing simplifications underlying calls for Mugabe to go

Posted by CM on December 9, 2008

On a surface level the many and escalating international calls for Robert Mugabe ‘to go’ could not be more clear cut. Many would find tremendous satisfaction at the idea of a passionately hated Mugabe to be forced out of office one way or another.  For a good part of the population in  Zimbabwe (I find myself unable to confidently say an overwhelming majority) and particularly in many parts of the Western world (not necessarily for the same reasons) Mugabe the person has come to symbolise all that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe. Whether this is fair or correct will occupy scholars for decades to come.

For those  for whom Mugabe has become the symbol of evil, the question of what exactly is hoped will be achieved by his departure probably sounds silly, if not downright suspicious or outrageous. Isn’t it obvious why Mugabe must go?

To some it is indeed obvious that once such an ‘evil’ presence is out of power, things in Zimbabwe must somehow improve, almost no matter what else happens in addition to the removal of Mugabe from power. To  others, it really doesn’t matter all that much what happens afterwards as long as the hate-inspiring personage of Mugabe is no longer on the scene.

The first assumption is naive, the second cynical. Unfortunately, both naivete and cynicism account for a lot of the (particularly distant) reaction to “The Zimbabwe Crisis.”  It has become such a symbolic cause for so many different things that for a lot of people, what becomes of the Zimbabweans is secondary. Many oppose or support what Mugabe symbolises for them (ideologically, racially, etc) more than they care about the eventual outcome of Zimbabwe’s multi-layered problems for its people.

Here are just a few of the many relevant but unclear details it would be necessary to know about the ‘Mugabe must go’ campaign.

Would it be considered enough for he as an individual to step down and be replaced by someone else from within his party to carry on with the currently stalled power-sharing talks between ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC? Or are the calls really for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF to resign as the government and hand over power to the MDC, based on the latter’s win of a slight majority in the recent parliamentary and presidential election?

There is the fact that the MDC won more seats than ZANU-PF in the parliamentary election of March 2008. And even according to government figures that many believe to have been fixed to save face for Mugabe, he was outpolled by Tsvangirai in the presidential contest, though allegedly closely enough to require a run off election. Mugabe’s legalistic reason for claiming to be the legitimate president who cannot be told ‘to go’ is that Tsvangirai chose not to stand in the run-off, citing unconducive state-sponsored violence, thereby automatically forfeiting the election to Mugabe.

Of course those who call for Mugabe to go are overlooking this election legalism as a ridiculous technical gambit. He in turn holds on to it very tightly as a reason for remaining president in any power-sharing agreement.

None of these details have been dealt with by those calling for Mugabe to step down for the obvious reason that the details are not really the point: for many the departure of Mugabe has become the point. But if the system he heads now remains in place after he goes, how much change would this represent? Is Mugabe so personally powerful that the system would crumble on his exit? That is possible but not a foregone conclusion.

Or is he merely (or mostly) the figurehead, albeit a powerful one, of a system that could continue in power, changed or not, without him?

If the system (ZANU-PF) were able to continue in power after the ‘sacrifice’ of Mugabe stepping down in response to international pressure, would this represent a meaningful change for Zimbabwe? Would those powerful forces who particularly revile Mugabe as a person be satisfied with drawing blood by having him step down? Would they then be willing to ‘work with’ a ZANU-PF successor on the basis that anybody would be better than Mugabe as president, even if the ‘preferred option’ of Tsvangirai as president were not achieved ?

Is Mugabe such a dominant force in ZANU-PF that if the party were able to hold on in power even after his forced resignation, there would be a dramatic change in the party’s policies? And if so, would those changes necessarily result in an overall improvement of the situation in Zimbabwe, assuming also that the party under a new ruling leader would be able to re-engage with the ‘international community?’  Is it enough (for Zimbabweans and for that ‘international community’) for the main change to be Mugabe’s departure?

Or would ZANU-PF as the ruling party with someone other than Mugabe at the helm remain essentially the same, complete with its refusal to share power with the MDC, and with its so far disastrous go-it-alone attitude with regards to a Western world that is simply not accustomed to dealing with such a ‘rebellious’ African state in a continent of weak, Western-dependent countries?

These questions are vital to the fortunes of Zimbabwe, and are relevant even if Mugabe is eventually forced out by age or natural death, rather than immediately by local political and foreign diplomatic pressure.

Mugabe is an unusually powerful symbol, both for his supporters and for his opponents. Such is the nature of the combination of his political cunning, his clarity of articulation, his fearlessness, his ruthlessness and his intellectual sharpness.  And there is no questioning how unusually personally dominant he has been able to become in the party he leads and over Zimbabwe’s whole political landscape. But it is far from sure that the general intransigence that is come to be associated with Zimbabwe’s government is entirely due to Mugabe’s personal dominance.

We may not know to what extent except in hindsight several years down the road, but ZANU-PF as a political force, positive and/or negative,  is far more than just Mugabe. It would suffer a serious dent as a force to reckon with if it no longer had him to lead it, but the assumption that it would either crumble or radically change course is not necessarily correct.

It has been seriously corroded over the years, but there is no doubting that ZANU-PF was forged and toughened over many years by a very strong defining philosophy of African independence.  The internal cohesiveness that was formed by its bitter path to power through a bloody liberation struggle is poorly understood and under-estimated abroad. It is far from being a simple political gathering of mindless, bloodthirsty looters and murderers as shallowly portrayed in much of the media we are exposed to.

This is not to deny that greed, intimidation, power-lust and murder have increasingly come to the fore as the party has lost its way over the years. And in the the increasingly messy efforts to retain that power in the face of economic and moral decline it  has lost much of its gloss amongst a population that once overwhelmingly supported it.

The point is that however diluted, corrupted or out of fashion it may have become, there still remains a strong ideological core that binds ZANU-PF together. A broad Africanist thrust may have been increasingly replaced by ‘the white world is out to get us’ consipracy-theorising, but both are powerful glues within ZANU-PF in a way that much of the media that has made Zimbabwe its specialty shows very little sign of appreciating. And of course at many levels of the party, its role as a means to the benefits of patronage in a dilapidated economy is another very strong incentive for members to stick together and try to fight off local and foreign foes by any means available.

So ZANU-PF is still very much a system, and its resistive/intransigent power cannot be simply or entirely reduced to that if its current leader, no matter how personally, politically and militarily powerful he has been allowed to become.

ZANU-PF as a system may therefore be severely wounded without Mugabe as its powerful figurehead, but those who put all their hope of positive change in Zimbabwe in the mere exit of Mugabe the person may be barking up the wrong tree.

It must also be remembered that for all its many failures and its repressive excess, it’s history and what remains of its original ideological defining center still has a core of support amongst the voters. Given what is widely assumed to have been widespread rigging in several of the most recent elections and the voter intimidation that accompanied them, it is very difficult to accurately gauge the real level of remaining support for ZANU-PF amongst ordinary voters. But such a core of support undoubtedly exists, and may be larger than may be guessed by the messy state of the country.

For this reason, if by ‘Mugabe must go’ it is meant not just the exit of the individual, but the capitulation of ZANU-PF to an MDC government, it is not clear whether this would be universally or overwhelmingly considered a good thing amongst the Zimbabwe electorate. MDC has done well to assure the many new land holders that it has no plans to reverse ZANU-PF’s messy but popular land reform. Doing so was to recognise that the fear that this was part of the MDC’s agenda would have turned many who want Mugabe ‘to go’ against the opposition party. This is but one example of how some/many who may agree that Mugabe should move on nevertheless do not necessarily have in mind the dismantling of his entire legacy, the way many of his more distant detractors might have in mind. With all his warts and his many failures, Mugabe in Zimbabwe is not regarded as the one-dimensional un-mitigated disaster that the British in particular so feverishly tries to sell to its readers, who are quite inclined to buy that messege because of the “kith and kin” sympathy with Zimbabwe’s Mugabe-dispossessed white farmers.

The lingering support for ZANU-PF maybe partly because of the incompetence of the MDC in managing its image in light of the still strong anti-neocolonialist streak that remains a part of Zimbabwean politics. But even amongst those who have reason to fear ZANU-PF for its long record of ruthlessness going back to before independence, there are many new landholders to whom having piece of land to call their own really represents a revolution. This is so even if overall economic conditions are so poor that few are able to work that land in any meaningfully commercial way at present. But on speculative, sentimental and also on future economic levels, the vote-getting power of ZANU-PF having made new land owners out of many who could not have dreamed of it otherwise cannot be under-estimated. The fact that all the prime farms with houses and infrastructure went to the ZANU-PF elite does not change this.

So it is folly to assume that because it has become violent, corrupt and disrespectful of election outcomes, ZANU-PF necessarily does not have a support base. The question mark over the size and the depth of that support base  also muddies the ‘Mugabe must go’ call. Many of those grateful for the ’empowerment’ of being new land-owners may be tired of Mugabe for over-staying and for seemingly being so out of touch with successful day to day management of the country. But this is not to say that they reject the overall ZANU-PF ‘project’ of un-abashed African empowerment, no matter how flawed and corrupted it has become.

Of course, on a purely propaganda level it makes for a much clearer, sexier, easier-to-sell message to reduce the ‘solution’ to ‘the Zimbabwe Crisis’ to ‘Mugabe must go.’  Particularly in the West, and especially in Britain, people have over many years been set up to think of Mugabe as a frightening ogre of almost supernatural powers. So they have been softened to understand and positively receive the ‘Mugabe must go’ message. And in Zimbabwe Mugabe has loomed so large over the country’s affairs during good times and the current awful times that many also believe that his exit alone may on its own somehow change things for the better.

And perhaps it just might. Being sure of that requires the kind of star-gazing skills I am not capable of . But my point is that this is far from guaranteed.

There are now so many forces who have their reputations wrapped up in the exit of Mugabe that they are not at all really worried about the details I have tried to explore here of what exactly is meant by ‘Mugabe must go.’ For the many individuals, organizations and countries with only cynical point-scoring or self-serving interest in Zimbabwe’s politics, they would have ‘won’ as long as Mugabe is no longer the president of Zimbabwe. That is partly how large (mostly but not totally in a negative way) a symbol and a personality ‘Mugabe’ has become in the minds of many people.

But for the Zimbabweans whose lives and country’s fortunes far into the future depend on the answers to questions such as those I have tried to pose here, these are far from academic or irrelevant points to ponder.

It is possible for Mugabe ‘to go’ but still leave a lot of the system that he represents in place, in which case there might be little change from the status quo. Perhaps  ‘the system’ might use Mugabe’s exit to cling on to power by Mugabe-like ‘by any means necessary’ ways, but appoint a less polarising figure as its head that ‘the international community’ can do business with, even if s/he is less than the democratically elected leader that ‘the international community’ claims is its main concern. But we have countless examples all around the world to show us that ‘the international community’ is not as concerned about democracy as they claim: they are quite happy to live with a despot who speaks and behaves as expected of him, unlike an independent-minded loose cannon of a despot like Mugabe!  So it is not so much that Mugabe is a despot, it is more that he is a despot that refuses to fit into the prescribed pockets of ‘the international community.’ A more malleable despot as president of Zimbabwe, even under ZANU-PF, may be quite acceptable to ‘the international community.’

‘Mugabe must go’ is a catchy, easy-to-market phrase, sold by many different groups who have many various motivations including but not necessarily exclusively Zimbabweans’ best interests. Mugabe has aroused many other passions, especially in Britain.

But ‘Mugabe must go’ is not in and of itself a ‘solution’ to the many things that ail Zimbabwe. His going is long overdue and may represent a welcome psychic watershed for his party and for the country, but the solutions to Zimbabwe’s problems will be as complicated as their causes. Even if many of the foreign voices who have adopted the cause of Zimbabwe for their various interests cannot be bothered about these fine points, Zimbabweans have no choice but to look much deeper than the ‘Mugabe must go’ campaign for the solutions to their messy, complicated problems.

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