A Descent into Dictatorship

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe arrived at Parliament on Dec. 20, 2006 to deliver his State of the Nation address in Harare. (Photo: Desmond Kwande / AFP-Getty Images)

It is official. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has all the trappings becoming of an enduring dictator after all. Mugabe (82) may sooner than later join the ranks of Africa's aging authoritarians, following a proposal by his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) to move the country's presidential elections from 2008 to 2010.

The proposal tabled at the December 2006 annual conference of the ruling party, held outside Harare, has yet to be adopted as a resolution by the party's Central Committee. The move has been seen as an excuse to give Mugabe two more years in office.

"That's madness," said founder member and veteran nationalist Edgar Tekere in the privately-owned Financial Gazette. "It's a trick to stay in power for life. He has already overstayed, and the party and the country have suffered."

A cartoon in the Jan. 4 issue of the privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent offered an apt visual of Mugabe tightly strapped onto the presidential high back chair. Two burly henchmen complete the task of nailing a beaming Mugabe to his chair. One is driving the final screw into the president's hands while the other hammers down a sign stating, "President for Life."

The proposal is also meant to merge the parliamentary and presidential elections, as its proponents clam the move would save costs. But analysts say this is a blatant move by Zanu-PF to buy more time to find a successor to Mugabe, who will be 86 when he is due to leave office.

To skeptics, the synchronization of the parliamentary and presidential polls is a daylight robbery of democracy calculated to endorse Mugabe as president for life. There is speculation among his cronies that the president, in power since 1980, has always harbored ambitions of absolute power from the time his party defeated Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union — Patriotic Front (PF-Zapu).

Serving as prime minister under a ceremonial president was apparently not enough power for the tactful Mugabe, who was to quench his thirst for political might by changing the Constitution and abolishing the position of prime minister. In 1987, Mugabe was sworn in as executive president with carte blanche to make and change laws under the Presidential Powers Act. Since then Mugbe has consolidated power as president and first secretary of Zanu-PF. He is also the commander in chief of the defense forces.

The president has brooked no opposition as is evident in his assenting to harsh and discriminatory laws that have reduced fundamental freedoms and rights of Zimbabwean citizens. The Constitution has been amended a record 15 times right under Mugabe's indifferent nose. He has not only used his power to cut ties with the West, but to drive away international investors, shut down the independent press, emasculate the judiciary, seize white-owned farms without compensation and crush any opposition to his rule.

Mugabe is on the fast track to etching his own star in Africa's dictators' Hall of Infamy, and has no mercy for anyone who calls him names. A schoolteacher from Masvingo was recently arrested for comparing Mugabe to Adolf Hitler. Others have been charged for making jokes or statements seen as denigrating the president.

Writing for (Dec. 30, 2006), Thanos Kalamidas described Robert Mugabe as "Africa's nightmare" who represented all the mad dictator stereotypes that started with Uganda's Idi Amin Dada.

"In many senses Robert Mugabe reminds me of Pinochet," Kalamidas wrote. "Pinochet was equally crazy when he took over Chile with a military coup, while the country was successfully fighting inflation and building a new economy; Pinochet led them back to total corruption and disaster. … Mugabe, as though it were a race, has proven worst. He didn't need to follow Pinochet's example and terminate any opposition; he let his opposition say whatever they liked but with the help of his huge paramilitary forces made it clear to the people that if you don't vote for me then … you are dead. So he managed to have a democratic legitimacy."

Kalamidas, co-founder of Ovi magazine, argued that by doing nothing Zimbabweans have given Mugabe and his cronies more brutal ways to exercise power.

The viciousness of the regime, unless checked will soon outdo that of countless other dictators, including African brothers-in-arms such as Mobutu Seseko of the former Zaire; Life President Hasting Kamuzu Banda of Malawi; Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic; Liberia's Charles Taylor; and Ethiopia's Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled rebels to settle in Zimbabwe as a pampered guest of Mugabe.

Plans to consolidate Mugabe's power may come as no surprise as the Zimbabwe leader has been sitting on the fence about his plans to retire. At one time he hinted of making plans to leave the political stage, but of late has squashed debate about his succession. His remarks at the December ruling party conference eliminated any doubt about his plans to leave office.

"This succession issue, I said to Vice-President Joseph Msika, is creating problems," said Mugabe. "Stop it, what's the problem? There are no vacancies. Let's not be over-ambitious. Time will come when vacancies will exist, but there are no vacancies now. None at all." The president spoke these words in front of a stunned gathering of party faithful in Goromonzi, about 20 miles east of Harare.

Opposition to Term Extension

Secretary-general for the Arthur Mutambara-led Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) faction, Professor Welshman Ncube, has publicly said his group was against the proposal to extend Mugabe's term of office.

"The problem is that this so-called harmonization of elections will give us an un-elected and illegitimate president for an extra two years," said Ncube. "Coming as it does against a background of the disputed 2002 presidential election, it will only help to compound this regime's illegitimacy and worsen the economic crisis."

Members of the civil society and a number of diplomats also said they were opposed to the idea, which seemed to mark the beginning of a process to sort out Mugabe's entangled succession and the concomitant power struggle. The process is also said to be calculated to sideline Vice-President Joyce Mujuru from succeeding Mugabe, who has rejected past attempts for a smooth retirement plan.

The Jamaica Observer, in an editorial, spoke of "Mr. Mugabe's blow to democracy and Zimbabwe's economy," and said there seemed to be no end to the despotic actions of Mugabe, whom the paper stated had easily distinguished himself as one of the world's most immoral leaders.

"The point that must be made clear to Mr. Mugabe and his confederates is that no government should be allowed to violate the democratic process under any circumstances," the Observer editorial said. "For once a government gets the impression that it can run roughshod over the people's right to choose their political leaders, this opens the door to tyranny. … But Mr. Mugabe, we fear, has already gone through that door. From his land seizure policy, to the rigging of elections, to the bulldozing of people's homes — particularly those of his political opponents — to the confiscation of the passports of critics of his government late last year, Mr. Mugabe has been showing the utmost contempt for democracy."

The economic and political meltdown that has gripped Zimbabwe seems of no consequence to Mugabe who instead of addressing pressing problems on the home front, has continued to heap blame on the U.S. and the U.K. for the predicament Zimbabwe finds itself in.

According to the recently-released World Bank's 2007 Global Economic Prospects report, Zimbabwe was one of the only two African countries forecast to register negative economic growth next year, and that the sluggish performances by these economies was dampening an otherwise robust growth for Africa. With a world-record high four-digit inflation, unemployment and under productivity, Zimbabwe's economy was projected to shrink by 3.3 percent in 2008.

Though it has dispossessed them of fundamental freedoms, the economic and political crisis has not robbed ever-resilient Zimbabweans of new and stylish outlets for self-expression and political protest.

Everyone is a fighter in Zimbabwe, nearly always for justice. In past year Zimbabweans have put to test a number of strategies to highlight the crisis on the home front. One of the novel, if unsophisticated, forms of political protest was the five-minute beating of pots and pans in unison. And guess what? It worked, and a number of students and human rights activists were arrested for "the illegal protest."

With so little in Zimbabwe that can be done and be labeled legal, it comes as no surprise that the country's overzealous police and army pounce on everyone at the slightest show of discontent or opposition to the government. This form of repression has catapulted political protest to new heights in a country where one can spend five years in jail for making a joke about the president; worse still, even making a silly comment about him.

Mugabe Succession Unclear

While Mugabe's presidency may have a new lease of life, there are still no successors to his throne. Zanu-PF is in shambles as aspirants are at each other's throats for the top job. The jockeying has recently gotten dirtier with some of the dogfights spilling into the courts. Party chairman and former speaker of Parliament, John Nkomo, who has openly declared his presidential ambitions, recently named another contender and former blue-eyed boy, Emerson Mnangangwa, as a member of a plot to oust Mugabe. Mnangagwa, now a minister in the less influential housing portfolio, is suing Nkomo for defamation.

Vice President Mujuru is seen as a leading contender for the presidency even though there are undercurrents of opposition to her assuming the country's top post. There is speculation she could be a front for her husband, retired Army Commander Solomon Mujuru.

Other dark horses in the presidential race include former Finance minister Simba Makoni and former Home Affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa. Evidently Mugabe worries about the infighting, which he is doubtless aware could expose the party to deadly divisions and ultimate disintegration.

"This going to court, damages — damages dzei (what damages)? A colleague has offended you, then talk to him and get him to apologize," Mugabe recently declared at a party meeting.

Bickering and divisions have also rocked the only official opposition party to give Zanu-PF a bloody nose in the country's political history. Unfortunately, the M.D.C. spilt into two rival faction last year after differences over participating in the Senatorial elections. Besides, many believe that Zanu-PF infiltrated the party. For now, the divided M.D.C. is as good as dead should it fail to close ranks by 2010.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.