Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. He was a dictator who was originally empowered by democracy in 1980. He then undermined Zimbabwe’s democratic institutions to secure the legitimacy of his government and consolidate power, thereby engineering an ill-democratic nation reliant on his authoritarian rule. At age 93 and ailing, he attempted to laterally transfer power to his wife. Firing Vice President Emmerson Mnangagw was enough to spark protests against Mugabe, but the military’s decision to withdraw support from Mugabe is what forced his resignation. It is similar to what happened when Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak attempted to crackdown on protesters in the middle of the Arab Spring Revolutions. Like Egypt, Zimbabwe is likely to retain its superficial democracy with the emergence of new authoritarian leaders who will use ill-democratic processes to select new leadership.
The developed world would, of course, prefer to see a peaceful, stable, and democratic Zimbabwe. The question is how to achieve a sustainable democracy in a region defined by violent civil unrest, revolutionaries turned dictators, and self-serving governance. Ultimately, the key to shepherding a successful democratic transition in a country like Zimbabwe could help unlock proper governance in other nations. Starting in 2011, the world saw the emergence of the Arab Spring Revolutions. Because this wave of democratic protests were experienced across an already chaotic, underdeveloped region, it is difficult to understand what went wrong and what went right. Africa has long struggled with the democratization process, but Zimbabwe’s power transition can serve as a somewhat isolated and, therefore, useful example.
In the eyes of outsiders, Robert Mugabe became a traitor to his own cause long ago. To the Zimbabwean People, Robert Mugabe was a revolutionary hero who helped deliver his people from a brutally oppressive and racist regime. As time passed, his failings as a leader and his unwillingness to relinquish control, i.e. his inability to trust others to secure his legacy and the security of his homeland, steadily turned him into the enemy of his own People. To some, his willingness to step down from power may be his saving grace. For those who have personalized his betrayal over the many years of his tightening rule, his legacy as a dictator has been immortalized by his final attempt to secure his legacy at the cost of his fellow revolutionaries. For them, the new mission is uprooting his legacy, the military’s hold on power, and the rule of his successor.
When an established dictatorship refuses to relinquish power, a democratic revolution is likely to either fail in the face of a crushing military crackdown or decay into a civil war. The fact that Zimbabwe’s military could dissent from Mugabe helped save Zimbabwe from a bloody struggle similar to those seen in the Middle East. It would appear the real power in Zimbabwe is derived from military might. It is not, however, clear if Mugabe truly ruled the military or the military blessed Mugabe’s rule. If Zimbabwe’s military simply tired of Mugabe’s rule and revolted against the Mugabe family, the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), will pick a new figurehead. In turn, ZANU-PF will decide whether Zimbabwe gets democracy or restarts the ill-democratic cycle. If the military has truly committed a coup and seized power from the actual rulers of Zimbabwe, yet feel beholden to their own People, Zimbabwe has a better chance at democratizing.
Unfortunately, the political, economic, security, and social troubles that have plagued many of Africa’s nations for decades are the legacy of oppressive European Colonialism that taught African leaders to use brutality to establish one’s dominance, pursue one’s interests by suppressing others, and prevent dissent by breaking social, cultural bonds that might unify insurgents. Instead of overcoming this vicious cycle of abusive governance as the Peoples of the US and Europe more or less did, African leaders have trained their successors and would-be successors to seek dominance through violence and other forms of brutality. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has seen economic success in the past, but it suffers from this same cycle. It is a cycle that must be broken if the Zimbabwean People are to thrive.
Unlike Colonial rulers, who used brutality to suppress insurrection, crime, terrorism, and instability under the direction of European governments in order to make the colonies profitable and manageable, the abuse of current African rulers is chaotic with no objective other than to expand and maintain their own power at all costs. Not only does this foster an environment where “might-makes-right” and a culture of impunity that undermines the social boundaries that protect people from rape and acts of violence, the need to conform to the whims of the powerful creates uncertainty, which is manifested in massive instability that inhibits viable development. Robert Mugabee may no longer be the face of Zimbabwe’s national government, but that does not mean Zimbabwe will see true democracy or proper governance. As Emmerson Mnangagwa seizes Mugabee’s throne, his willingness to usurp his own party and transfer power to the People of Zimbabwe will determine this African nation’s fate.
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