Why Nigeria’s Mugabes failed

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe / AFP PHOTO / DON EMMERT

The year 2000 was momentous for Zimbabwe and its leader, Robert Mugabe. He had run the shop for 20 years. The economy was shrinking. Human rights were disappearing. And people too. State brutality had become a way of life. The only game in town was Mugabe, the Marxist-Leninist warrior who had fought the British colonialists valiantly and driven them into the ground. But the people were getting fed up with his autocratic rule.

In that year 2000, there were two scheduled major political events that were to take place in Zimbabwe: a constitution amendment referendum and a parliamentary election. A new political party that promised to be the nemesis of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) had emerged. Its name said it all: Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a grassroots organisation led by a popular trade union leader called Morgan Tsavangirai. The Constitution amendment proposal had failed because MDC scored 54.7% of the votes while ZANUPF got 45.3% of the votes. The government ate humble pie and accepted the result of the referendum. But it wasn’t an easy victory for the opposition. They could not campaign freely as they were attacked by government forces wherever they went. So they resorted to dropping leaflets by helicopters and cars at strategic points. You could cut the tension with a knife.

As the parliamentary election approached, there was global concern about what may happen in or to Zimbabwe. The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) decided to send a six-person delegation under the leadership of Nigeria’s Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who was the chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees to do a pre-election investigation. The NDI published the report in May 2000 detailing its observations and making some suggestions for free and fair elections. There were grim stories of people hacked to death or made to disappear or simply sent on internal exile. Stories of torture of opposition candidates were rife.

It was in that setting that the Commonwealth Secretariat sent a 44-person team of Commonwealth Eminent Observers Mission from 25 countries to the parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe led by General Abdulsalami Abubakar. I was a member of that mission. General Abubakar had become the toast of the international community based on his successful return of Nigeria to democratic rule. But it was an assignment we all accepted with great trepidation.

At the Heathrow Airport lounge one of the persons going to Harare for the election observance met with a South African businessman. The man on the Observer mission had to land in South Africa before making a connection to Zimbabwe. The South African businessman gave the Observer his call card and asked him why he was coming to South Africa. The Observer whipped out his own call card and told the businessman that he was actually going to Zimbabwe for election monitoring. He then offered his card to the South African businessman who promptly told him: “I am sorry, I don’t need your card because I know you will not make it back.”

As predicted, the campaigns were bloody. We the Observers had to work in groups and also kept in touch with other observer groups to share information on safety. Thirty six dead bodies were counted on election day. The injured were many. The results of the elections showed that ZANU PF won 62 seats while MDC got 57 seats in parliament. I had written at that time that from the two elections it was clear that “the sun of the ZANU PF had set. The writing is clearly on the wall. But will Mugabe read it?” He did not read it.

Seventeen years later, Mugabe was still in the saddle, not sitting pretty, but falling and rising at public events. His 93-year frame was not holding up any longer and his 37-year rule was no longer sustainable. Some coup plotters had arrived at his door and told him his time was up. He did not believe them because these are the very same people he had used over the years to terrorise his people, to break their bones, to put them in prison and to dehumanise them. These fellows who had done all his dirty job for him in the dirtiest way possible were now very civil and civilised. They allowed him to attend the graduation ceremony of Zimbabwe Open University in Harare where he is the Chancellor. He wore academic robes looking professorial but his status as President had by that time become purely academic. They allowed him to do some grandstanding, making a long, rambling speech and promising that he would chair the meeting of the ZANU PF in December even though the party had pulled the rug from under his feet. They threatened to impeach him if he did not resign. He had dictated the terms of engagement for 37 years but he was in no position to do so now. As parliament started the impeachment proceedings he threw in the towel to save himself from disgrace and retribution.

The generals who acted like lions in the service of Mugabe’s iron-fisted regime suddenly became meek like lambs when it came to dealing with the grandee dictator. His Lady-Macbeth wife, a high taste shopaholic much in the mould in Imelda Marcus of Philippines who is appropriately nicknamed Gucci Grace suddenly went quiet. This former secretary, former mistress of Mugabe, has been the avaricious power behind the throne. She once told the public that her husband can win an election even as a corpse. Now she has been expelled from the party and her ambition of becoming Zimbabwe’s next president has come to nought.

She was his number one cheerleader as the war hero brutally turned his country into a Banana Republic. Now he has slipped on those banana peels. It is strange that dictators never ever notice when the end is near. At a summit in Harare in September 2001 a few Southern African states had railed at Mugabe for overstaying his welcome. In 2002, the British Commonwealth expelled him from their fold. In 2004, the European Union (EU) imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on him. A few universities which had conferred on him honourary doctorate degrees in the 80’s revoked them in the last few years. This includes University of Massachusetts and University of Edinburg. In a fit of absentmindedness, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had in October this year appointed Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador. This honour was sharply resented by Zimbabweans on account of the country’s poor health system. The next day WHO revoked the appointment.

Mugabe is notorious for corruption, election rigging and the brutal suppression of the opposition. These vices have been prevalent for many years in Africa. The calamity that has now befallen Mugabe arises because of his philosophy of sit-tightism. This is a veritable African disease. See the roll call: Paul Biya of Camerouns (35 years), Congo’s Ngueso (38 years), Dos Santos of Angola (38 years), Museveni of Uganda (31 years), Bashir of Sudan (24 years) etc. Mugabe holds the world record as the oldest President at 93 years.

So far no leader in Nigeria has spent more than nine years at a stretch but that is not for lack of trying. Yakubu Gowon stated that the 1973 exit date was no longer realistic after nine years in office. He was overthrown. Ibrahim Babangida gave several exit dates without keeping his word and after eight years he was forced out of office without a send forth party. Sani Abacha had succeeded by brute force in getting all the major political parties to “choose” him as their presidential candidate in an absurd arrangement that I described as “political polyandry.” The master weaver of words, Bola Ige, called it the “five fingers of a leprous hand.” David Mark told Newswatch in an interview that Abacha had exceeded the mandate they, the coup plotters, gave him and was planning to stay beyond their agreed period. These were all military governments but the brave people of Nigeria curtailed their unholy plans.

However, even a civilian government headed by Olusegun Obasanjo had attempted, through some corrupt politicians, to elongate the government’s tenure beyond the constitutionally prescribed period of eight years. If the Nigerian press and some courageous civil society groups had not been consistent in the defence of constitutionalism and democracy, Nigeria would have had its own Mugabes. The failure of Zimbabweans to get rid of Mugabe before now can only be attributed to the docility of the people who were not ready to move against the tanks of the corrupt generals who kept Mugabe in power for so long. In Nigeria the press and the people made the difference.



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