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Is Autumn Finally Here For Robert Mugabe?

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mugabe and wifeRobert Mugabe, the 91-year old president of Zimbabwe – that beautiful but horribly impoverished country tucked away in the Southern part of Africa – has always

managed to emerge colourful in his endless battle of wits with the West. He has over the years been able to retain the admiration and support of a sizable percentage of his people (despite the biting economic hardship in his country) and remained the toast of quite a number of African intellectuals.

Even his worst enemies would admit that he is very intelligent, well-informed and articulate. At 91, he is yet to show any convincing signs that age is eating into his well-cultivated intellect and psychological bearing. Always impeccably turned out in well-tailored suits, Mugabe remains many people’s pleasant idea of ageing gracefully and a delight to watch at press conferences or interviews.

Although, the recent decision of the European Union (EU) to relax sanctions on Mugabe’s country might represent a grudging admission by the West that, perhaps, it is gradually losing the argument over Zimbabwe, it remains a glaring fact that Mugabe presides over a very sick country. The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) said two weeks ago that 16% of Zimbabwe’s population “are projected to be food insecure at the peak of the 2015-16 lean season, the period following harvest when food is especially scarce.” According to the WFP, this situation “represents a 164% increase in food insecurity compared to the previous season.” 

The Zimbabwean dollar is long dead and dressed for burial – brutally murdered by hyperinflation that hit an unprecedented 500 billion per cent in 2008 according to several reports (mostly in the Western media) and 231,000,000% according to the official account. A couple of years ago, a Zambian friend showed me a 40 billion Zimbabwean dollar bill which he said could not buy a loaf of bread. Looking back now, one can even refer to that period as the finest hour for the Zimbabwean currency. In January 2009, Zimbabwe introduced a One Trillion Dollar (Z$1000) note whose worth was placed at about US$30 (£20). Since then, the currency has received even more devastating battering and living in Zimbabwe, according to reports, has been one bit of a hell, with the hapless citizens being regularly referred to as poor, starving billionaires. 

In June this year (2015), the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (the country’s Central Bank) intent on formally removing the worthless Zimbabwean dollars from the banking system asked the citizens to start exchanging the billions, trillions and quadrillions of the local currency in their bank accounts or hoarded at home for just a few US dollars or cents, as the case may be. In a statement in Harare, the Reserve Bank governor, John Mangudya, advised the “banking public [to] visit their banks to establish the balances which were in their accounts.” He explained that officials of the apex bank “have interacted with the banks and they still have all the information, which we as the Reserve Bank also authenticated,” so, they were not envisaging any difficulties in the exchange process.    

It will be recalled that since 2009, Mugabe has adopted the American dollar and the South African Rand as his country’s alternative currencies. A BBC report had warned at that time that “the dollarisation of the economy” would mean that only few items sold in Zimbabwe would be “available in the local currency.” But had Zimbabwe any choice?  

The June directive by the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank commenced the full dollarisation of the Zimbabwean economy and the demonetisation of the local currency. And the Zimbabweans have been trooping to the banks to make the exchanges. According to the TheGuardian (London),  “Zimbabweans have until September to turn in their old banknotes, which some people sell as souvenirs to tourists. Bank accounts with balances of up to 175 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars will be paid $5. Those with balances above 175 quadrillion dollars will be paid at an exchange rate of $1 for 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars. The highest – and last – banknote to be printed by the bank in 2008 was 100tn Zimbabwean dollars. It was not enough to ride a public bus to work for a week. The bank said customers who still had stashes of old Zimbabwean notes could walk into any bank and get $1 for every 250tn they hold. That means a holder of a 100tn banknote will get 40 cents. The bank has set aside $20m to pay Zimbabwean dollar currency holders.”

Now, despite widespread reports about the very grim situation in Zimbabwe, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was still able to issue an encouraging report on the country. On November 8, 2010, the IMF announced that Zimbabwe was “completing its second year of buoyant economic growth.” President Mugabe, too, has been telling anyone who cared to listen that the Zimbabwean economy was showing very encouraging signs of recovery and was not as bad as was being portrayed by opposition and the independent and foreign media. Despite these somewhat reassuring testimonies, what is, however, difficult to deny is that life in Zimbabwe has remained largely painful and hellish for many citizens and most of those who admire and applaud Mugabe from a safe distance have neither lived in Harare, Bulawayo or anywhere in Zimbabwe nor would they wish to relocate there.  

In February Mugabe rolled out the drums to celebrate his 91st birthday with an expensive party at Elephant Hills, a choice hotel and resort perching gently on a small hill in Victoria Falls overlooking the Zambezi River. Mugabe’s bash was said to have cost about US$1 million.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) accused him of organizing an “obscene jamboree” in a country where majority of the citizenry were starving horribly due to an unbearable economic hardship. In a statement in Harare, MDC spokesman, Obert Chaurura Gutu, was unsparing of such insufferable profligacy:

“As the MDC, we are greatly perturbed to learn that instead of focusing on more serious and pressing national issues such as rehabilitating the country’s collapsed public health delivery system as well as the renovation of the nation’s dilapidated road and rail infrastructure, Zanu-PF has seen it fit to squeeze the sum of US$I million from the country’s ailing business sector in order to bankroll the nonagenarian’s birthday jamboree in the resort town of Victoria Falls…The majority of the people of Zimbabwe are living in penury, squalor and destitution, and thus, it would be grossly offensive for Robert Mugabe and a few of his hangers-on to wine and dine [lavishly] on Saturday, February 28, 2015,”  

Although, the government denied that Mugabe’s birthday party was as expensive as the opposition sought to portray it, it however refused to be specific about the cost of the feast.   

In other African countries where Mugabe used to be celebrated each time he visited, disaffection for him has begun to gradually spring up as news of the sorry state of the Zimbabwean economy and the attendant hardship in the country continues to spread and attract widespread sympathy. Late last year, for instance, when he was in neighboring Zambia for the funeral of the country’s late president, Michael Sata, Zambians cheered and celebrated him. But later in January when he returned to Lusaka to witness the inauguration of Edgar Lungu, the new Zambian President, demonstrators besieged the luxurious Radisson Blu Hotel in Lusaka where Mugabe had lodged demanding his retirement from office. Also, when he came to Nigeria in May to witness President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration, he was accosted and thoroughly embarrassed by a bubbly online TV presenter who demanded to know when there would also be a change of government in Zimbabwe as Nigeria was witnessing.

And like they usually do each time they witness any incident they perceive as representing a setback for Mugabe, the Western media poured into the square to celebrate the Nigerian incident and also the recent booing and heckling of Mugabe by opposition MPs during his state of the nation address in Parliament in Harare two weeks ago.  These incidents may be signaling the kind of reception that may now await Mugabe even in those African countries where he had hitherto been hailed as a hero and, equally, in his country where large crowds usually troop out to receive and hail him anywhere he goes.

But these may not be the main issues presently taking sleep away from Mugabe’s eyes. He must have realized by now that his sack last year of his deputy, Joice Mujuru whom he accused of trying to topple and possibly assassinate him was a very costly political gamble. The widespread belief that his wife, Grace, engineered Mrs. Mujuru’s ouster because her rising profile was perceived as a threat to Mrs. Mugabe’s widely rumoured ambition to succeed her husband has not helped the image of the party. Since Mrs. Mujuru left the ruling ZANU-PF and began to make utterances and undertake actions that appeared to suggest that she might be putting together an opposition political platform, she has received considerable support from several formerly loyal ZANU-PF members. This week, she published a two-page action plan which sounds like a party manifesto entitled, “Blueprint to Unlock Investment and Leverage for Development (BUILD).” In it, 60 year-old Mujuru wrote: “We have been hard at work and I wish to share with you, in brief, how we propose to translate our vision for a better Zimbabwe into reality.”

Reuters reported on Tuesday (September 08, 2015), a few hours after Mrs. Mujuru released the policy document in Harare, that she was  promising to review the “Black Empowerment Law, which forces foreign-owned firms to sell majority shares to locals,” in order to “attract investment and help build infrastructure.” According to the news agency, “foreign investors often cite the empowerment law as a barrier to investing in the mineral-rich southern African nation, which is struggling to emerge from a catastrophic recession that was marked by hyperinflation and food shortages.”

Indeed, given the kind of excitement Mrs. Mujuru’s political “body language” is provoking, there is considerable reason to believe that if she eventually takes the plunge, she may prove to be the formidable candidate Zimbabweans are waiting for to uproot Mugabe and his party in the 2018 elections.

Already serious cracks developing in the ruling party are proving very difficult to mend or conceal. Now, highly factionalized, ZANU-PF may find it very difficult to present a strong, united front against the formidable opposition it is sure to face in 2018.   

Two weeks ago, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) called on Zimbabweans to start looking beyond what it termed the “Mugabe Must Go” hype since (according to it) Mugabe was already on his way out. But the party would need to reinvent itself in order to convincingly demonstrate to Zimbabweans that it indeed represents the reliable alternative they are yearning for if it hopes to record an impressive outing in the 2018 general elections. It would certainly be most damaging if Mugabe who would be 94 in 2018 is able to repair the cracks in ZANU-PF and defeat the MDC candidate once again in the election.

Maybe, the MDC may need to find a more appealing alternative to its longtime leader and presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, who appears to have been badly damaged by continuous defeat and the now widely held impression (although largely fueled by the ruling party) that he is a Western stooge who must have assured his Western “masters” that he would reverse the land redistribution exercise once he becomes president. Interestingly, the meeting in London recently which the MDC claimed was between its leaders and their UK/Ireland chapter has been widely portrayed by state-run media as a fund-raising drive and Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, is threatening the scrapping of government funding for political parties if the MDC continues to be funded by the West.

Although the ruling party has been variously accused of rigging the elections, there are still compelling reasons to expect the MDC to ask itself why it has not been able to persuade more Zimbabweans to buy into its vision and why many of them are still easily enchanted by Mugabe’s rhetoric. Is it not demoralizing that despite many years of functioning as the major opposition party and the massive support it has received from Western nations and their very influential media, the MDC under Mr. Tsvangirai  has only managed to become the weaker party in a power-sharing arrangement brokered for Zimbabwe by South Africa after the disputed 2008 elections?

If the MDC continues to endorse and advertise the impression that it is incapable of sourcing another presidential material in the party other than Mr. Tsvangirai, and so would be perennially stuck with him, the party would only be underlining the damaging conclusion that the party seriously lacks internal democracy – in fact, that it is a personal property of Tsvangirai. What then is the guarantee that if he becomes president that he will not end up as another sit-tight ruler like Mugabe?      

Mugabe has been insisting that what destroyed the Zimbabwean economy is not mismanagement or his continued stay in office.  In a 2012 article entitled, “Is The West Lusting For Mugabe Again,” I made the following observation:

“When Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe was a darling of the West especially, the UK, which promptly awarded him an honorary knighthood. He made enchanting reconciliatory speeches and gestures at the end of the bitter liberation war from which Britain was able to reassure itself that Mugabe would always be trusted to remain a “good boy,” and would never undertake any measures that would affect British interests in Zimbabwe where a tiny minority of white settlers controlled a greater portion of farmlands to the great disadvantage of the vast majority of black Zimbabweans. (This was despite Mugabe’s claims that at the Lancaster House discussions, they had agreed with the British that there would be “land reforms.”) And for the next ten years, while Mugabe undertook policies that ushered the country into prosperity in manufacturing, mining, agriculture etc., he was celebrated by the global media and feted in Western capitals from where glowing tributes always flooded his doorsteps.

“It is widely believed that Mugabe’s land reforms which largely contributed to his present troubles with the Western world were not totally informed by patriotic motives – to let black Zimbabweans benefit from equitable redistribution of the lands. Those who hold this view point to the fact that the recovered lands ended up mostly in the hands of his cronies and fellow war veterans. The belief was that the land reform policy was a desperate political move to consolidate his hold on power at a time it appeared to be slipping from his hands. And this has proved a very costly decision for him and his country. Indeed, Zimbabwe has practically passed through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Now, another question that has been variously asked is: would the West be isolating, punishing and attempting to hound Mugabe out of power today if he did not undertake the land redistribution exercise? Why is the same attention not being extended to some other leaders some of whom have been in power longer than him and reportedly equally, if not more, repressive? Is Mugabe right then in his often repeated claim that the West is only interested in effecting a “regime change” in Zimbabwe and not the installation of “genuine democracy”? Indeed, these are some of the points Mugabe has made so eloquently over the years that have earned him the support he has so far enjoyed from several Africans since his troubles commenced, but which appear now to be gradually losing their appeal. Indeed, what seems to have become obvious now is that no matter how compelling Mugabe’s arguments are, a growing number of Zimbabweans and other Africans would want to witness a new face in the leadership of Zimbabwe. Even in Mugabe’s own party, resentment against him is growing and creating widening cracks in a once very formidable party.    

Signs that he and his wife are deeply worried about the serious factionalism in ZANU-PF became very glaring two weeks ago when Grace Mugabe warned those clamouring for the end of Mugabe’s rule that they would sorely miss him when he leaves office.

“There will come a day when Mugabe will not be there and people will regret and miss his leadership… Not many people are able to make the sacrifices he makes. He puts his all to represent his people. He is someone who wants the best for the present and future generations,” Mrs. Mugabe told a gathering in Murombedzi Growth Point in Zvimba two weeks ago.         

But one cannot help asking: why is Mugabe bent on remaining in office and eventually becoming Zimbabwe’s president-for-life? Even though, life is gradually returning to the Zimbabwean economy, especially, since he opened the doors to China and other East Asian countries (following his rejection by the West), and adopted the US dollar and the South African Rand as his country’s currencies, Zimbabwe still has a long way to travel to its reclamation.  What most people are no longer able to fully appreciate is why it appears very difficult for Mugabe to stand down, or even why he appears to have convinced himself that without him, Zimbabwe may cease to exist. Or is the presidency now merely functioning as a protective shield for him? No doubt, he is a man ruled and driven by immense fear – fear of tomorrow and life after the presidential office. Obviously, he trusts no one except himself and, maybe, his wife. Although he scornfully dismissed this in a 2009 interview with Christiane Amanpour of the CNN, it is difficult not to see through the tough exterior he usually wears the tormenting thoughts consuming him about the possibility of ending up at The Hague and getting the Charles Taylor treatment if he quits power?

This fear often leads him into hasty suspicions and pushes him to deal ruthlessly with his real or imagined enemies. So far, he has been able to sustain a repressive regime, but it does seem that he would soon be faced with a fait accompli, not from the West this time, but from the Zimbabweans themselves. The proverbial cat with nine lives who has (often blasphemously) celebrated a number of “resurrections,” it does appear that autumn is fast closing in on the man some people fondly call Uncle Bob and his ninth life appears to be already cowing before the worst threat it has faced since its existence. The period between now and 2018 might prove to be the most momentous in Zimbabwean post-independence history.   

*Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a Nigerian journalist and writer, is a columnist with Daily Independent, a national newspaper published in Lagos, Nigeria (scruples2@hotmail.com; 

www.ugowrite.blogspot.com; twitter:@ugowrite)  

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