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Robert Mugabe Has Been Ousted, But the New Boss Might Be the Same as the Old Boss

Robert Mugabe has “stepped down” as president of Zimbabwe, but there remain many uncomfortable questions about the future of democracy in the country.

Mugabe’s resignation was anything but voluntary. The 93-year-old despot has held the presidency of Zimbabwe for 37 years. Nine years ago he announced that “only God who appointed me will remove me.”

But it was not God who staged the bloodless coup that forced Mugabe out of office; it was the Zimbabwean military. And citizens in Zimbabwe have remained eerily quiet, as they wonder whether the new boss will be the same as – or worse than – the old boss.

Coups are sometimes necessary to depose dictators

As it stands, it looks as if the new boss will be a familiar face – former Zimbabwean Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who fled the country two weeks ago and is now returning from South Africa to assume power.

Many have high hopes that Mnangagwa, nicknamed “the crocodile” for his harsh governing style, can dig Zimbabwe out of its economic and human rights pit. Arthur Mutambara, the former deputy prime minister, is hopeful that this can be a positive turning point:

With the forced resignation of Robert Mugabe, the citizens of Zimbabwe have a unique opportunity to break with the past and create a different country – a stable, peaceful, democratic, prosperous and globally competitive nation.

If that happens, it will be a first for the country – and for much of Africa. As the Washington Post points out, Mugabe was but one of many longstanding dictators in the region:

It’s a warning shot for many African leaders who are clinging to power while oppressing their people.

It is an ill omen for Africa’s longest-serving leader, Cameroon’s Paul Biya (seven years as prime minister and 35 years as president). Mugabe’s fall is also certain to send an unsettling message to Equatorial Guinea’s president Teodoro Obiang Nguema (38 years), Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo Republic (a total of 33 years), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (31 years) and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (23 years). The list is long.

In Zimbabwe, the past is not an inspiring prologue

There is no compelling reason to believe that Mnangagwa won’t add his name to the list of politicians who refuse to relinquish power. He is a longstanding Mugabe crony, and his recent overtures toward greater democratic reforms ring hollow.

His current plan is to hold elections in September of 2018, in accordance with the Constitution adopted in 2013 which required the government to hold elections every five years.

This allowed for a small degree of opposition, but the 2013 election reflected the will of the one-party state, and Mnangagwa is now the head of the ruling party. Genuine competition for power hasn’t existed under Mugabe, and the 2013 constitutional reforms were only nominal.

Mnangagwa has shown no signs that he wants to break with longstanding precedent.

Mnangagwa’s crocodilian history is deeply troubling. Back in 1983, when he was the Minister for National Security, he cracked down on the supporters of Mugabe’s rival Joshua Nkomo in the Gukurahundi, a series of massacres in which between 8,000 and 30,000 people were brutally slaughtered. The architect of such a horror is unlikely to be the instrument for positive reform, and rivals of Mnangagwa can expect that modern dissidents will receive similar treatment.

What’s needed are more George Washington-like figures in Africa

What’s need in Africa are political leaders willing to step down, as was America’s George Washington. Besides Nelson Mandela of South Africa there is also Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia from 2016 to 2018, who voluntarily stepped down. Elected after candidates turned out male candidates in disgust at the Liberian civil war, Sirleaf has surprisingly united the country – a former U.S. colony – and place it back on the path to democracy. For that, she won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ineligible under the nation’s constitution to run for re-election, the first round of the nation’s presidential election was held on October 10. A run-off contest had been scheduled for November 7, but was postponed after third-placed candidate Charles Brumskine challenged the result in the Supreme Court. The contest is supposed to be rescheduled when the electoral investigation is complete.

Zimbabwe’s future is remarkably fluid, and the uncertainty is likely to make the situation worse in the short term. It could end up like Liberia, or continue to suffer under a new dictatorship.

Long-term improvements would require a fresh approach to opposition that includes a willingness to trust the will of the people, something Mugabe never tolerated. Perhaps “the crocodile” will be different.

(Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe arriving to speak at the parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe on December 6, 2016. Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)


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