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Can Zimbabwe move past Mugabe?

Robert Mugabe once carried the high hopes of the world on his shoulders. A leader of the rebels who liberated Rhodesia from the rule of a racist white minority, he was inaugurated as prime minister of the new nation of Zimbabwe in 1980. Taking office, Mugabe pledged to safeguard the rights of whites, declared his commitment to constitutional rule and concluded, “Long live our freedom!”

A leader truly devoted to these ideals would probably not have lasted 37 years in power. Mugabe has endured by putting his own interests first. In 1987, he pushed through a new constitution creating an all-powerful presidency that he was happy to fill.

All along, he has behaved as though he alone was entitled to decide the future of Zimbabwe, using methods as cruel and oppressive as those of the white regime that went before. The country, under his rule, has become a political and economic wasteland.

So no one should shed tears that his grip on power has been shaken, at the very least. Fearful the 93-year-old despot would turn the reins over to his 52-year-old wife, Grace, who is best known for her extravagant lifestyle, the top army commander warned that the military would intervene if necessary for the purpose of “protecting our revolution.”

Soon, it placed the couple under house arrest, raising speculation that a coup was taking place or that negotiations were underway to induce Mugabe to yield control. It’s not clear what comes next.

The country’s need for new leadership is hard to deny. After years of eye-popping hyperinflation, it had to scrap its own currency and adopt the U.S. dollar — only to issue new bank notes when it ran short of greenbacks. Gross domestic product per capita has withered by a third over the past two decades. Shortages are common. More than 70 percent of Zimbabweans are mired in poverty.

The ruling regime is a showcase of repression, corruption and impunity. Democracy is just a memory. When Mugabe and his ruling party were re-elected in 2013, the U.S. State Department faulted the process as “neither fair nor credible.”

But if a transfer is underway, the world should not expect too much. The military has long been a servant of the ruling party, not a champion of reform. The person considered most likely to take over is Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was purged from the vice presidency and forced into exile by Mugabe. As head of the intelligence service, he is believed to have had a major role in some of the regime’s bloodiest actions. “His ruthlessness is legion,” South African journalist Peter Fabricius told The New York Times.

The most plausible positive outcome, suggests Council on Foreign Relations analyst John Campbell, would be a transitional government including members of opposition parties that would “prepare for genuine, democratic elections in the future, perhaps in two or three years,” with Mugabe perhaps keeping his formal status while surrendering actual power.

But the next chapter could be simply the same dictatorship with a new man at the helm. Or it could be a descent into chaos and even civil war. Things could get worse instead of better.

The army’s intervention gives the country a chance of moving toward democracy and the rule of law. But Zimbabwe has had that chance before.

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