By the standards of modern Africa, indeed of the modern world, the Zimbabwean Army coup that overthrew Robert Mugabe in mid-November was unusual. For a start it was bloodless: the Army moved into the capital, Harare, disarmed Mugabe loyalists in the security forces, confined the President and his wife to a luxurious house arrest, and urged him to step down. It was also organised efficiently and discreetly, up to a point anyway: only the coup plotters seem to have known about it in Zimbabwe, but the Chinese government was informed in advance by the man who emerged soon afterwards as the new president. Apparently Beijing raised no serious objection. Above all, however, almost everyone involved in these revolutionary events, except perhaps Mugabe and his wife, “Gucci Grace”, was anxious that they should be scrupulously conducted in line with proper constitutional forms.
Mugabe’s eventual resignation—after a brief hitch in which he failed to deliver the key sentence in a televised speech—was purchased with guarantees that he would be allowed to remain living comfortably and un-prosecuted in one of his well-appointed residences. Mugabe’s former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, back from a brief visit to Beijing, was duly sworn in as the new Zimbabwean president by a Supreme Court justice in red robes, and promptly began his acceptance speech by declaring proudly that Mugabe was and would always remain his leader and mentor. That greatly comforted the leaders of surrounding countries in the African Union who, being leaders, are highly disapproving of unconstitutional challenges such as tanks on their lawns.
This column appears in the latest Quadrant.
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So it was all very Westminster, right down to suave hypocrisy. Constitutionally it invited comparisons with Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the successful plotters had to turn two blind eyes to allow the King, James II, to “escape”, after which they were able to declare the throne vacant. And when Tory purists objected that the throne should be occupied not jointly by the revolutionary royals, the Dutchman William of Orange and his ex-Catholic Stuart wife Mary, but by James’s rightful heir, the lawyer-like reply was “a living man can have no heir”. Owing in part to such subtleties, 1688 gave Britain three hundred years of stable government and growing world power. We cannot quite expect Zimbabwe’s velvet coup to make the country an empire on which the sun never sets but it has a decent chance of fostering political stability and economic recovery that in turn may help restore democracy there.
There are a number of reasons for these somewhat favourable prospects in addition to the watchful eye of the African Union. The first is that the people of Zimbabwe have had more than forty terrible years of war, revolution, violence, oppression and (given the natural riches of the country) needless poverty. Hence the national outpouring of joy that brought huge crowds onto the streets to celebrate the change of president.
Zimbabwe’s tribulations came under three headings. First, there were the wars of liberation against white Rhodesia waged by two different tribal guerrilla armies, the largely Shona ZANU under Mugabe and the largely Matabele ZAPU under Joshua Nkomo. Seeded by Ian Smith’s UDI in 1964, they did not pose a serious challenge to the Smith government until well into the 1970s. But a full-scale civil war gradually developed in which ruthless tactics were employed on both sides, neighbouring states were drawn into the conflict, and ordinary life itself in Rhodesia became militarised. It became clear to Smith, a prudent realist above all else, that Rhodesian whites would have to cede real political power to the black majority or risk widespread anarchy. That realisation led by a winding path through the attempted multi-racial “internal settlement” within Rhodesia, the London conference of all sides that led to the Lancaster House agreement, the clear election victory (though amid allegations of voting irregularities) under British auspices for Mugabe’s ZANU party to, finally in 1980, independence for Zimbabwe under a ZANU government led by Mugabe with Nkomo as his deputy. All in all the conflict had resulted in about 20,000 deaths.
The early years of the new Zimbabwe were surprisingly harmonious. The guerrillas were integrated into the old Rhodesian army; Mugabe asked to see Smith and thanked him for handing over the country in good shape; Rhodesia’s whites felt they were welcome to stay under the new regime. Though the white Rhodesians had lost the war, they had not been defeated militarily and they had earned respect in surprising places—not only their former enemies but their critics in the foreign press too.
I once asked a great foreign correspondent, the Spectator’s late Richard West, how he had changed his mind about them. “Well, I used to despise them because they were idle drunks, lying by their swimming pools and talking as if they were tough pioneers and brave soldiers,” he said. “But when the war came into their lives, they rose to the occasion and proved to be tough soldiers.” I saw that for myself on a Saturday evening at Meikles Hotel which looked for all the world as if it were holding a dinner dance of the local Bournemouth Conservative Association at which the bank managers and solicitors had inexplicably turned up in black tie with Uzi accessories. It was Bournemouth against the world, and inevitably Bournemouth lost. The credit it had won by this would have eroded eventually too, but for a while the new white Zimbabweans were hopeful and seemingly accepted.
It was between tribal groups within the government that tensions exploded. Mugabe expelled Nkomo for plotting rebellion against him and sent a North Korean-trained army division into Matabele areas to crush Nkomo loyalists. In the course of these massacres another 20,000 people, mainly civilians, including women and children, were killed. That second tribulation still burns. In 1985 Mugabe merged the two parties in a ZANU-PF coalition; Nkomo rejoined the government in a clearly subordinate place; and Mugabe was set fair to govern Zimbabwe as he wished.
His administration of Zimbabwe over those thirty years is the third tribulation. A timeline of how Zimbabwe’s democracy and economy were gradually destroyed from the 1990s to today is available from the BBC.
It’s a sorry story of massive corruption, rigged elections, lawless expropriation of white farmers, extra-judicial murders, the beating of Opposition supporters by pro-Mugabe gangs of “army veterans”, localised anarchy, the collapse of agriculture in what was once the breadbasket of Africa, hyper-inflation and the collapse of the national currency, unemployment at sky-high levels, international isolation, the flight of white and black Zimbabweans to South Africa and beyond, and the rise of a thuggish ZANU-PF kleptocracy symbolised by “Gucci Grace”, whose bid to succeed her ageing husband by driving Mnangagwa from the party leadership was a catalyst for the velvet coup.
What made this tribulation so hard to bear was that Zimbabweans felt it didn’t have to be like that. The country’s economy had enjoyed rising prosperity, albeit ill-distributed, since the start of the twentieth century. Relations between its different tribes were unusually good because the Shona felt that white rule protected them from Matabele dominance, while the Matabele and the Brits had emerged from the Matabele wars at the close of the nineteenth century with mutual respect for each other’s martial valour. Even during the liberation wars, race relations in Zimbabwe remained good. At independence in 1980 there seemed to be an optimistic spirit of national reconciliation—and the same spirit emerged from the demonstrations after Mugabe’s fall.
Will that spirit survive? Much depends on Mnangagwa. His record is not encouraging. Known as “The Crocodile”, he was in charge of the 1982 brutal repression of the Matabele. He was also a leading Mugabe ally throughout the long years of Zimbabwe’s agony. But it seems possible that he is one of those practical authoritarians—Deng Xiaoping is the best example—who want a better life for their people and who are prepared to discard party ideology in order to bring it about (if only because that will redound to their own credit in the long run). It’s not difficult to prescribe sensible policies for Zimbabwe; they include attracting foreign investment, strengthening a genuine rule of law, restoring property rights, getting the financial support from institutions like the IMF to establish a stable currency, and inviting home Zimbabwean exiles of talent. That last policy is both important and feasible; all the Zimbabwean exiles I’ve met in recent years express a deep love of their country and a desire to see it rise from the ashes of Mugabe-ism.
So far Mnangagwa has sent out mixed signals. He has promised to pay compensation for farm seizures, both official and anarchic; introduced a budget likely to appeal to foreign investors; and promised genuine democratic elections in 2018. But he has also appointed a cabinet of ZANU-PF veterans of the Mugabe years, and he has avoided bringing the Opposition into anything like a national unity government. My guess is that he cannot avoid mixed signals: he has to assure his own party’s kleptocrats that they will keep their ill-gotten gains; he has to hint to old opponents that he will share some of the goods when the economy delivers them through a freer economy and a more democratic polity; and he has to persuade the international community to help him deliver those goods with aid and investment. It’s a winding path he must follow.
That’s an optimistic view of Mnangagwa and his likely calculations. So I should warn of an obstacle that may derail any sensible reform program. Against all the prudent arguments for market and democratic reform stands the political culture of ZANU-PF, which is a blend of kleptocracy, guerrilla thuggery and infantile Marxism. When the economic going gets tough, it is likely to re-emerge as the ideology of resistance. That culture is embodied in Mugabe himself. He is untouchable for the moment, and will die soon anyway. Nor can Mnangagwa take the lead in tearing down his statue. That will have to be done, or at least started, by those international observers and institutions who have been historically sympathetic to Zimbabwe and to Mugabe himself.
Mnangagwa may well be privately grateful for such help. On his lightning visit to Beijing, he will have noticed that although Deng Xiaoping had incomparably greater achievements to his credit, it is Mao whose cult—hidden away but never deconstructed—is now being restored. He won’t want Gucci Grace to have the last laugh.