The Crocodile shows his teeth

Published by The i paper (20th November, 2017)

So farewell then, Robert Mugabe. The situation in Zimbabwe remains fluid after the carefully planned coup that claims not to be a coup, yet this is the ignoble end of rule by the dogged despot who held a nation in his cruel grip for so long. First as prime minister for seven years, then as president for three decades. As seen on Saturday with excited crowds surrounding tanks in the streets, the people of his ravaged country are delighted by the old brute’s departure. Emmerson Mnangagwa’s history is one of crushing dissent, not displaying democratic values.

There have been more wicked recent dictators, despite atrocities in Matabeleland that killed thousands of rival supporters and routine use of torture by his goons. But few can claim such destruction. Mugabe inherited a productive land and turned it into a basket case despite arguably the highest literacy rate on his continent. After unleashing the second worst hyper-inflation in history, life expectancy is lower than when he became president, nine in 10 people are jobless and the economy has plunged from 10th to 20th biggest in sub-Saharan Africa.

No wonder citizens are desperate for change. Today came the latest twists in this takeover. The ruling Zanu-PF party sacked Mugabe, warning of instant impeachment from the presidency if he refuses to quit – which could mean losing his immense assets, including an estimated 15 stolen farms. His hated wife, Grace, along with 20 other key associates, were expelled with threat of a corruption inquiry.

One week ago she looked triumphant as her husband cleared her path to power by sacking Emmerson Mnangagwa as vice-president – then typically took possession of a hefty chunk of Harare real estate by forcing its distraught owner to sell for a knockdown $4m. Now the Crocodile – as Mnangagwa is infamously nicknamed – has shown his teeth.

It remains to be seen if we are seeing a real revolution or, more likely, a carefully calibrated realignment of power within a one-party state. His group has planned this succession strategy for several years, ensuring a network of allies in key posts, although Mugabe’s foolish sacking of his former spy chief speeded up events ahead of a special party congress next month. His wife’s ill-advised recent attacks on army chiefs created a common enemy held in contempt across the country.

No one should show the slightest sympathy for Mugabe. But nor should they be fooled that the faction led by Mnangagwa is much better. These ‘comrades’ have collectively milked their land of its mineral wealth, stashing away millions from diamonds through Angola, Dubai and China while fellow citizens remained mired in poverty. Mnangagwa may have a shrewd financial brain, but he is also linked to the Matabeleland massacres when villagers were forced to dance on fresh graves of slaughtered relatives while chanting pro-Mugabe slogans.

‘The Croc’ has strong links to China, like many of the Zimbabwean elite, attending the Communist Party’s Beijing School of Ideology. Insiders think he may promote himself as his nation’s Deng Xiaoping, pledging to clean up corruption and restore economic sanity. Assets of those deposed will probably be paraded in the press. Mnangagwa is a ruthless operator, the man who prevented Mugabe from quitting after losing the first round of the 2008 presidential election, then masterminding violence and ballot-rigging to retain control. His history is one of crushing dissent, not displaying democratic values.

Once again, we see the speed of collapse of a regime that seemed so strong yet had rotted to its core. If there is a lesson in Mugabe’s downfall, it is how dictators are often brought down by their own families. In Libya I witnessed how Muammar Gaddafi’s eight children inflamed discontent, their greedy behaviour and feuding over business opportunities offering a rallying point for opposition. Now we see ‘Gucci’ Grace – with her extravagant tastes, crude ambition and limited political skills – provoking the end of her ailing husband’s reign, aided by three sons flaunting their wealth and expensive baubles on social media.

Hopefully these events will alarm other long-serving despots such as the dreadful Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, whose own spendthrift son was convicted of corruption last month in France over the family’s plundering of oil money that could have enriched their entire nation. I was in this country as Gaddafi’s rule crumbled, seeing how it sent ripples of excitement around the streets. Think also of Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 saying Africa’s problem “is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power”. Now he is seeking to overturn the presidential age limit while entrenching control in his free-spending family.

The African Union says it will ‘never accept the military coup d’etat’ in Zimbabwe as it demands ‘respect’ for the country’s constitution. It briefly suspended Egypt after another former spy chief carried out a coup, but rapidly readmitted him despite appalling repression. But Museveni himself once branded this body ‘a trade union of dictators’. It is based in Ethiopia, another brutal and rigid one-party state – and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, a war criminal currently crushing a woman who dared to try to stand against him as president, just delivered a paper on reform.

These repellent people prove that democracy is about much more than elections. It is great that the Mugabe era is over, the old man felled by his family’s greed and lust for untrammelled power. Hopefully life will improve for a blighted nation with a more stable and competent government. But we are almost certainly observing only a restoration of control to the party and its thieving elite. In Zimbabwe, as in too many more of Africa’s 54 nations, we remain a long way from seeing real power handed to the people.

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