Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Pan-African Disconnect? Why the Global African Community and Zimbabweans Reacted Differently to Mugabe's Demise

The past month has been a whirlwind in Zimbabwean- nay, global- politics. In a twist of fate never imagined by neither the most astute pundit nor optimistic foe, Zimbabwe's 93 year-old president, Robert Gabriel Mugabe resigned from office after 37 years of polarizing rule. Reactions were instantaneous. The vast majority of Zimbabweans celebrated: in the streets; in homes, and online. Even the more forward thinking, technical, or skeptical in that number who expressed concern about the precedence set by the bloodless coup or the fact that Mugabe's imminent replacement was his long time protege (five decades!) and cut from the same cloth, still recognized the grandeur of the moment and the hope that sprung therefrom. The larger international community (for what it matters) shared in the jubilation and optimism.

Most visible cynicism and displeasure at Mugabe's demise, however, came from certain sectors of the global Pan-African community. They cited his uncompromising anti-Western imperialism, applauded his redistribution of land from (colonial) White settlers to the Black masses, his commitment to educating the masses, and his unwavering calls for Pan-African solidarity and unity. They have warned the Zimbabweans against celebrating the long-serving president's removal and, in many cases, derided them for doing so. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc seemed the likeliest body to come to Mugabe's rescue, while the African Union has said that he will be remembered as a"fearless Pan-African Liberation Fighter". Others have gone as far as suggesting that the "bloodless coup", most noteworthily orchestrated by the military and backed universally by ZANU PF and the people of Zimbabwe, had been the work of external forces.

As you can tell, not everyone shared the jubilation!

So What gives? Why the apparent lack of consensus between these two groups that, in essence, share sociopolitical and economic goals for the global African community (African political empowerment, staying clear of colonial and neocolonial forces, economic uplift etc)? What did Zimbabweans see that the Pan-African community didn't, and vice versa?

Before we get to the nuances of the two disparate viewpoints, let's quickly bring each other to speed as to the events of the past few weeks (The history of RGM's reign is well-documented and available for your reading, so we're only talking briefly about events immediately preceding the resignation.)

How We (Most Recently) Got Here

In December 2016, at 92, Mugabe declared himself ZANU PF's presidential candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. Although having ruled since 1980, this would have been his second and final five-year term under the new constitution ratified in 2013. Despite his advanced age, the decision to retain him by ZANU PF largely stemmed from his position as a unifying figurehead: factions were starting to develop within the party as talk of imminent successions intensified, thus keeping the veteran leader unchallenged going into 2018 was a pragmatic decision to "steady the boat" a while longer.

It had been long anticipated that Emmerson Mnangagwa, long-time Mugabe ally (50+ years) was a shoe-in as his successor, especially after he rose to vice presidency in 2014. Nicknamed "Ngwena" ("The Crocodile"), Mnangangwa had been looking the part too; reinventing his heavy-handed reputation by revving up conversations around human rights with the international community, taking charge of the country's agricultural policies, appealing to the ZANU stalwarts with age-old war cries, and engaging the digital generation on social media. Over the past few years, however, First Lady Grace Mugabe had begun to make subtle power plays that seemed to position her for potential succession. Heard of a charm offensive? Hers was anything but. She declared herself the incontrovertible mother of the nation who was essentially running the country already, obtained a PhD from the University of Zimbabwe in all of two months, and publicly berated high-ranking ZANU PF members aligned with Mnangagwa. While she was signaling intent, few- within the ZANU PF structures abd without- gave her much of a shot up until then. Her vitriol, however, came to a head early November, and culminated in Mugabe firing Mnangagwa on the 6th. The armed forces, undyingly partial to Mnangagwa, were swift to act.  On the 14th, army chief Constantino Chiwenga declared they had seized control of the state, and Mugabe was now on house arrest. By the 19th,  all ZANU PF provinces have voted against his continued leadership of the party and, on the 21st- after some hesitation and continuing pressure, Mugabe resigned. So now we are here.

Why Mugabe is the Pan-African Darling?

Over the decades, Mugabe has continually endeared himself to the global Pan-African community. It thus comes as no surprise that different segments of African and African descendant communities around the world both commiserate in his demise and are especially shocked by the near-universal celebrations of Zimbabweans at home and abroad.
Nujoma, Kaunda, Machel, Nyerere, Mugabe and Dos Santos.
With 2 dead and three retired, Mugabe was the last of a dying breed
First of all, Mugabe is a Throwback Pan-Africanist. Coming onto the political scene in 1960s Rhodesia (Zimbabwe's colonial name), his rhetoric evoked the same anti-imperialist radical Pan-African ideals birthed out of such movements as Garveyism, and were the mainstay of radical continental juggernauts such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, and Robert Sobukwe. In today's political climate, he was peerless both in ideology and by gift of long life/stay in power. Ideologocial counterparts such as those listed above, and other founding fathers spoken of within the same breath (Samora Machel, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Jomo Kenyatta etc) have long since died. With a legacy dating back to early independence on the continent and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, Mugabe thus serves as an enduring symbol of resistance and solidarity borne out of an era that many argue was Pan-Africanism's hey-day.

Mugabe didn't just talk Pan-Africanism; he lived it too. After independence in 1980, Zimbabwean troops were sent to assist in state-stabilizing initiatives in such places as Mozambique, Angola, and the DRC- taking de-facto mitigation leadership in the latter. He, alongside Muammar Gaddafi until his passing, continued to propagate Kwame Nkrumah's dream of a united Africa that would better withstand neocolonial attacks and assert itself on the contemporary international scene. Mugabe's Pan-Africanism went beyond the continent. In 2015, he gave a rousing speech calling for closer ties between Africans and African Americans, citing parallels between the anti-colonial and Civil Rights movements. This past July, he broke precedence within the continent when he donated one million dollars to the African Union, to help alleviate the institution's overwhelming dependency on external funding ( a staggering 80% of their budget comes from outside Africa, by some accounts!) 

Mugabe's anti-imperialism rhetoric did not wane after Zimbabwe's independence: if anything, it only intensified. Brazenly refusing to concede to Western pressure at the turn of the 20th century in the aftermath of his ill-fated land-redistribution program (more on that just now), even when the country was expelled from the Commonwealth and  placed under economic sanctions, Mugabe's defiant statements have become the stuff of legend. He has also joined the chorus of those who criticize the International Criminal Court for it almost exclusively African list of prosecutions- which have led some on the continent to term it the "Infamous Caucasian Court"
Mugabe's defiant Speech at Earth Summit, tackling
land reform, Western hypocrisy and economic sanctions

At home, the Mugabe government developed a reputation- at least rhetorically, of a commitment to Black empowerment post-independence. Immediately after independence, the Mugabe set out to provide schools and health care across large communities in the country entirely neglected by the colonial government. The arguable feather-in-his-cap is the land redistribution program he embarked on throughout his presidency, gaining particular notoriety in the late 90s and early 2000s. Coming out of colonialism, Whites owned almost 80% of the arable land, despite being less than 5% of the population. As part of the Lancaster Agreement that led to independence, land was to be redistributed gradually over the years to ensure pragmatic economic transition under a "Willing Seller, Willing Buyer" model. By the 1990s, redistributed land fell way below the projected levels, and mounting political pressure coupled with an about-turn from the UK that had committed to help fund parts of the land reform led to the now-infamous "Fast Track" land reform through which land was seized en masse from White farmers and redistributed to the Black populace. This, in an age where former French colonies still pay a colonial tax to France, and fellow settler colony South Africa is still awkwardly grappling with the land question, and Black communities outside the continent continue to be treated as second tier, undoubtedly endeared "Gushungo" (as Mugabe was affectionately known) to the Pan-African world- especially the more radical elements thereof.
Such sentiments have sprouted from different disenfranchised communities across
the African World, with radical elements in South African particularly vocal.
His romanticized Pan-Africanism was even, well, romantic. 1961, he married Ghanaian Sally Hayfron, a Pan-African organizer in her own right most known for her work in mobilizing women under constitutional rule and advocating for the release of political prisoners. The much-beloved, soft-spoken, "Amai" passed away in 1992, taking with her sophisticated Pan-African air of anticolonial Mugabe and paving the way for the rise and rise of Grace Mugabe.

So given such a track record of calling for solidarity, anti-Western imperialism, and Black empowerment at home, where do the wheels fall of for Mugabe? How is it that such a figure would incite almost universal celebration at home upon resignation?

How a Hero Resigned a Villain

Just a part of the crowd that came out
to celebrate Mugabe's removal from
power: how did we get here?
While the president was putting on a show for the rest of the world, good intentions not withstanding, Zimbabweans on the ground faced a reality rather different. Almost immediately after independence, Mugabe deployed a handpicked, North-Korean trained task force known as the Fifth Brigade to go quell suspected political dissidents in the Matabeleland and Midlands region of the country. What followed was the genocidal massacre of civilians, named Gukurahundi, that continues to be under-reported today. Some reports have death tolls at more than 30 000: a number almost on par with the casualties from the very violent War of Liberation! Beside the evil inherent in the killings, the fact that it targeted largely Ndebele communities- the second largest ethnic group (15%) in the country after Mugabe's Shona- “reinforced, if not actually created, a legacy of distrust between the citizens of Matabeleland and the central government” (Bratton). Thus, since immediately after independence, there have been large segments of the population that have harbored hostility towards the Mugabe regime and Mugabe in particular. So much for that "Miracle" that everyone applauded then.
Scenes routine during Gukurahundi

While those away from Matabeleland and Midlands went on blissfully unaware or unaffected by Gukurahundi, their turn to suffer at the hands of the regime was imminent. Over the 1990s, Mugabe developed a vindictive reputation which saw political opponents and anyone deemed the slightest of threats disappeared or dead (often by "car accident"). It was not until the "Fast Track" land reform program of the late 90s and early 2000s that the governance plot was entirely lost. As stated earlier, land redistribution had always been a mandate of independence, and the stalling over the first two decades had increased agitation in the populace and heightened political pressure on the government. What resulted then, instead of a controlled and technically assessed redistribution program as had been done earlier, was guerrilla-style take-over of farms by various forces during which property was destroyed and farmers who issued any resistance were killed or harmed. The biggest tragedy was, when all was said and done, the masses didn't get the land: the vast majority of it going to cronies loyal to Mugabe- many of them who had neither technical expertise nor real desire to farm. While the arrangement had been for "one person, one farm", 400 of Mugabe's allies reportedly seized several farms. The land reform, touted by the Pan-African community as a Black empowerment, populist revolution had been a facade; and Zimbabweans knew it. Due to a lack of technical expertise, the farms were poorly equipped and run and production tanked. By 2003, only 66% of the redistributed land was in use, sending the once-bustling agricultural economy into free-fall.

Zimbabwean lawyer and political commentator,
Alex Magaisa, shared this apt poem last week.
Free-fall unlike ever seen before in the modern world. Food output capacity fell 45%, manufacturing output 29% in 2005, 26% in 2006 and 28% in 2007, and unemployment rose to 80%. Consider these figures: at the height of Zimbabwe's status as "Africa's Bread Basket"(1988), the inflation rate was 7%. By 2000, it was 55%, more than doubling the next year to 112%. By 2005 it was up to 585%,doubling again by 2006 to 1281%. By November 2008, it was at 79,600,000,000%. Don't adjust your screens- those numbers are right. Everybody in Zimbabwe was a trillionaire. Prices of basic commodities, the few that could still be found in stores, were literally changing as you waited in the till-line! While the economy stabilized for a season after the formation of the Government of National Unity in 2009 and a switch to multi-currency system through which the Zimbabwean dollar was retired (put another way: the government had failed at running an economy with its own money that they now resorted to American dollars and South African rands for commerce in its entirety), cash shortages have resurfaced, with the masses sleeping outside banks only to withdraw paltry figures in the morning- if at all.

Surprisingly, not worth much at all.
All this, accompanied with the rise of ZANU PF's most formidable political competition in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), only made the dictatorial regime more brutal and corrupt. Accused of rigging the 2005 election, ZANU PF would go on to "lose" the first round of voting to Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC in 2008, but not by enough to avoid a run-off. In the two interim months, ZANU PF militias intensified violent attacks on the opposition in what was infamously dubbed "Operation Mavhoterapapi?" (Operation "Who Did You Vote For?"), leaving Tsvangirai to pull out of the run-off just before it was about to happen. Sprinkled between electoral years have been other forms of systemic violence, such as Operation Murambatsvina- which targeted the informal structures borne of the poverty and informal economy the government had created, the masses killed at the Chiadzwa diamond fields beginning in 2008 (what a year for the country!) and the relentless persecution of those who even made the slightest noise against the government.
Nobody, not even the most vulnerable, were immune to Mugabe era state craft
Massive brain-drain accompanied the economic and socio-political decimation of the country: an estimated 2-4 million Zimbabweans fled and currently reside in other countries far-and-wide. For context, Zimbabwe's population is just under 15 million: the Zimbabweans that fled the country would constitute a quarter of the current population. And while the education system, often touted as one of Mugabe's crowning glories, produced a literacy rate around 90% (among the highest in the world), what did it all matter when graduates would either join the 85% unemployed ranks or be forced into foreign lands to put their skills to use?
2016: Recent graduates, unable to find unemployment, show up to protest in the city center,
playing soccer clad in their graduation attire

Then came the exorbitant displays of excess. Little could have infuriated Zimbabweans, living on under $3 a day, more than the grotesque excesses of the Mugabe family and friends. Behold, a brief video of the properties owned by the rulers ex-rulers of one of the world's weakest economies.

As the reign neared its end, the Mugabe family was becoming more brazenly ostentatious. Earlier this month, a video of youngest son Chatunga pouring a $400 bottle of champagne over his $60 000 (American dollars, btw) caused chagrin across the land. The first lady, nicknamed "Gucci Grace" by the international community and "First Shopper" at home, once blew $75,000 in a Paris shopping spree. In September, her son (Mugabe's stepson), imported two 2015 Rolls Royces, valued at just under one million dollars collectively. Zimbabweans live on under $3 a day. She was no Sally Hayfron.

Oh Grace....

Coup De Grace
Spoken to Soon!?

As his years inched towards a century, Zimbabweans had largely resigned that Gushungo would rule until death. Then, perhaps, some much needed respite. However, with the opposition the weakest it has been since the turn of the century and in-fighting within ZANU adding uncertainty into the mix, there was less cause to be optimistic. Ultimately, Zimbabweans across the socio-political spectrum agreed on one thing: the prospects of a Mugabe dynasty, especially if it meant Grace took over the reins, was a death knell to what hopes of a national revival there may have been.
Of dubious degrees and shopping sprees, crass public humiliations and unbridled pursuits of power- and throw in a diplomatic debacle after she assaulted a South African model who she caught "fraternizing' with her sons. Even avid defenders of Mugabe's legacy had reached their breaking point: if culpable of nothing else, the moves positioning her to succeed him were too much to fathom.

Oh, For What it Matters...

Having spoken at length about the disparity between Mugabe's torrid record at home and impressive Pan-African record, it may also be worth our while to debunk the impeccability of the latter. First, while Mugabe grew synonymous with ZANU, and thus its defining characteristics- Pan-Africanism included- it is important to note that he was a relative latecomer onto the African nationalist scene in then-Rhodesia, and found the Pan-African tradition already in place, having been championed by the likes of Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole before him: the latter had published the seminal political text African Nationalism in 1959 and was also the founding president of the ZANU that Mugabe would later join. Pan-Africanism didn't come with Mugabe- he came into it. Consider, too, the 1980 Independence Day celebrations, which were immortalized by Bob Marley's guest concert and performance of the aptly titled Zimbabwe. Well, turns out Mugabe had not wanted the "scruffy" Jamaican as the special guest, preferring instead "the perennially wholesome Cliff Richard": yup; in the most iconic moment in his leadership, Mugabe would have done away with arguably the most renowned Pan-African musician of all time (who self-funded his trip by the way) for a clean-cut White British guy because- well, optics. Add that to routine insults on icons like Mandela, and slights on fellow African countries, and you have a slightly less flawless paragon of Pan-Africanism.
Bob Marley performing "Zimbabwe" at the country's
 Independence Day Celebration in 1980

And oh, segments demonizing Zimbabweans who are delighted at Mugabe's demise also seem to be conveniently overlooking one critical element. He is 93 years old. If he would have stood in next year's election, he would have been 94 at poll time and 99 at term end. So even if your partiality to Mugabe is ideological, it is important to differentiate this from the Sankara/Lumumba type coups that removed leaders in their prime: at the risk of playing God, by hook or by pragmatic crook, Mugabe's days as the head of state and government were nearing an end anyway: this was less about removing him as it was about stopping Grace's ascent to the throne.

 for what it matters.

Vhaya Mudhara

The paragraph above, from Ali Mazrui's Nationalism and New States in Africa reads a verbatim description of our current conversation, substituting of course Nkrumah for Mugabe and Ghana for Zimbabwe. Verbatim. It should come as no surprise as Mugabe famously modeled large chunks of his worldview on Nkrumahism. It should also provide a glimpse into the redeeming potential of history: despite the checkered tale of reality told above, Nkrumah has incontrovertibly gone down as a Pan-African icon in the annals of history.

From the vantage point of distant lands, historical analysis, and reductionist view of Pan-Africanism as a check-list of rhetoric and ceremonial gestures, it is easy to see why Mugabe retained, and will continue to retain, a place on the podium of greatest Pan-African champions. But to the vendor, the Dzamara family, the unpaid civil servant, the asylum seeker in neighboring South Africa who missed her parents' funeral, the maimed opposition supporter, the Ndebele girl dragged into the forest and raped while her parents were slaughtered in the house, the unemployed university graduates, and the millions of Zimbabweans who had to navigate Mugabe's authoritarian rule for the past four decades, the era could not have ended a day too soon.


La petite fille zimbabwéenne said...

good read

Flo said...

Shingi!!! This is a great piece. This personally helped me learn a lot of nuance that I didn't previously have on it all. Thanks for writing!


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