The unfolding scenario in that country has no precedent in history. Where else do soldiers “remove” a despot and say it is no coup? Robert Mugabe cannot issue an army command, but he still claims to be president? Where is the power when the “coupists” negotiate with the “ousted” fellow? Some unimginables have happened: photo ops handshake and smiles with him. Under house arrest he struts out of confinement to a university graduation. His nine-decades feet still crisp, his slight stoop packing an authoritarian halo.
The nonagenarian is defiant, his removers seem complaisant. He puffs, the soldiers doff their fatigues. Everyone seems fatigued by it all, but Mugabe farts on the power transition. It is comical, but no one is laughing. He is abandoned by his wife Grace, which calls to mind the femme fatales of political intrigues: Cleopatra, Medea, Lady Macbeth, Yaa Asantewa, Livia. Grace was the heir apparent until her hair had no royal apparel.
Yet reports have it that when he breaks down in tears, it is not Grace, the 52-year-old scheming termagant she craves. She calls his dead wife from the days when he was still hailed a hero. The world swooned and pined for him to shepherd the country to the shores of justice. But we learn a lesson from him: If power changes with hurrahs, they don’t always usher in heroes. He was a hero before he became a horror.
Horror for the economy that grovelled for food, investments and jobs. He is not only megalomaniac, he is blood thirsty. He has taken advantage of the three great sources of human mobilisation: Faith, tribe and ideal. Faith was a little simple. It was faith in the motherland. He converted it into faith in Mugabe. He became the god of democracy, the one constant in the life of the people. Only the God in heaven could claim that. He could not be removed, pummelled opposition and doubt, and turned the nation’s currency into at once a pariah and plaything. It was faith in the motherland that turned him against the economic mainstay of its agrarian bulwark: the white farmers. He took their land and handed them to “his people.” It was black against white. He turned the concept of racism upside down. He pauperised his people but won many to his side. He looked coy when he was cunning.
Tribe of course was important. His Shona tribe took upper hand over the Ndebele rivals. It is a story of persecution, sometimes pogrom marked by mass killings, mass burials and a sense of false righteousness. Tribe also came in the guise of part loyalty. His ZANU PF warred against Joshua Nkomo’s Zanu PF. He always routed them, with fire, blood and money.
During the last annual LABAAF/CORA, a book festival held in Lagos, Nigeria’s poet laureate Niyi Osundare mused on the rise of tribalism that births such grandiloquent misfits as TRUMP and wave of right-wing populism across Europe and Asia. In my comment, I said we need to save democracy from itself. If we gripe at Mugabe who managed to fatten in power forever, we should not forget he was not the first. Even Hitler, Francisco Franco, the sawdust Caesar Mussolini rose to power on the wave of the vote. Trump was voted in. Duterte, the happy brute of the Philippines, is popular despite senseless killings. Vladimir Putin has become president, prime minister and president and a de fact Russian leader for life on the life of the vote. Mugabe never claimed not to be a democrat. They rig elections using the political machine. We saw it recently in Kenya. We see it all the time in Nigeria. Democracy may be the best form, it wears a false toga. We accept it even if we don’t believe it.
Men like Mugabe never believe they are tyrants. Neither do their faithful. So, a sense of justice drives them like their opponents. Hence, they have no compunction when they kill and destroy. They are not like the Satan in Paradise Lost who says, “All good to me is lost, Evil be thou my Good.” Poet John Milton shows that as the subconscious voice while the self is not conscious of this depravity. Mugabe is reported to have gone on hunger strike. Only the just do that. The last great leader who did it was Mahatma Ghandhi and he deployed it to change the country’s mood from bellicose to cosy. Mugabe is suffering from delusion of grandeur, which comes from a false sense of good. But he is no Ghandhi.
I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the tyrant who loved those who flattered him over the daughter who told him the truth. He died a mad man though thinking himself a saint. Nothing sums up Shakespeare’s best play better than the line: “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.” Mugabe still thinks himself a gentleman.