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Most people assumed Robert Mugabe would die in office. But after 37 years running his country — and increasingly running it into the ground — the man many call “Uncle Bob” is being eased from power.
The Zimbabwean president was confined to his house on Wednesday by General Constantino Chiwenga, the epitome of the military men who had fought for black majority rule in the 1970s and who had stood behind a dictatorial president. They look set to now determine the fate of the 93-year-old leader who had been losing the support of his fellow veterans of the liberation struggle as he became more bitter and eccentric.
Mr Mugabe had for decades astutely and ruthlessly outwitted his rivals as he dominated his ruling Zanu-PF party. His erstwhile followers still speak respectfully in public about the man who led them to independence, but in private they describe an isolated, befuddled president who no longer understands the political and economic storms raging around him.
His decision last week to sack his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and clear the path for his wife, Grace, to succeed him as president appears to have sealed his fate. Rather than allowing him to dismantle Zanu-PF piece by piece and to clear the way for a possible succession by Mrs Mugabe, the security apparatus around Zanu-PF struck back.
“This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of the liberation war veterans, an influential group, told Reuters. “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”
Mr Mugabe, the oldest head of state in the world, has been a symbol of African potential squandered. Even more than the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence in 1960, or Julius Nyerere, the socialist first president of Tanzania, Mr Mugabe’s is the story of tremendous promise unfulfilled.
An anglophile and an intellectual — he used a decade in jail to earn further degrees in law and administration — he set out in 1980 to reassure an international community that had once branded him a “communist terrorist”. Like Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, he appointed white ministers to his cabinet and held out an olive branch to the white community who had dominated the economy.
The truce proved shortlived. In Heidi Holland’s astute psychological biography, Dinner with Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader is portrayed as a brilliant man scorned. In particular, he could not understand why Zimbabwean whites refused to vote for him when he had gone out of his way to reassure them. Instead, they continued to cast their ballots for overtly racist politicians. Ms Holland quoted Sydney Sekeremayi, a longtime associate of Mr Mugabe, as saying the president had “felt utterly rejected by the white community and had vowed to get his revenge”.
That impulse to revenge became more acute as Mr Mugabe’s attempts at land reform foundered in the 2000s when the violent seizure of white-owned farms drew the opprobrium of western governments and plunged the economy into chaos.
He was convinced that the British had reneged on an agreement hammered out at independence to fund land redistribution, which he saw as essential if the black majority were to be empowered.
Mr Mugabe was never a true believer in the market economy. The country fell into arrears with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in 2001, depriving it of international finance ever since. His quasi-socialist economic policies — spiced with rampant corruption — reached rock bottom in 2008 when, after years of cranking the printing presses, the Zimbabwean dollar was consumed by hyperinflation.
It was subsequently taken out of circulation by a unity government that introduced the US dollar as the main currency in 2009. Almost all tax revenue goes to pay a bloated civil service, though even government employees are often paid with electronic currency that is fast losing its value.
Mr Mugabe’s political slide mirrors the economic one. In 2008, he was forced into a run-off against Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition party. Rather than face possible defeat, Mr Mugabe chose violence to disrupt the process, causing Mr Tsvangirai to boycott the contest.
Still, the president did agree to form the government of national unity in 2009. That lasted until 2013 elections, by which time Mr Mugabe, always a skilled and brutal political operator, had managed to reassert control. He won yet another term of office.
Some people divide Mr Mugabe’s adult life into two. He was married to Sally Hayfron, a Ghanaian he had met in exile, until 1992. In 1987, he began an extra-marital affair with his secretary Grace Marufu, who was 41 years his junior. Four years after Sally died in 1992, Mr Mugabe married Grace, who became increasingly powerful within Zanu-PF in recent years. The veterans who had fought for liberation generally hated the second Mrs Mugabe, whom they regarded as a frivolous interloper bent on money and privilege.
In Dinner with Mugabe, Ms Holland argues that nothing was inevitable about Mr Mugabe’s decline and downfall. “A twisting of his being took place,” she wrote, and he “moved inexorably in a destructive direction. The tragedy is that he had the capacity to go either way.”