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Mugabe Underestimated the Machine He Created

By Bart Connolly

Robert Mugabe once said he would rule Zimbabwe until he was 100 years old and that only God himself could remove him from power.  He was wrong on both accounts. On November 15 the Zimbabwean Defence Forces (ZDF) placed Mugabe and his family on house arrest and on November 21 he was subsequently forced to resign the presidency. 

As many have pointed out, these events were triggered by Mugabe’s dismissal of fellow Zanu-PF party member, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in an attempt to clear the path for Grace Mugabe, his wife, to succeed him. This change of power has been hailed as a step in the right direction for Zimbabwe, paving the way to a potential transition to a more democratic government. However, upon closer examination it is revealed that Mugabe, in his ousting, merely became a victim of the one-party system that he created and sustained.

Mugabe was for years the personification of the dominant Zanu-PF party. However, in his preference to have his wife succeed him, he had become a threat to the party’s future ambitions and well-established patronage system.  This system, which awarded loyal members with land, real estate, and powerful positions with the ability to siphon off public funds, had long sustained the position of Mugabe and the Zanu-PF party at the expense of the nation. The party’s removal of Mugabe in November, though a surprise to some, is consistent with previous responses to threats against the power of the Zanu-PF.

For example, after independence in 1980, Mugabe and his Zanu-PF allies focused on efforts to consolidate their power and undermine their partner in the coalition government, the Zimbabwe Africa Peoples Union (Zanu), and its leader, Joshua Nkomo. This power struggle eventually led to the 5th Brigade’s – a ZDF unit trained by North Korea and answering only to Mugabe and his inner circle – devastating occupation of Zanu’s power center, Matabeleland.  With this threat neutralized and his one-party rule attained, Mugabe declared himself executive president in 1987, expanding his powers and relieving the burden of term limits.

The Zimbabwean economy had, for years, been one the bright spots on the continent with 14.4 percent GDP growth in 1980; however, by 2016 it had dropped to only 0.6 percent due to burdensome fiscal policies, and increased graft. The country’s fertile land, which supports strong agricultural production capacity, was a major factor of the country’s one-time success.  This prosperity was, for a time, reason enough for Mugabe to cooperate with the landholders, but during the 1990 elections the situation started to change. To draw voters’ attention away from his government’s failed policies Mugabe attempted to whip up support by proposing an expanded land reform program, scapegoating the predominately white farmers with whom he had been cooperating up until this point. These policies, enacted to resettle subsistence farmers on arable land, were well intentioned by design, but in reality much of the land went to loyal party members.

During the 2000 constitutional referendum, Mugabe again attempted to use the land issue to distract the electorate from the harsh economic realities that they were facing. The new constitution would have codified Mugabe’s executive power and solidified the system of party handouts to loyal members, giving the government the extensive power to expropriate land as it saw fit without judicial interference. Mugabe was shocked when the referendum failed and he placed blame at the feet of the white landholders. He utilized armed gangs to terrorize the farmers and any perceived supporters of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to further consolidate his rule and the system that supported it.

 In spite of these violent tactics and perhaps because of them, support for the MDC grew as the economic conditions in the country continued to deteriorate. Skyrocketing unemployment, hyperinflation, involvement in the Second Congo War and eventually mass starvation caused widespread opposition to Zanu-PF. In the 2002 elections, the MDC did well, receiving 42 percent of the vote despite widespread election irregularities and the use of food subsidies to buy Zanu-PF votes amidst a rural famine. In the 2008 elections, Mugabe and his party were increasingly vulnerable.  He lost control of parliament and the government stalled in releasing the presidential elections results for more than a month. Though the published results had the MDC candidate ahead, neither he nor Mugabe had a plurality required to win the election. In the resulting runoff election, the government and its allies used violent measures to ensure Mugabe’s victory. Although Mugabe reluctantly named his competitor as prime minister, he again took sole control of the government during rigged 2013 elections.

Mnangagwa was thought to be a contender to succeed Mugabe in the coming years. He had served with Mugabe as a freedom fighter and subsequently as head of intelligence and Minister of Defense. Grace entered the scene more recently founding the G40, a new faction within the Zanu-PF comprised of young civil servants, youth leaders, and academics. With the G40’s support, Grace rose as a force in the party. This was a direct challenge to the Mnangagwa’s Team Lacoste, made up of military leaders and former freedom fighters. Both of these groups vied for power of the party and the spoils that accompany control. Tensions started to rise when, in September 2017, Mnangagwa was airlifted to South Africa for medical treatment, claiming that he had been poisoned by the G40. Team Lacostes’ suspicions were confirmed in October when Mugabe reshuffled the cabinet removing Mnangagwa and appointing G40 members to important posts.  Mugabe, by indicating his support for the G40 and positioning Grace to succeed him, was revealing his allegiances and challenging Team Lacoste. But, as history has shown, Mnangagwa and the Zanu-PF’s old guard would relinquish neither their power nor their access to the lucrative patronage system without a fight.

After utilizing a system of patronage to ensure both his personal power and that of the Zanu-PF for so long by enriching his allies, it is surprising that Mugabe thought the party machine would allow him to circumvent their status by paving the way for Grace and the upstart G40 faction to succeed him. In the end Mugabe became a threat to the system that he created and nurtured for over 30 years and therefore needed to be sacrificed to ensure its continued dominance. With Mnangagwa now leading the country and appointing many familiar faces, it is clear that that his policy is more a continuation of the status quo at the expense of the Zimbabwean people rather than one of reform.

Bart was a Foreign Affairs Officer in the U.S. Navy focusing on African Affairs and political-military relations. Currently, he works in credit risk management in New York.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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