Harare - Here it is again, the dawn of new year for Zimbabwe. Following yet another year of lost hopes, and now yet another new one of expectation; nay, longing.
That this may be the year that senility finally claims the world’s oldest leader, that the weight of oppression and economic despair will give way to a leadership halfway decent and that Zimbabwe will be allowed finally to live up to its expectations of being an economic and democratic model for the rest of Africa.
From the outset, caution is advisable. President Robert Mugabe turns 93 some six weeks from now. At his ruling ZANU(PF) party’s annual conference in December, he delivered an hour-long rambling speech in which he concluded with the numbing words, “ZANU(PF) will keep going on and on; ZANU(PF) tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
There is little doubt that he includes himself in this prediction. There was no hint from him or any of his sycophantic lieutenants of any recognition of his great age and his failing capacities. When he walks, even for short distances – if only from his seat in an auditorium to the speaker’s podium - security details press behind and on either side of him to forestall a stumble.
No new policy initiatives emerged from the December conference, apart from one that allowed only the top three figures in the party to be responsible for choosing its leadership, instead leaving the role to a vote in the party’s congress. No surprises then that Mugabe was again affirmed leader last month.
Nor has there been any shift among the ranks of senior party officials since then, mostly because he has been on his annual month-long luxury holiday in the Far East, with his family and their partners and progeny. Reports said that the Xmas sojourn was costing the state US$6 million. This is the month when no important decisions are made, no new initiatives are launched. Everything stops until the boss gets back.
His grasping wife, Grace, nicknamed “the shopper,” has been pressed back into her role as wife and “first lady”, after some early scares when she presented herself as the leader-in-waiting. Mugabe’s three children are still young, the eldest, Bona, 26.
It is not known if any of Africa’s other leaders have whispered in his ear, that perhaps it was time for him to take his role as a grandfather seriously and leave the running of the country in the hands of someone younger, and more capable. If they have, it’s a certainty they would been ignored, and told to mind their own business.
It will be time for national elections in about 18 months, but already he has been adopted as ZANU(PF)’s candidate. It’s a version of the tale of the emperor without any clothes, except that no matter how loud the uproar against his figurative nakedness, it will be ignored.
There are constant reports of his frequent trips to Singapore being disguised as holidays, when the overwhelming belief is that they are for medical treatment at the hands of some of the world’s most expensive specialists. Zimbabwe is renowned for the quality of its private practitioners, but it is well-established practice for African leaders to prefer foreign doctors rather than to trust their own specialists, no matter how highly qualified. The fear that local doctors are open to bribery by political opponents to administer the poisoned chalice, appears uppermost in the minds of powerful, autocratic leaders.
The wily Mugabe has spent most of his 36 years in power carefully grooming and manipulating his servile lieutenants to ensure not just their absolute loyalty to him, but, equally important, their loathing and mistrust of each other. One of the marks of his rule has been the erasure of collegiality and trust between his ministers and generals.
It has provided him with armour against treason and plot by his enemies – public and hidden, in the arras of his office and his home. It is an indication of his deep mistrust of his officials, and they of each other.
His most dangerous enemy now is his age. His mother, Bona, is reported to have died at 102. Throughout his life he has stuck to a daily regimen of exercise and a carefully managed healthy diet, which has always excluded alcohol. But his lifestyle as a head of state imposes the sapping burden of constant stress, from the management of his minions in the cabinet to running the country’s economy – although the collapsing state of the latter appears to be the last thing on his mind.
When he does go finally, it is pretty certain that his death will be concealed from public knowledge,until it has become common knowledge throughout the country. This appears to be a process that has its roots in African tribal tradition, probably to find time for the successor to establish himself. Zimbabwe law has a legal process for the appointment of a new leader, although there are several contradictions in the provisions that make room for a confused and highly contested succession.
Mugabe, however, has erased any provision for the political process of succession, and thereby created the roots for muddle and conflict in the wake of the end of his rule.
He is the oldest living leader in the world, and has the longest stretch of rule in Africa, nearly 37 years since independence in 1980, and well ahead of the runner-up, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the president-for-life of Malawi, who died aged 99, two years after he was voted out of office, after 28 years as the head of state. Malawi’s succession process proved orderly and constitutional.
The death of African presidents are usually occasions for the eruption of national elation, with citizens dancing in the streets when they heard their presidents had died or stepped down after double-decades in power. They are heady, joyous and usually non-violent affairs.
In Zimbabwe, the public reaction to the death or resignation of Mugabe is likely to be tempered by the fear of violent suppression by secret police and the military of any major outbursts of relief and joy. In Africa particularly, it is a highly vulnerable and unpredictable moment where opportunities for illegal, violent seizures lurk. And the more violent and brutal the departing regime, the greater the risk of instability.