How power works

2008-04-09 00:00

It has been a vivid demonstration of how power really works. A week ago, Robert Mugabe was still the undisputed ruler of Zimbabwe. He is 84, and he has reduced the country to ruin: four out of five adults are unemployed, inflation is running (officially) at over 100 000% and one-third of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa. Yet nobody in his own party, the Zanu-PF, dared to question his rule, the police and the army remained loyal and ordinary people lived in quiet desperation.

The silent submission of the population owed a good deal to the brutality of the police, but what can explain the loyalty of his own colleagues in the party and the army? After all, Zimbabwe is their country, too, and nobody likes to see their homeland dragged in the dirt. Moreover, it was all Mugabe’s fault, brought about by policies that he freely chose to pursue. He is not 10 feet tall and he has no magical powers. Why did they obey him?

They obeyed him because he has been in power for 28 years, longer than the great majority of Zimbabweans have been alive. (The average Zimbabwean woman is dead at 34, the lowest life expectancy in the world. Men make it to 37.)

They obeyed him because he was the hero of the independence struggle and an icon of African liberation.

Most of all, they obeyed him because his rule was apparently the only thing that kept them out of the desperate poverty in which most Zimbabweans live. Powerful people who defied him were rarely killed, but they were cut off from the flow of wealth and had a very hard time of it.

So the regime cruised on almost unaffected by the ruin of the country and Mugabe even felt secure enough to allow more or less free elections on March 29.

Mugabe was so confident that he didn’t even send out Zanu-PF’s storm-troopers, the so-called “war veterans” (most of whom were not born during the liberation war), to frighten people into voting the right way.

But he had made one crucial miscalculation: in response to pressure from the African Union, he agreed to let the vote be counted locally, with the results posted up outside each polling station.

So the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) sent members to photograph the results at more than 8 000 polling stations, and it suddenly got very hard to manipulate the returns at a central location. And it turned out — maybe it had been true at every previous election, too — that around half the population had not voted for Zanu-PF despite all the pressures.

Mugabe’s party has already lost its majority in parliament, but the real transformation has been in Zanu-PF itself. Suddenly, the “old man” is not the object of fear and adulation any more. In the eyes of some senior party people and their military and police colleagues, Mugabe has become a bargaining counter.

If the jig is really up, maybe they could trade Mugabe and power for a peaceful retirement with no awkward questions about where their wealth came from. Of course, Mugabe would also have to be allowed an honourable retirement himself — but as one of the last heroes of Africa’s independence generation, he was guaranteed that anyway.

Or maybe they should declare martial law, annul the election and push Mugabe aside — or leave him out front as a figurehead and flak-catcher. He must be very disconcerted, after 28 years of absolute power, to discover that it was just a confidence trick all along.

But the game is not over yet. While both those options remain open, the party elders and the security forces have opted for the moment to play more or less by the rules: a run-off election in two weeks between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

That gives them time to deploy the bully-boys, reintimidate the rural population, and pull off a second-round victory for Mugabe. Or, if that strategy doesn’t look like it’s going to work (for once people have lost their fear, it’s much harder to get them back in the mood), then they still have time to exercise Option A or Option B.

So what has this episode taught us about the nature of power? That the more absolute and illegitimate it is, the easier it is for it to dissolve overnight. And that democracy is a good solvent.

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