What Mugabe could teach us

2013-09-11 00:00

THE greatest favour President Robert Mugabe (89) of Zimbabwe and President José Eduardo dos Santos (71) of Angola could do the world would be to write their memoirs and reveal how they managed to stay in power for so long.

That would be beneficial to us all —first of all because they would have to leave office to write their memoirs, and because their memoirs would provide us with a fascinating insight into the nature of African authoritarian politics — call it Grand Chefs 101.

Maybe President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea could offer some useful insights too. He is the African leader who has been in power the longest, having executed his even more brutal uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, in August 1979.

Dos Santos took power just days later, in September 1979, when the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) appointed him leader of the party and president of the country in September 1979, after the death of Agostinho Neto, who led the MPLA into power four years before.

Mugabe followed the two into State House in more legitimate fashion in April 1980, having won the country’s first democratic elections. But it has been the process of retaining power, not just getting it that has been so intriguing. Clearly, ruthlessness is a major factor. In Obiang’s case, it is probably the most important factor, as Equatorial Guinea is the most oppressive of the three countries. Mugabe is ruthless where he deems it necessary to hold on to power. The suspicions about his role in the assassination of Zanu-PF secretary-general Herbert Chitepo in 1975, after which Mugabe took over the party, and the Gukurahundi massacre of rival Zapu supporters in Matabeleland in the early eighties, attest to that ruthlessness.

And ruthlessness, coupled with violence, has characterised his politics since, as the violent resistance to the Movement for Democratic Change shows. Cunning has also contributed to Mugabe’s success, evident in the way he saw off the MDC in the July 31 elections by exploiting the expectation of violence to distract his enemies’ attention from a more subtle strategy.

While Morgan Tsvangirai’s and Welshman Ncube’s MDCs beavered away at co-governing Zimbabwe with Zanu-PF in the unity government, Mugabe and Zanu-PF devoted most of their energies to staying in power.

Dos Santos is more puzzling. He lacks Mugabe’s credentials as the one who led the party and the country to liberation. And he seems marginally less ruthless, although the MPLA’s insistence on hunting and killing National Union for the Total Independence of Angola leader Jonas Savimbi, shunning South Africa’s entreaties to negotiate with him, showed ruthlessness was not lacking.

Their ability to maintain power within their own parties is less visible, and even more intriguing. Of course, the qualities of ruthlessness and cunning have also stood them in good stead in this area.

Patronage has been another important instrument, perhaps more so for Dos Santos. Mugabe has clearly distributed considerable patronage himself, especially to the security chiefs who have remained his political life insurance of last resort, never wavering in their loyalty. He distributed farms seized from white farmers after 2000 to generals, judges and others in positions of power.

Dos Santos has presumably distributed far more patronage, not least because he has had so much to dispense. The mystery is how he has kept his own party quiescent when he has distributed much more of that patronage to himself and his family. His daughter, Isabel, has become perhaps the richest woman in Africa and he appointed his son, José Filomeno, to head Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, giving him access to billions of dollars in a country where the trajectories of such state funds are opaque.

It seems that the ultimate strategy for clinging to power for both Mugabe and Dos Santos has been après moi ledéluge (after me, the deluge). This has entailed knocking down any potential successor and playing the divide-and-rule game within their parties to create the impression that if they go, chaos will ensue.

At the time of writing, Mugabe had not announced his new cabinet, nearly six weeks after the election, a sign that he was having difficulty containing the succession battle within Zanu-PF between the Joice Mujuru faction and the Emerson Mnangagwa faction.

In a similar fashion, Dos Santos is facing pressure within the MPLA to find a successor. But it is clear that power has become so addictive that they cannot contemplate life without it. Or even death perhaps. Who can they trust to protect them when they no longer have all the power? And who can protect their wealth in retirement? So maybe both intend to die in office. But who will protect the wealth and their relatives after they are gone? — Politicsweb.

• This article first appeared in ISS Weekly.

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