A rough time to be in charge

Spared the burdens of office, President Robert Mugabe might one day reflect on the lessons of his long career. No doubt he will rail and grieve at his legacy. History will not bestow on him the reputation he covets as the man who gave Zimbabweans back their land. Its verdict will be damning.

His neighbours in the SADC — they are not quite his peers — might offer words of sympathy. Their emotions will not extend to solidarity: Mugabe’s old authority has waned and all but a few African heads of state will be relieved to see him gone. But it would be worth their while to examine the forces unleashed in his wake.

The twilight of Mugabe’s rule offers a lesson in the rules of political succession. As several among the next generation of Southern African leaders have already discovered — from Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria to former president Benjamin Mkapa in Dar es Salaam — it is a rare leader indeed who gets to nominate his replacement.

A sure method to divide and damage a governing party is for an outgoing president to frustrate the processes that could replace him more efficiently. If this is a fact of political life — a truism of every democracy — then Africa’s relatively young democracies are no different. Inherited power is inherently weaker than the newly elected kind. Rivals might fall silent for a period, but in time they grow emboldened to speak their ideas.

In Zimbabwe veteran securocrat Emmerson Mnangagwa is said to be Mugabe’s preferred successor — and already positioned to take up the job when Mugabe allows. But Mnangagwa could never become a truly popular president: Zimbabweans of all political hues are impatient for change, which the old guard of the ruling party simply cannot deliver. Even among loyalists who vote for Mugabe on principle, most would rather he chose a quiet retirement.

The looming presidential contest is much more than a plebiscite on the 28 years of Mugabe’s rule. An entire hegemony — in the words of one sympathetic observer, “a totalising presence” — is falling away. Zanu-PF will remain a dominant feature of the political landscape, but its self-appointed role as custodian of the revolution has been eroded — from within, by parasitic elites; from outside, by a groundswell of dissent. The good people who have believed in the party’s cause already confront a crisis of faith.

A similar trend is evident among several of Zimbabwe’s neighbours. Recent months have brought a series of upsets for incumbent presidents, some of them catastrophic. In each case politicians have been sanctioned in ways their predecessors could scarcely have imagined. It does not take a reckless optimist to see that something important is happening.

In December, Thabo Mbeki suffered a humiliating rejection by the ANC conference in Polokwane. In January Kenya was partitioned by violent and criminal gangs after Mwai Kibaki claimed victory in a patently rigged, and possibly stolen, presidential ballot. Despite a booming economy, Kibaki is a shrunken and scarcely respected figure just five years after his euphoric defeat at the polls of predecessor Daniel arap Moi.

Then, in February, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (elected leader against the wishes of his predecessor, Mkapa) dismissed first his prime minister, then his entire cabinet. The move, while popular and timed to coincide with a visit by United States President George Bush, followed an unprecedented investigation by a parliamentary committee into a corruption scandal. There have been many other scandals, but none quite like this. For the first time an MP from the ranks of the governing party led a damning inquiry into the antics of Prime Minister Edward Lowassa and his cohorts.

Next week Zimbabweans go to the polls. Constitutional arrangements favour the incumbent party and president. But the presidential contest, if allowed to proceed with any semblance of due process, is set to culminate in an unprecedented second-round ballot for two of the three main candidates.

In every instance politics is becoming more competitive and less predictable. A creeping liberalisation is under way, carrying in its wake new risks. The instability can be destructive, as Kenya has witnessed. The challenge to political leaders is daunting: never more so than when victory is stolen and supporters primed for violence. In Nairobi both President Mwai Kibaki and his challenger Raila Odinga appeared to underestimate or exploit these dangers. But tense times also bring opportunity.

Liberal democracy has not worked for Africa — yet. But it remains the only show worth watching. The urgent task of securing accountable institutions is more widely recognised than ever before. South Africa’s miracle has turned out to be the work of fallible humans. Kenya was never the bastion of stability which its leaders — and lenders — pretended it was. The scope for wishful thinking has been much reduced.

Most of the recent upheaval within Africa’s governing parties has been provoked by the reluctance of administrations to be more accountable. The challenge to those incumbent elites has come from party members in South Africa, from angry crowds in Kenya, from parliamentarians in Tanzania and from a desperate and long-suffering electorate in Zimbabwe.

At root these forces pose the same challenge. No one has a proven blueprint for building accountable institutions — not presidents, not the World Bank, not the lawyers who wrote the constitution of the new African Union. Rhetoric about good governance does not provide any answer: the conundrums of “development” are thornier and more complex than any conventional wisdom. But while politicians tell many things to the poor, the popular demand — increasingly and across sub-Saharan Africa — is for change, competence and respect for the rule of law.

President Mugabe might yet be able to insist on leaving on his own terms. He might die in office, perhaps in a ceremonial or non-executive role or at the helm of some transitional cabinet. But while he can play no meaningful part in rebuilding Zimbabwe, Mugabe is still in a position to prevent another strongman from reaching a position of untrammelled power — a Mnangagwa, even a Mrs Mujuru, or any other of the aspirant little Caesars who would dominate Africa’s politics.

However improbable, it is not too late for Mugabe to lead by example. He could still persuade the securocrats and militarists — an old guard — to let go quietly. An orderly and democratic succession might just be within his gift. As the old military adage has it, the true test of a general is to lead an army in retreat.

Mark Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute, London

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