Even now, with Robert Mugabe surrounded by his own tanks and staring into the post-presidential abyss, Zimbabweans can scarcely believe that his decades-long reign might be over. There has never been an independent Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe in charge, and most of the population has never known another leader.
L’etat, c’est Mugabe.
Imagining Zimbabwe without him still feels unreal. The idea has a fantastical, fictional quality. Surely, this can’t be news, but a fever dream cooked up in the collective mind of the millions whom, over the years, he has killed, beaten, marginalised, oppressed, impoverished and exiled.
Even now, with Mugabe himself trapped in State House, hours or days away from exile or execution, Zimbabweans warn that nothing is settled yet. Time and time again their president-for-life has turned impossible situations in his favour, has overpowered his strongest enemies, has retained power against all the odds. Can he cling on one more time? Don’t rule it out.
And yet, as the army tightens their noose, and fantasy turns into reality, Zimbabweans must now begin to answer the question they have been asking themselves for so many years: after Mugabe, what?
It is a question underpinned by hope. Hope for a population that is allowed to elect a new leader, freely and fairly and from a range of energetic candidates. Hope for an economy no longer run for the benefit of a tiny elite, an economy that does not drive Africa’s best-educated population to foreign shores but uses them to create wealth and prosperity for all. Hope for a police force that protects rather than intimidates. Hope for consistent, rational governance that builds schools and fixes roads and pays its civil servants on time and in real money. Hope that Zimbabwe will, finally, rise from the ashes.
But it’s a fragile thing, hope, and the man who is supposed to deliver this brave new world is not known for his delicate touch. Emmerson ‘The Crocodile’ Mnangagwa is Mugabe’s most likely replacement, reportedly favoured by the military men who precipitated the current crisis, but he is hardly a radical departure from the status quo. For decades he was Mugabe’s enforcer-in-chief, the man assigned to do the dirty work while Mugabe played the respectable statesman for the cameras.
It was Mnangagwa, never forget, who orchestrated the Gukurahundi massacre; and it was Mnangagwa who coordinated the campaign of violence against opposition supporters that eventually forced Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw from the run-off election in 2008.
Can this man really be trusted to oversee Zimbabwe’s next elections? Can this man really be trusted to lay the foundations of a non-authoritarian state? Can this man really be trusted to usher in the kind of radical political transformation of which Zimbabweans have been dreaming for so long?
No, no and no. Sometimes, the cure may be worse than the disease.
The same applies to Zimbabwe’s military top brass, who have enabled and profited from Mugabe’s regime for decades. Now that they are calling the shots – quite literally – they will try to convince us that they are liberators, democratisers, moral custodians. How long will this shiny new facade stay up? How long before the mask slips?
As the stage is now set for Mugabe to exit the political scene, these are the questions that Zimbabweans will be asking themselves. Mugabe presided over Zimbabwe’s terminal decline, but his departure by no means guarantees that this decline will be arrested. There is still plenty of hard work for the country’s opposition parties, social movements and civil society activists to do to ensure that Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe future looks different to the bleak years which preceded it. Only then can the celebrations really begin.