There is a personal story I share with my children and staff by way of saying never be shy of conflict: no storming, no norming, no performing. Watching the military machinery roll down the gentle avenues of Harare in the country of my birth, Zimbabwe, I am reminded how I met my Ghanaian husband, when we were students in the United States nearly 40 years ago.
My husband was chair of the African Students Association at Princeton University. He had taken up a case with the administration for awarding a white Rhodesian a scholarship in the days of divestment.
At our first frosty meeting, he tested my knowledge of Zimbabwean politics. I shot back by testing his knowledge of Ghanaian coups. I told him the liberation war in Zimbabwe would intensify but I doubted we would ever have a coup in Southern Africa. We started a conversation and together we have watched our two countries go from hero to zero, zero to hero from the relative safety of our adopted home, South Africa.
In the history books, Ghana and Zimbabwe have another link —Robert Mugabe studied in Ghana from 1958 to 1960, and there met his first wife, Sally Hayfron-Benjamin.
Widely regarded as the force of reason and moderation in Mugabe’s earlier days (perhaps on account of what was happening in Ghana) Sally’s untimely death, and Mugabe’s marriage to his mistress Grace soon after, heralded the start of a long downward spiral in Zimbabwe — culminating in what appears to be a military coup in all but name.
How far will Zimbabwe sink before it rises again? Where do the similarities with Ghana begin and end?
In 1957 Ghana blazed the trail to become the first African country to gain independence, led by the dynamic pan-African leader Kwame Nkrumah. He was toppled in a coup in 1966, the first of five that dominated the scene in between brief spells of civilian rule until 1992 — when twice military ruler Jerry Rawlings converted into a democratically elected president, continuing tough economic reforms.
Rawlings’ long reign ended in 2000, under a new Constitution that allowed only two terms. Since then Ghana has had regular elections and four different presidents.
In 2017, as Mugabe began his 37th year in power, Ghana again blazed the trail by becoming one of the only African countries in which an opposition figure won an election against a sitting president, followed by a peaceful transfer of power.
Economic fortunes in both countries mirror the politics. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Ghana averaged $1 036 from 1960 until 2016, reaching an all-time high of $1 708 in 2016 and a record low of $702 in 1983.
GDP per capita in Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of Southern Africa, averaged $1 071 from 1960 until 2016, reaching an all-time high of $1 343 in 1998 and a record low of $591 in 2008. In 2016, Zimbabwe’s GDP per capita stood at just over $1 000, 70% lower than in Ghana.
One thing these two countries have in common is highly literate populations, the lesson that Mugabe imbibed from his Jesuit upbringing and three years in Ghana under Nkrumah, a rare eye-opener in a continent with little connection or movement of people at that time.
Ghana has finally turned its intellectual powerhouse into a better political system and growing economy, slowly reversing the brain drain, creating freedom of speech and movement. Will Zimbabwe seize the moment and do the same?
The big unanswered question is what the military in Zimbabwe intends to do. Sparked by the 93-year-old Mugabe’s sacking of his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with the apparent intention of making Grace vice-president, the military insists this is not a coup, but a restoring of order.
Will one autocrat be replaced by another (Mnangagwa served as a right-hand securocrat until his sacking), or will the military pave the way for genuine elections due in 2018?
Many in Ghana would argue that Rawlings’ intervention was a necessary evil to restore order in Ghana. The hope is that Zimbabwe will not first have to go the route of a military coup. To date, for all its conflicts, Southern Africa has never had a coup. The Southern African Development Community, which is meeting in Gaborone on Thursday, can intervene when there is such a threat, and has done so in Lesotho. The message to the Zimbabwean army is likely to be clear: no military rule will be tolerated.
It is instructive that Zimbabwe’s GDP per capita is not at its worst. The economy did pick up during the Government of National Unity with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change from 2008 to 2013, when Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar as its currency.
Splintering of the opposition since the fraught 2013 elections does not help its cause. But the parallel splintering of the ruling Zanu-PF, with the sacking first of former deputy president Joice Mujuru, then of Mnangagwa, finally seems to have weakened Mugabe’s grip.
The simple lesson from Ghana is that it is only when the ballot box is genuinely allowed to work that fortunes will change in a sustainable way. Enough storming, Zimbabwe. Time for norming and performing.
Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive of Gender Links. This article is written in her personal capacity