Last week, Robert Mugabe gave his first media interview since being ousted from State House in November. Although as eloquent as ever, his comments revealed that the once-impregnable president has yet to come to terms with his new station in life.
By turns, he was the defiant, demagogic strongman of old; he was a weak emperor betrayed by his trusted lieutenants; he was a newly minted opposition figure, crying for intervention from the international community to correct “an illegality” .
Does the 94-year-old Mugabe really have enough energy and political capital to shake up Zimbabwe’s new political landscape?
While speaking to a select group of foreign and local journalists at his Blue Roof residence in Harare, Mugabe said his removal was illegal. He did not, he said, voluntarily sign off his 37-year tenure by resigning — just as a bipartisan process of impeachment was under way — but was coerced by the military.
This means, according to Mugabe, that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s position is not only unconstitutional but is also a personal betrayal.
“I never thought that Emmerson, whom I nurtured and brought into government and whose life I worked so hard in prison to save as he was threatened with hanging, that one day he would be the man who would turn against me,” Mugabe lamented.
He added: “I don’t hate Emmerson; I brought him into government. But he must be proper; he is improper where he is. Illegal … we must undo this disgrace, which we have imposed on ourselves. We don’t deserve it.”
But how might Mugabe go about undoing this “disgrace”? The most obvious option — but also the most naive — is that he hopes to be invited back on to the political stage by Mnangagwa, so that Mugabe can make a show of “properly” handing over power. He imagines that Mnangagwa requires his endorsement to win July’s elections.
But Mnangagwa wasted no time in ruling this out, issuing a brief, polite statement pointing out that Zimbabwe had already turned the corner, and that his government was focused on building the economy.
This leaves Mugabe a far more radical option: to lend his support to an opposition party, specifically the newly formed National Patriotic Front (NPF). The NPF is led by Ambrose Mutinhiri, a former Zanu-PF minister and retired brigadier general, and composed mostly of former members of the “G40”, the losing Zanu-PF faction that united behind Grace Mugabe. It was formed with the former president’s backing.
The strategy is to divide the Zanu-PF vote, especially along ethnic lines, with the NPF likely to perform strongest in Mashonaland. Even if it is successful, the most likely beneficiary of a weakened Zanu-PF will be the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, leaving Mugabe even further out in the cold.
Mugabe’s final bid for relevance came in his pleas to the international community to condemn the “unconstitutional” new regime. He hopes the Southern African Development Community and the African Union will make Zimbabwe an agenda item, even though both have appeared to welcome Mnangagwa with open arms. At this week’s extraordinary African Union summit in Kigali, the new president was greeted warmly by fellow leaders, and AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat appeared to laugh off Mugabe’s concerns when they met last month.
As much as he wants to believe otherwise, it appears there is no way back into politics for Mugabe. Having put up with him for decades, most Zimbabweans want him to retire quietly. So, too, does the new president, who is growing increasingly impatient with his predecessor. Sources in Harare indicate that Mnangagwa and the ruling party may soon seek to punish Mugabe by confiscating his farms and wealth. State media, for example, no longer accords Mugabe the title “comrade”.
Now he is a citizen without access to state power and its vast, coercive machinery. Having spent so much of his career making it difficult for citizens to participate in politics, “Mr” Mugabe now finds himself on the wrong side of that divide.