Why Mugabe will delay his retirement

> Joram Nyathi

WESTERN media have been agog over news of President Robert Mugabe’s “retirement”. But they remain resentful that the veteran Zimbabwean leader might do so only on his own terms when he has been a nemesis of the West for nearly two decades.

Mugabe’s casual remarks last week to a group of citizens with grievances related to Zimbabwe’s independence war of the 1970s have caused excitement and anxiety in equal measure in and outside the country, in his own ruling Zanu PF and the opposition. The reason is because the remarks did not spell out anything: it was more of the President expressing a personal feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment after a gruelling fight – the way Simeon in the Bible rejoiced at seeing Jesus, that he could finally depart because he had seen Israel’s salvation.

Zimbabwe has faced a Western onslaught since embarking on the land reform programme in 2000. Western nations, led by former colonial power Britain and the United States, imposed crippling sanctions on the country. Mugabe and senior members of his government and security establishments were slapped with travel restrictions ostensibly because of human rights violations, if only to manufacture a justification for these ruinous sanctions. For the past 16 years, the country has suffered under this heavy yoke. It was believed Zimbabwe would buckle and that Mugabe would, at some point, be forced to relent and call for a truce. In fact, there was a time when it was thought the whole land reform process could be reversed. Sanctions were seen as the perfect instrument to accomplish this. Europe and the US made common cause on this, and must be disappointed that they have not achieved much except destroy the economy and bring toil on the people of Zimbabwe without being able to get Zanu PF and President Mugabe out of power.

The ultimate objective of the sanctions was to get Zanu PF and Mugabe voted out of power by a disgruntled population, as part of the regime change agenda. This appears to have failed, and Mugabe is aware of it, not only from the dissipating pressure for him to go, but the collapse of the Western-sponsored opposition in the country, which was the spearhead of the same regime change agenda.

Mugabe told the gathering in Harare on Saturday: “The British, Americans … are united. But I think we have defeated them. Therefore, change must come in a procedural manner. If I have to retire, let me retire properly.”

Mugabe has largely been endorsed as Zanu PF’s presidential candidate for the scheduled harmonised elections of 2018. So there is no internal pressure for him to quit. When he says the British and Americans have been defeated, he is speaking metaphorically. Their efforts through sanctions and politically in Zimbabwe through the opposition have failed to effect regime change. (It is telling that Mugabe won’t deign to refer directly to the opposition itself. It is not worth mentioning except in the private media where it lives larger than in reality.)

When Mugabe talks about “retire properly” he is talking to his party. This is where he perceives the biggest challenge now, not the opposition. In short, he is telling his party “we have defeated mighty America and the whole of Europe and their local Trojan horses together. Why are we fighting among ourselves?”

He believes Zanu PF can resolve the succession issue internally, following its own constitution together with the national Constitution. That process can no longer be stampeded by external pressures.

Mugabe’s biggest fear was that sanctions-induced suffering could trigger mass protests in the country which could bring down his government. Such an eventuality could result in the land reform programme being reversed by whoever took over, especially if such leadership owed its ascension to Western backing. That has been his worst nightmare, not fanciful threats of personal retribution or being taken to The Hague.

That fear of the opposition taking over seems to have receded that he does not need to mention them directly as part of power matrix in the next election. His worry could be whether whoever takes over from him in the ruling Zanu PF party can withstand the temptations and cajoling of Western powers, who have been waiting for someone less resolute at the helm of the Zimbabwean state. To me that is Mugabe’s biggest headache at the moment.

Contrast his reference to the unity between the British and Americans and the succession-fuelled divisions in his own party, manifest in his bitter condemnation of the G40 and Lacoste factions. A divided Zanu PF is open to infiltration, a divided Zanu PF cannot defeat a united Western world. A divided Zanu PF might not only face the prospect of losing the next elections; it cannot produce a leader strong enough to protect the party’s revolutionary legacy. This is the new war front, a flank Zanu PF opponents inside and outside the country see giving them a chance to weaken the Zimbabwean state in the name of democracy and reform.

There is no doubt that retirement is in Mugabe’s mind, but he worries about his legacy and the future of his party. This is not helped by fanatics in Zanu PF, who have sought to criminalise political ambition instead of allowing for “guided” and “procedural” canvassing for the highest political office. The public spats between G40 and Lacoste can only heighten rather than ease his anxieties about the future, and his own retirement plan.

In a nutshell, Mugabe might be happy to have defeated the combined forces of his foes, but unlike Simeon, he has not seen the final salvation for his nation. And while history is on his side, time is not.

November 2016
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