Zimbabwe and Africa: Separation of Family and State

The crisis in Zimbabwe that is culminating in military action to end Robert Mugabe’s  long reign, is a tale of what happens when revolutionaries put family before their parties and comrades, writes YONELA DIKO 

In his article, “Rise of African dynasties a sign of dysfunction’ written in June this year, Ray Ndlovu lamented just how ‘sub-Saharan Africa’s defining feature has been the passing of Political power through families, with dynasties increasingly becoming the new instrument to acquire huge wealth and influence government affairs’.

‘Ruling elites across the continent appear to have ditched slogan-chanting party loyalists and wartime comrades in favour of their wives, sons, daughters, siblings and in-laws taking up leadership positions. Often, the responsibility of the family members is to safeguard the elite’s political and economic interests and, most importantly, the extension of their rule’, says Ndlovu.

The recent developments in Zimbabwe, which have been long in the making but have been triggered by this ‘family over comrades’ scenario, makes Ndlovu almost a prophet. As South Africans with limited knowledge of the broader community of Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters have watched the Mugabe family turning the Zimbabwean government into a family fiefdom. We have all wondered where are Mugabe’s comrades, who had fought side by side with him against Ian Smith’s imperialist rule, comrades who did not fear Mugabe; where were they to bring some sense into the old man?

The conclusion was that Mugabe’s comrades are strategically placed as beneficiaries of his devastating Presidency in various arms of the state, and would not be acting in their self interest to rebuke and stop Mugabe in his destruction. One of these strategic spheres of government was the Army.

The ability of Mugabe to preserve his Presidency through strategic placements of those who could challenge him saw an invincible Mugabe who used the state apparatus to commit all manner of sins, physically assaulting opposition leaders and just about anyone who would dare oppose his rule, rigging elections after elections, taking whatever he liked without any respect for property rights or the economy, firing Vice President Joyce Mujuro, and more devastatingly, letting his wife run amok.

Mugabe therefore bought himself a license to kill by placing his old comrades in positions of patronage and power. A week ago however, Mugabe overplayed his hand by firing one of his comrades from this position of power and patronage, thereby opening himself up to the only people who could hurt him. And hurt him they did. Mugabe had fired a vice President before and his rule had not been threatened. This time, he fired a wrong person, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa, at least from comrades and freedom fighters, is as respected as Mugabe within the freedom fighter circles and Mugabe’s hyper-Individualism made him to misread his inner circle, if not his wife.

At the very least, it is possible that Mugabe could have fired Mnangagwa and replaced him with another comrade in the inner circle and the process could have been managed. What seems to have set the inner circle off as led by the Military is the disrespect against one of their own by Mugabe’s wife, once a typist as she is dubbed, and the final firing of their own to possibly be replaced by the very disrespectful wife. Comrades did not lay their lives for wives of their comrades; they did not die for self-indulgence of their comrades children.

In one of Grace Mugabe’s rants at a Zanu-PF rally, she told the crowd that Robert Mugabe had to choose his successor and he was the one with the final word. She added that infamous line, ‘Mark my words’. This was a case of a wife and her kids starting to believe in their own hype and the hype of their powerful family head. To this, Grace completely misread the internal political deals struck by her husband to keep the family at the head and Mugabe himself was too old and frail to reins her in.

The story of families of Presidents becoming the biggest beneficiaries in government largess over and against runs through Africa’s DNA since the 60’s. Fellow freedom fighters and comrades have found themselves purged and sidelined in favor of family members since the bell of Independence rung in the 60s.

Succession by birth has plagued sub-Saharan Africa for a long time with disastrous consequences.

President Gnassingbé’s re-election means his family will have run Togo for over 87 percent of its 55-year post-independence history, with five more years to go. Gabon also has had a father and son at the head of the country for over 86 percent of the country’s post-independence history (1967-2009 and 2009-2015)—47 out of almost 55 years—and the son is still in power. In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila came to power in 2001 immediately following the untimely assassination of his father. Altogether, the Kabilas have ruled the DRC for a third of the country’s post-independence history—almost 18 years. (www.brookings.edu/blog/africa)

Countries and other families have been ruined in the process as Presidents and their families tighted the grip of power over and against anyone who would dare challenge them or criticize their rule.

President Obama’s book Dreams from my father, tells a chilling story of how his own father, Barack Husein Obama Snr, one of the first Harvard graduated Economists from Kenya derailed his career and the life of his family after constantly criticizing President Jomo Kenyatta’s (father to the current President Uhuru Kenyatta) tribalist manner of running government.

Such criticism of Kenyatta’s placing of family and tribe over the affairs of government to the detriment of the countries development would earn Obama consequential vengeance from the President. After being warned to stop criticizing the President, Obama Snr would be fired from government and would not work in Kenya until Kenyatta died.

Barack Husein Obama Snr died a broken man even though he did manage to work after Kenyatta had died, he had lost so much of his life nothing gained after could turn back the hands of time. A man with a Phd in Economics who could not work in his country and could not leave and work elsewhere because the President revoked his visa could never forgive himself for the damage he caused his family, but more for the damage the President did to his soul.

More recently, Ken Saro Wiwa (dubbed a Mandela of Nigeria) had a similar fate under President Abacha of Nigeria who went ahead and Killed Saro Wiwa despite promising the South African government of Mandela and specifically Mbeki he would not do so. Abacha did all this because Saro Wiwa was a loud voice against the corruption of the Abacha dynasty and his tribe and family and friends. (In the Shadow of a Saint – by Ken Wiwa)

Africa is in the state that it is in today because of hundreds of years of colonialism. Much of the pain however in the recent years has been self-inflicted with our own power mongers ready to kill and destroy to stay in power.

There are families in Africa who have embezzled their countries leaving their own people destitute and hopeless.  Sometimes the personal wealth of these leaders and their children is as big as the country’s debt.

Without a complete separation of Family and State, Africa’s peoples will never taste true Independence.

Diko is a media strategist and consultant

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