There were enough voters in Zimbabwe to keep Robert Mugabe power-drunk for almost four decades. What path will Mnangagwa carve for himself and his legacy, asks YONELA DIKO
Raghuram Rajan, Reserve Bank of India chairman, in a speech delivered in 2014 which sought to explain why corrupt politicians win elections in India said, ‘The street-smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. An idealist may promise to reform the system, but who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system?
In the almost four decades of Robert Mugabe rule, he managed to break down the government machinery into scattered pieces that became potent weapons to serve his inner circle and occasionally his constituency. Mugabe managed to sustain a shell of a government whose main task seemed to provide patronage and unspeakable wealth to enough people to keep him president.
Besides the state largess for the inner circle, for the rest of the constituency, the state machinery was used to manipulate and take advantage of the vulnerable. As Rajan puts it ‘the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, but they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents – a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more importantly, their vote’.
The poor and the rural became Mugabe’s main voting constituency and because they make about 70% of the population, Mugabe did not have to focus on anyone else. They did not have much, they did not expect much, and the little that they got from their government, usually around elections, became almost a quid pro quo for their vote. The minority in Harare, the educated and middle class living in urban centres, could not be hoodwinked by a provision of public services, which is their right, being turned into a privilege.
As Rajan observes on India: ‘every so often we see the emergence of a group, usually upper middle-class professionals, who want to clean up politics. But when these “good” people stand for election, they tend to lose their deposits’. Then Rajan poses a very important question: “does the electorate really not want squeaky clean government?”
Even this, however, does not fully answer the question of how Mugabe in all his personal megalomania and self-induced grandeur, managed to rule a country of 16 million people, some more capable than he is, for a devastating 37 years.
There is, of course, a reason to believe that he may have rigged elections at least since the year 2000. This may well be possible but rigging elections requires a huge base vote, leaving you with a small percentage to manipulate and flip over. Presidents who lost elections by huge margins before, like General Abacha of Nigeria or Ne Win of Myanmar, would simply refuse to hand over power or cancel the election results because they were too obvious to manipulate. Mugabe did not do any of that, meaning there was enough vote for him and if there was any margin to manipulate it was not a huge margin. How do we explain the millions of Zimbabweans who voted for Mugabe enough to give him some semblance of legitimacy, despite his destructive presidency?
In a conversation between Milan Vaishnav, the author of a new book about the nexus of crime and democracy in India, and Ros Taylor about the appeal of a strongman who can ‘get things done’, even if it means breaking the law, Ross Taylor states that it is clear that in some settings there might be a premium on having a representative who is willing to run foul of the law in order to “get things done.”
At a time MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai emerged as an alternative to Mugabe and was actually winning the elections in 2008, despite the country drowning in misery and hyperinflation and growing hunger, Tsvangirai still won the election by a small margin and there was still at least 40% of the population that voted for Mugabe. If Vaishnav’s wisdom holds, then there is a time in a country where people just prefer a strongman who can get things done when they need to be done and not be incapacitated by the bureaucracy or warring leaders, it was clear who could get things done.
By 2008, Mugabe had accumulated the kind of luring power that if you happen to be in his favour, you could get anything you so desired. He was not infringed by the limits of the constitution, parliament or the judiciary; he was beyond the normal democratic checks and balances, his word was the country’s command. There is something intoxicating about that level of power.
Mugabe’s government was akin to a state apparatus becoming a mafia organisation, but people still voting for it. How does that happen?
Vaishnav states that in India, a third of the MPs elected in 2014 faced an ongoing criminal case. Out of the 543 MPs elected in 2014, 34% faced an ongoing criminal case at the time of their election. Around 21% of MPs faced cases of a serious nature. These cases involved charges that, if a conviction were obtained, would merit hard jail time. Taylor is of the view that when social tensions are rife and the credibility of the state is weak, many voters might seek refuge in the hands of a strongman with a cabal of other strongmen unhinged by limits of law or order who can fill in for the state’s various governance deficits in service of a particular social or ethnic community.
The last tool that Mugabe seemed to have used more effectively is identity politics. The historic antagonisms between the Shonas and Ndebeles in Zimbabwe remain unresolved and any leader who can manipulate such tensions to his benefit, depending on which side he falls on, may well continue to win elections.
In a conversation between Salon publications’ David Masiotra and Christopher Parker on why identity politics win elections, Parker effectively argues that tribal and ethnic reactionaries are always there, they just need something or someone to stimulate them into action.
Today, Emmerson Mnangagwa is at the height of his powers and does not need to engage in any of Mugabe’s cruel antics. But even Mugabe has been here. At some point, power slips away, popularity wanes, and the people start demanding change. What will Mnangagwa do then? Will he be so drunk with power that he refuses to let it go or will he continue a new culture in Zimbabwe of an open democracy and continuous transformation?
Time will tell. For now, we wish him luck.
Diko is a media strategist and consultant