By Chido Makunike
THERE is the definition of “ruling” in which it is understood that the governing authorities exercise their authority with the happy consent of the population. Those authorities accept that
the reason they are given those powers is to improve the conditions of those who entrust them with such powers.
They know that the surest way to retain those powers and the associated perks and privileges is to do their utmost to keep the electorate, who are their masters, satisfied and convinced they are doing their best.
Another definition of “ruling” is to simply have the wherewithal, usually military, but also possibly economic and psychological, to keep the populace in line. “Ruling” here means being “in power” in the strict controlling, intimidatory sense. This is the only definition of ruling that matters to President Mugabe and his regime. Critics, myself included, who point to all the ways that Mugabe is failing to rule under the first definition are in a way really missing the point.
We are judging an orange by the standard of an apple. Mugabe does not see 300% inflation, 70% unemployment, lack of fuel and bank notes, donor dependency and all the other maladies afflicting Zimbabwe as his failure to rule because his standard and judgement of his success as a ruler are simply that he is still in power! The fact that he has control over the instruments of coercion, such as the police, army, militia, propaganda machinery, is not a means to an end, such as to protect the populace from foreign attack as it would be under the first definition.
That control is the end in itself, and because he is still able to exercise it, he is “successful”. The only way he could be shown to be unsuccessful is not by pointing out all the things that can be objectively shown not to be working, but by no longer being in power. Let me use some recent examples to show how Mugabe and the rest of his regime speak and act in ways that make it clear what they have in mind when they think of what successful ruling is all about.
Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, one of Mugabe’s more lacklustre henchmen, has “succeeded” at ruling more than Elias Mudzuri, the MDC mayor of Harare he recently suspended for dubious reasons. In his short time in office, Mudzuri began to make changes to how council went about its work in ways many residents had begun to appreciate and comment on. This was a dangerous precedent for Mugabe and Co because it showed up their deficiencies over the years.
In one of the few high profile positions of real power occupied by an opposition official, it also dangerously suggested to the public that even under very trying conditions, the opposition party could also outperform the long entrenched ruling party in other areas. It didn’t help Mudzuri at all that he threatened to unearth two decades of Zanu PF corruption at what had become a cash cow for the ruling party. He had to go, and Chombo rose to the task of ensuring he did.
Now that Mudzuri has been pushed aside, all the alleged inadequacies Chombo said he was so worried about on behalf of the residents have not been heard about again. It is better to let the capital city slide backwards in so many ways, as long as all have been shown who is really “in charge,” meaning with the instruments to push the other around, not to bring about any positive changes. That’s a classical case of Zanu PF showing how it is “ruling”.
The president and the whole state propaganda machinery this past week went to town about the “confidence” shown in Zimbabwe by the African Union appointing Mugabe to some vice-chairmanship, one of five routine ones. This “triumph” is apparently more significant than the fact that in the whole southern Africa region, despite Zimbabwe having the second most developed economy, it is shrinking faster than any other, and has the kind of problems that even a banana republic would be ashamed to be experiencing.
The mere attendance of the meeting, deliciously crowned by chairing some irrelevant committee, is more a sign of being “in power” than the fact that he is completely helpless to do anything positive for his country with that power. Instead of being embarrassed that he was the only president of a country with no fuel and an insufficient amount of its own bank notes, he actually revels in his mere presence at the meeting, describing the summit as the “best ever”, which it seems to be every year that he attends, despite his country being significantly poorer each year.
The state propaganda machinery was particularly delighted that demonstrators in Senegal and South Africa welcomed visiting US president George W Bush with some rude placards. It was completely lost on them that it is a sign of democratic maturity and self-confidence that these two countries did not feel they had to censor the free expression of their citizens’ feelings about Bush. The same state machinery that loved free expression in those countries sends its army, armed to the teeth to prevent similar mild protests here at home. The fact that this is contradictory is neither here nor there, the point is that “we are in power and have the ability to force those inconsistencies and double standards on you”.
The standard of ruling has sunk so low that all that matters, above any sign of failure you may care to point at, is whether the regime is still in control of people, even if it is no longer in control of events. It is useful to keep this in mind when we complain, actually naively believing we will be heard, or when we urge the opposition to simply “put aside their pride for the good of the nation and talk to their tormentors”. What a lot of us hope for when we utter these reasonable sweet-sounding nothings, and what the regime has in mind, are two completely different things.
Chido Makunike is a Harare-based commentator on social issues.