LEADERS, particularly those whose source of power is disputed, have been known to rely on intimidation, violence and selective application of the law to crush dissent.
But claims to invincibility have also been oft-used techniques by dictators to entrench their authority.
Mobutu Sese Seko, the tyrant who ruled the former Belgian Congo, later called Zaire, for 32 years between 1965 and 1997, forced his personality cult down every citizen’s throat, so much that every city and village dweller developed a personal familiarity with his image.
A military commander-in-chief before staging a coup in 1965, Mobutu, desperate to appear ubiquitous, ordered thousands of his pictures printed and distributed to every part of the country.
Villagers, even those in the remotest parts of the vast country, felt his power through these portraits in the aftermath of a 1965 coup that saw him take power as president.
The country’s state-controlled television network was obliged to begin each broadcast with a vision of Mobutu descending from cloud-filled heavens, an image way ahead of its time given that this was before the days of savvy video editing.
Idi Amin, the buffoon of a military dictator who ran Uganda from 1971 to 1979 and was known to butcher critics, had his own jazzy way of winning the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. The Suicide Mechanised Brigade Jazz Band, an outfit that included a dance troupe and occasionally led by Amin himself in dance and song, played at parties praising the eccentric leader. Radio Uganda was obliged to read out his full title as: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE”.
During the same period, in 1976, President Robert Mugabe crossed into Mozambique to take over leadership of Zanu, whose freedom fighters were fighting a bloody war from the Mozambican front against white minority rule. Anxious to win support from the combatants ahead of deposed leader Ndabaningi Sithole, Mugabe incorporated his name into a number of songs that praised his leadership.
Song became a powerful instrument in Mugabe’s drive to ingratiate himself with liberation war fighters, a good number who were sceptical of his war credentials.
Three decades later, and this time in a fashion similar to Amin, Mugabe has turned to crude propaganda to prop up his waning image.
Zimbabwe’s state radio began announcing Mugabe’s expanded title in full after he lost the presidential election first round vote in March 2008 and was forced into a coalition government.
In a desperate bid to show how Mugabe is still in charge, state-controlled print and broadcast media have been referring to Mugabe as “Head of state and government and commander-in–chief of the defence forces”.
On Tuesday Tsvangirai was forced to complain in cabinet about the resurfacing of jingles on state television that he says are demeaning to the coalition government. Lyrics to the jingles and songs, repeated after every 30 minutes on state radio, show a desperation to return to the old order:
Panumber one tarisa pana aniko? (Who is in charge?)
Pana VaMugabe (It is President Mugabe)
Panumber two tarisa pana aniko? (Who is the second most powerful?)
Pana Mai Mujuru. (It is Vice President Mujuru)
Pechitatu tarisa pana aniko? (Who is the third most powerful?)
Pana VaNkomo (It is John Nkomo)
Chimbotongai Makadaro. (Continue ruling in that hierarchy),” go the lyrics, which, on video are punctuated by lurid, sexually suggestive dance moves.
Analysts say the jingles, which are still playing despite a reported order by Cabinet to ban them following Tsvangirai’s complaint, are more personality than ideologically driven.
Trevor Maisiri, executive director of the African Reform Institute, said it was not surprising that Zanu PF was using the state-media to build hype around Mugabe’s personality given that he has announced his desire to contest future elections. Mugabe’s Zanu PF party this week said it was ready to contest a general election next year, setting the tone for a gruelling election period.
“What we must realise is that we are already in the election campaign period. If you closely look at the Zanu-PF internal politics, you will realise that their centre is not as coherent as it has been in the past elections,” said Maisiri. “The party is faced with a multiplicity of challenges and cracks.”
Until the formation of the MDC, Zanu PF was the only dominant political party in the country.
Analysts said the praise-singing jingles had become necessary for Zanu PF to stamp its authority in the face of strong contention for power.
“The jingles are meant to divert the nation from apparent weaknesses and they are also to convince and demonstrate to their own supporters that they still have the clout and power,” Maisiri added.
“In leadership they actually say that the moment you remind people that you are their leader, that is the first sign of a lost leadership role. How many times do we remind our children that we are their fathers? The moment you do that you exhibit traits of illegitimate parenthood.”
Takura Zhangazha, a political commentator, said Zanu PF needed to remind people of Mugabe’s invincibility in the face of growing support for the MDC in previously pro-Mugabe communities such as the rural areas.
“It is literally to assuage their supporters’ egos and to make the Zanu-PF department of information look like it is doing a good job,” said Zhangazha. “It is unnecessary to remind those that you lead of your leadership in democratic societies. Zanu PF is doing this mainly for propaganda purposes and to place the MDC on the back foot by creating a potential outstanding issue and by pre-empting the debate on the election.”
Another analyst, John Kanokanga who chairs the Zimbabwe Movement for Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, a pressure group, said viewing the jingles as an isolated case would be to miss the point.
Kanokanga said in a normal situation, the jingles would not have created uproar if the coalition government had managed to ease boiling tensions between supporters of different political parties.
“What is at stake are the next elections and what we need to have is an environment which allows those who lose an election to leave office with dignity and not face a ‘firing squad’ because in such an environment, people would use every trick to retain power,” said Kanokanga.
Zhangazha said the abuse of the state-controlled media made the case for the opening up of airwaves to private players even more urgent.
“The only lesson that we can draw from this is that the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) Commercialisation Act needs to be repealed and in the process establish an Independent Public Broadcasting Services Act that guarantees the independence of ZBH and other private broadcasters
who should come on board,” said Zhangazha.