While there can be no debate on the fact that Mugabe came to power on account of his role in the liberation struggle against colonial rule, the same cannot be said of the former. Mobutu plotted, in collusion with the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Belgian authorities, to remove a democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba who he brutally executed to take the reins of power.
That issue aside, it is instructive to note that soon after attaining power, Mobutu set about crushing any dissent through military means. This, of course, was mirrored in Zimbabwe by the crushing of dissent in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces in the early 1980s.
Under Mobutu’s rule civil liberties were brutally suppressed as exemplified in the forced conscription of university students into the Zairian army after they had demonstrated against the government and the imprisonment of the student leaders. In Zimbabwe, a state of emergency remained in force until 1990 which allowed the government to use the full force of the law on all those deemed to be enemies of the state. A number of politicians and activists were jailed and tortured for daring to hold a different view from that of the government. Names like Dumiso Dabengwa, Welshman Mabhena and Lookout Masuku come to mind.
Mobutu’s party — the Popular Movement of the Revolution — was brazen in instituting a one-party state political system whereby at election time he would run against himself and then have massive celebrations for his “victory”. Whilst in Zimbabwe the one-party state system was suggested but not enforced. Zimbabwe was ruled as a de facto one-party state for many years. When Edgar Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement entered the political fray, it was given a mortal blow by Zanu PF.
Again much like Mugabe, Mobutu pardoned his political adversaries from the jail terms they were serving for daring to stand up to him and in the process attempted to portray himself to his countrymen and to the rest of the world as a peacemaker and nation-builder. He co-opted some of the “rebels” into his party as a way to bring closure to the unending violence perpetrated against them. In 1987 pretty much the same thing happened in Zimbabwe with the signing of the Unity Accord that saw PF Zapu being compelled to merge with Zanu PF to curb the violent campaign carried out against them and their supporters.
Mugabe also seems to share Mobutu’s weakness for pushing his luck when logic dictates otherwise. When Laurent Kabila and his army had all but taken Kinshasa and African leaders, including former South African president Nelson Mandela, brought the two to the negotiating table, Mobutu remained intransigent, and tried to turn the course of events which clearly indicated that his reign was on the decline and that a negotiated settlement would be the only route to a dignified exit.
This can be mirrored in Mugabe’s behaviour in his relentless pursuit to upstage his coalition government colleagues by making unilateral decisions that serve to soil the letter and spirit of the Global Political Agreement. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai recently admitted that he had “defended President Mugabe at my own cost politically” with the hope that he might do things differently.
Whilst some might accuse Tsvangirai of political naïveté, it remains true that this inclusive government was and still is an opportunity for Mugabe to salvage something from his tattered political legacy and lend himself a more dignified exit from the political stage.
Whether he wants to admit it or not, the exit for him is much nearer than it is further away and he would have bequeathed himself well with the people of Zimbabwe, albeit at the end of his career, if he were to put aside petty politicking and put Zimbabwe first.
Ngoni Muzofa is a sub-editor with the Zimbabwe Independent.