IN Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader re-elected only last week, President Robert Mugabe must be seeing an equivalent of himself.
Report by Mthulisi Mathuthu, London-based journalist
Since the launch of his “Third Chimurenga” project Mugabe has desperately sought to project himself as a champion of social justice victimised by the West for standing up for his people. Not only is Mugabe convinced of his heroism and heroics but he regularly embraces Chavez, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Muammar Gaddafi at some point before his death, gestures which he understands to be affirmations of his moral standing and mission in history.
A resultant and enduring temptation for many has been to view both Chavez and Mugabe as soul mates of similar ideological and philosophical persuasions and tastes with comparable stature. Unsurprisingly many frequently fall for these false comparisons underlined by misunderstandings of the history and circumstances of these demagogues.
Chávez, wrote George W Bush in his book Decision Points, “has become the Robert Mugabe of South America.” Both Chavez and Mugabe, who think of themselves as role models of resistance and survival against the odds, take pride in such comparisons which make them appear like rare species with exceptional qualities.
Addressing the Zanu PF 90th ordinary session of the central committee last Friday, Mugabe said of Chavez’s victory: “The people won, the poor won and as a revolutionary party, Zanu PF, shares in that victory, indeed regards it as its own, albeit vicariously.”
Without doubt, Mugabe’s Chavezian delusions were boosted by the news from Venezuela. Mugabe often latches onto such simplistic comparisons and associations to build a semblance of an alliance, not to push for social justice and equality but to remain in power.
At face value both Chavez and Mugabe are birds of a feather. They are both excitable demagogues and always swear by the people and democracy, albeit in vain. Like Mugabe, Chavez is a populist who routinely punishes rivals and critics while pretending to be defending the “revolution”. Besides, both of them are eccentric, narcissist and loquacious, if not quarrelsome.
Beyond these similarities, the false analogy diminishes and pales into threadbare exaggerations. Setting the two leaders apart are degrees and patterns their actions tend to assume. Much as Chavez punishes criticism, as he did with the Human Rights Watch, the aim is always to blunt challenge and minimise embarrassment.
In Mugabe’s case both bigotry and vengeance are ultimate. To him, those with different views or critics are enemies: ‘totemless’ or ‘cobras’ or ‘psychiatric cases; depraved homosexuals who think a man can be a woman’ and who are ‘lower than dogs and pigs’.
Zanu PF supporters, he once urged, ‘must strike fear into the heart of the white man, our really enemy. Make them tremble.’ Such brazen racial incitement is not without context. As Nathan Shamuyarira once boasted, ‘Zanu PF has a long, strong and successful history of violence’.
History clearly shows, like racism now, ethnicity has also been Mugabe’s stock-in-trade. That is besides violence and intimidation, his most reliable and efficient tools.
Even throughout the 1980s, at the height of his popularity, Mugabe still needed violence to get and consolidate power. In fact his mandates, including the current one, have always been brutally secured.
Apart from the 1996 president election when he was not under any challenge, there has never been a violence-free election in Zimbabwe.
Already the Zimbabwe Election Support Network has forecast violent polls, come March or June next year, whatever the date.
By contrast, Chavez is not a callous rhetorician. He is not a fascist. Occasionally one encounters, in Western public places, Chavez memorabilia but virtually none of Mugabe’s.
For Chavez violence, as the last election showed, has no central role in his politics.
However, Mugabe has a dubious distinction of being the only African liberation struggle hero facing accusations of potential genocide – a crime committed only two years into his reign and a carnage which Chavez may not possibly visit upon fellow compatriots.
Even though Mugabe still has a hold on many a people’s mental furniture that grip, which may persists for years long after he is gone, has yet to translate into widespread devoted support and admiration. One can’t imagine Zimbabweans, besides rented crowds, pouring onto the streets to demand Mugabe’s reinstatement such as happened in Venezuela when, in 2002, a popular uprising forced coup-plotters to reinstate Chavez.
Here is the main difference between Chavez and Mugabe. Chavez has used oil income and state enterprises to empower the poor. Resultantly, poverty has been significantly reduced and Venezuelans have access to health and education more than ever before; and ordinary citizens are increasingly involved in many social development projects. Remunerations are no longer as bad as before.
To disprove his claim to social justice credentials, Mugabe has the Marange diamonds at his disposal but instead of using massive revenues generated for development and improving the lot of the poor, looting under the rubric of indigenisation is commonplace. The whole indigenisation campaign has been reduced to electioneering and pillaging. The poor hardly benefit at all.
Much public infrastructure is now dilapidated, water and electricity cuts have become routine; and civil servants wages remain pathetic. For many people economic exile, ironically including to former colonial capitals, remains an option.
On another score, Chavez successfully delivered a popular constitution which few will fault. By contrast Mugabe has failed once and, as things stand today, his second attempt at introducing a new constitution could fall victim to his fears of limited government, devolution and dual citizenship.
Mugabe dislikes limited government because he does not want to be accountable. He fears devolution because it weakens the centre and raises ethnic configurations, hence his worries about federalism and secession, demands which no one is seriously making. Mugabe’s manipulation of ethnic groups to remain in power is at the centre of his fear of devolution. His dislike for dual citizenship falls into this pattern of parochial and centralised control.
Put differently, his objections to these issues boil down to bigoted and paranoid authoritarianism. Set against his appalling record, Mugabe’s favourite trump card: the country’s literacy level – now the second highest in Africa at more than 85% – pales into a hollow milestone.
The Venezuelan election may have brought smiles on many faces across the globe including in Harare but Mugabe is simply not a Chavez. He cannot perform a Chavez; Zanu PF’s warped social vision will not permit any form of justice but cronyism under a façade of redistribution.
For all these reasons, if no other, the next elections will not necessarily be a shoo-in for Mugabe like in the case of Chavez. While Chavez does offend, he is in fact more of a threat to external interests than he is to his own people while Mugabe’s self-serving politics is harmful to Zimbabwean interests and common humanity.
Mathuthu is a Zimbabwean journalist based in London.