THERE was unbridled joy for President Robert Mugabe at his inauguration ceremony as he evidently felt a sense of belonging, soaking in the valued company of fellow former heads of states from African countries who are more or less in the same age bracket.
Mugabe was cheerful in the presence of six former heads of states, Ali Hassan Mwinyi (88) and Benjamin Mkapa (74) of Tanzania, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki (71), Namibia’s Sam Nujoma (84), Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda (89) and Botswana’s Festus Mogae (74).
The presence of the former leaders who all rubbed shoulders with Mugabe –– now Africa’s oldest leader during their tenure was a reminder that Mugabe belongs to an older generation whose members have mostly quit active politics or died.
Today, some of the former leaders are revered statesmen mostly playing an advisory role in their countries where they are held in high esteem.
Mugabe’s demeanour at his inauguration was in stark contrast to his body language at the 33rd Sadc heads of states and government summit in Malawi held two weeks after Zimbabwe’s polls, which Sadc and the African Union, have endorsed as peaceful, but which the opposition and the West have condemned as seriously flawed.
Sitting among a new crop of African leaders such as Tanzanian leader Jakaya Kikwete (63), Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta (52) and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila (42), among others, Mugabe cut the figure of a lonely old man at the summit as his contemporaries have since stepped down from power or died.
Mugabe has lamented about not being able to reminisce with colleagues about chasing girls and riding bicycles in the 1930s and 1950s.
“They are gone and those who remain, you look down upon them because they are young. They have not had the same experience, the same length of life and, therefore, the same advantage of gathering as much knowledge and experience as yourself,” Mugabe said in an interview with state media in February.
“You feel that loneliness. You have lost others and sometimes you think of it and it makes you very lonely,” he said.
At one time at the Malawi summit, Mugabe sat alone as younger, more energetic leaders criss-crossed the Bingu Wa Mutharika International Conference Centre in Lilongwe exchanging notes and sharing jokes.
Each time Mugabe tried to join others, it was all-too-evident that the spirit was willing, but the body was weak as he hobbled around in obvious discomfort due to advanced age and health issues.
Mugabe’s loneliness was particularly evident at a state banquet hosted by Malawian President Joyce Banda in honour of visiting heads of states and governments at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe.
As leaders enjoyed their drinks and chatted animatedly, Mugabe had no one to talk to except members of his entourage which included former Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, former Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and Central Intelligence Organisation boss Happyton Bonyongwe.
This appears to have forced him to retire early after spending less than an hour at the banquet, at a time other leaders were only beginning to really enjoy themselves as some left at least four hours later.
A day after the state banquet, Mugabe almost missed a breakfast meeting, appearing half an hour late when proceedings were already underway.
Chinamasa, Mumbengegwi and Bonyongwe had held an impromptu meeting and decided Mumbengegwi should stand in for Mugabe.
However, when he finally arrived, a visibly tired Mugabe stole the media limelight as attention was directed at him as he staggered to his seat.
Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said yawning generational differences between Mugabe and the new crop of African leaders make the Zimbabwean leader feel nostalgic.
“As Mugabe sat in those (Sadc) meetings in Lilongwe, he must have experienced a high degree of nostalgia because of the generational gap between Africa’s new crop of leaders and him,” Masunungure said.
“So there would be an obvious yearning for those yesteryear leaders, those who were around in the 1980s, but are no longer there.”
However, Masunungure said there is not much Mugabe can discuss or share with the current crop of African leaders.
“The current crop of leaders belongs to the future unlike Mugabe’s generation that represents the past; the two generations have little in common. While the new African leaders are focusing on the future of the region, Mugabe, who represents the past, remains arrested by that past,” he said.
Political analyst Alexander Rusero said it is odd for Mugabe to be sitting among leaders less than half his age.
“Mugabe’s position in the regional meetings is that of a master-student among grade seven students,” Rusero said.
jm“There is a generational gap which affects the content of the topics of their discussions and no amount of branding can make Mugabe fit in with the calibre of Africa’s young leaders.”
Rusero said nostalgia is evident in the speeches by Mugabe as he constantly refers to the past yet the world is focusing on the future.