WHEN Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe arrived for former South African President Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December, a huge roar erupted at the stadium.
The reporter who was writing the minute-by-minute report for a British newspaper website recorded: Mugabe booed at Mandela funeral.
The newspaper had to apologise a few minutes later after realising that Mugabe was, in fact, thunderously cheered by the crowd.
That moment dramatised how differently the world is seen depending on which hemisphere one is in.
In the British press, Mugabe is considered a villain comparable only to Adolf Hitler. He is consistently lampooned and criticised in the harshest terms and depicted as a cartoon dictator.
To many Africans, he is a hero. The Zimbabwe land redistribution programme is seen through many African eyes as a necessary antidote to colonial injustices despite being chaotic and sometimes violent, which adversely affecting the country’s agricultural production.
In 1998, 6 000 (actually 4 5 00) white farmers owned 15,5 million hectares of the country’s 33,3 million arable hectares. Since the beginning of the land reform programme government has compulsorily acquired over seven million hectares of land from former white commercial farmers for resettlement.
So although Mugabe only acted to change this situation staring in 2000 when faced by near-certain electoral defeat, the reforms were largely welcomed in Africa and bitterly opposed in the West.
But many liberation heroes often overplay their hand, and Mugabe is now certainly taking things too far.
The declaration by his wife Grace that she too can be in the race to succeed him means that the succession battle in that country will be a shabby and undignified affair.
Nor will she succeed in her quest. Transferring the loyalty of members of a system from the figure who earned that respect through bitter sacrifice to family members is exceedingly difficult.
Mugabe earned his stripes by going to jail for 10 years to defeat Ian Smith’s colonial white settler regime.
Grace’s only known accomplishments are that she was the Big Man’s mistress while his first wife was ailing, eventually marrying the president.
This sort of managed transition always fails. Hosni Mubarak’s regime began to crumble from within partly because he was trying to pass power on to his son, Gamal, and the military was not willing to allow that.
One of the reasons Abdoulaye Wade lost popularity was because he was keen on transferring the system of patronage in Senegal to his son, Karim, while trying to position him for the succession.
In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni has clearly no desire to leave the presidency except on pain of death, but when he does exit he seems to hope that his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, takes the hot seat. If that doesn’t work, you might well see Janet Museveni making a stab at the presidency.
The same attempts to keep power in the family are to be seen in many other countries, including Equatorial Guinea.
Yet the thread that runs through all these efforts is that they always fail.
Mugabe earned many friends on the continent with his decision to stand up to the European Union which reacted by imposing what Harare terms illegal and ruinous sanctions on the country.
But by trying to position his wife for the succession, he is exposing himself as just another grubby and opportunist politician.
It would be far better to allow others within Zanu PF to decide who should face off with the opposition at the next election.
Main opposition leader and Prime Minister in the country’s unity government of 2009-2013, Morgan Tsvangirai has also refused to hand over power to someone else in the party for the purposes of leadership re-generation, and his chances of winning the next general elections in 2018 are seen as slim.
A successful handover to, say, Vice-President Joice Mujuru – recently the subject of vicious attacks from Grace – would have been a fine way for Mugabe to exit the political scene.
Securing victory for another Zanu PF figure would also show that the public has endorsed everything Mugabe has stood for in his long political career (he has been president since Independence in 1980).
Unfortunately, the veteran politician, who clearly backs his wife’s foray into politics, has refused to take the dignified route.
The effort to promote Grace will fail, but in its collapse, it will also define Mugabe’s legacy and tarnish everything he has worked for in his long political career. Which is quite a shame.
Mutiga is the special projects editor of the Sunday Nation of Kenya.