ZIMBABWEANS appear agreed that more than anything else President Robert Mugabe’s dramatic fall at the Harare International Airport last week shows it is high time Africa’s oldest leader calls it quits and hands over power to the next generation of leaders.
While there has been debate over what caused the nonagenarian’s fall, with government spin-doctors insisting he tripped over a “poorly laid out carpet” while the majority of Zimbabweans believe their leader has been slowed down by age and attendant health complications, the fall provoked intense debate about Mugabe’s continued stay in power.
Mugabe, who turns 91 in a week, has been at the helm of Zanu PF since 1977 and has ruled the country since Independence in 1980, but lately has been battling to keep his faction-riddled party together as the battle to eventually succeed him rages on.
This has resulted in party officials, many of whom double up as senior government officials, concentrating on succession politics instead of the nation’s daunting economic challenges. Consequently, the economy continues in free-fall, while a lack of supervision has resulted in continued corruption and bad corporate governance.
Most Zimbabweans put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mugabe who despite his decreasing capacity has clung onto power, adding the Sadc and AU chairmanship to a heavy schedule for someone his age.
In as much as it is widely deemed “unAfrican” to celebrate the misfortune of another human being, more so an elderly person like Mugabe, the interest the fall generated was precisely because of the widespread feeling that Mugabe has overstayed his welcome in power and appears out of his depth in solving pressing economic issues.
Once a darling in Zimbabwe and abroad, especially soon after Independence, Mugabe is tarnishing his legacy by clinging onto power for power’s sake, with record hyperinflation that only ended with “dollarisation” in 2009 and the continued economic meltdown a serious indictment of his rule.
As an African liberation war icon, Mugabe was invited to Jamaica in 1996 where he addressed students and meetings in Kingston, Negril and Montego Bay, widely viewed as a move to help former Jamaican prime minister James Patterson win the 1997 elections. During that visit, he was bestowed the honorary Order of Jamaica (OJ), the country’s fourth highest honour.
In fact at Independence, he was widely distinguished at home and abroad for his reconciliation policy towards former colonial masters to the extent that he was showered with honorary degrees and even a British knighthood despite egregious human rights abuses in the 1980s.
But as the years passed his controversial policies especially after the turn of the millenium, from a violent land-grab to an indigenisation policy fraught with inconsistency and opacity, have reduced the country — once reputedly the breadbasket of Africa — to a basket case. He has faced allegations of gross human rights violations and systematic election-rigging, and is currently under Western travel restrictions.
Mugabe is officially Africa’s oldest leader and the continent’s third-longest serving head of state, but seems to be in denial about his advanced age — as indeed his many hangers-on thriving on his patronage network — preferring to describe himself as a “young old man” who is “as fit as a fiddle”, which he says he owes to eating healthy and exercise.
The political symbolism of his embarrassing fall, however, looms large. In a way, his tumble symbolises the collapse of the country.
For a long time, Mugabe’s health has been shrouded in secrecy with speculation on his health fuelled by his constant trips to the Far East, mainly Singapore.
Every year when he goes for his annual holidays to the Far East, Mugabe passes through Parkway Eye Centre at Gleneagles hospital in Singapore suggesting serious health problems even though officially he is only said to be suffering from cataracts and has admitted to a knee problem.
In December, while on his annual holiday, he had a prostate laser operation in Singapore.
Political analyst and Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) director Pedzisai Ruhanya said Mugabe’s fall is symbolic of the continued deterioration of the country’s economy during his reign as leader of Zimbabwe.
“This speaks to the issue of misgovernance of a country. Mugabe has completely failed to run the country and over the years Zimbabweans have watched as the country’s economy nosedives with Mugabe providing no solutions,” Ruhanya said. “The country cannot attract foreign direct investments because of a leadership crisis as Mugabe and his administration are inconsistent with regards to policy issues.”
Another analyst Maxwell Saungweme said Mugabe should retire or risk tarnishing his legacy further.
“By continuing to hold onto power, Mugabe is doing himself a disservice because his legacy will quickly be forgotten,” Saungweme said.
“People will only remember the bad side of his rule. People will remember him for human rights abuses, violent land seizures, bad governance and electoral fraud and forget anything positive he did for this country.”
Mugabe’s tension-filled December party congress failed to resolve the succession issue and the country’s economic challenges, but instead further entrenched his faltering control of the party by giving him more powers.
Bulawayo-based analyst Godwin Phiri said things are falling apart for Mugabe who has always pretended that all is under control despite evidence to the contrary.
“Mugabe’s fall is as symbolic as it shows that after all he is human and age, no matter what he does, will always catch up with him,” Phiri said.