HomeCommentEditor's memo: A dictator partying with cronies

Editor’s memo: A dictator partying with cronies

FOR a change, I will not pillory President Robert Mugabe for his extravagant birthday bash in Victoria Falls tomorrow in a sea of man-made poverty and suffering in which he is the chief architect, but rather look into why he has failed during his protracted rule.

By Dumisani Muleya

Irrefutably, there are many variables which explain why he has been a failure. Some are endogenous, others exogenous. International and regional dynamics, and historical factors are exogenous. Leadership, policy and governance issues are endogenous.

Yet one of the reasons why Mugabe has failed is that he has always been unwilling or unable to appoint competent people — technocrats — to work with.
Meritocracy, appointing and rewarding people on the basis of ability, has never been his benchmark. Patronage and loyalty are his yardstick. He has used his power to dispense patronage and control access to the feeding trough.

In the process, nepotism, regionalism and tribalism, and inevitably corruption and impunity, have flourished. His rule has bred and entrenched a corrupt principal-agent system and disastrous cronyism.

Dictators in both static and dynamic settings are afraid of competent people around them because they fear being removed. Capable officials can easily plot their leaders’ ouster, and this makes them more risky appointees.

To avoid this, dictators, especially those who are weak and vulnerable, sacrifice competence and delivery by hiring mediocre but loyal subordinates.

One reason why democracies generally attract more talented people into government is leaders are less worried about conspiracies and removal. The use of incentive schemes by dictators is limited by that rewards depend on loyalty and survival imperatives.

While Mugabe has always liked educated ministers and senior officials — erudite viziers — with top qualifications, including PhDs and professorships, competence and delivery have never been his priority. Being educated doesn’t necessarily mean one is skilled and able to deliver.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not to say Mugabe himself is competent in the first place, and the problem is merely his appointments. Far from it: he might very well be inept and thus the source of the problem, but appointing incompetent and corrupt officials has been an enduring and corrosive feature of his rule.

Actually, his government is not simply inept and dysfunctional. It is also morally bankrupt. Rather hopeless. It has failed the nation. The current economic hardships and poverty say it all.

But this doesn’t mean men and women who serve in Mugabe’s government are themselves bad and useless people.

No, within his regime are intelligent — some distinguished in their specialties — and honourable individuals who deserve respect even though there are also scoundrels who raid and loot public resources out of sheer greed and for materialistic personal benefit.

Mugabe himself might not be a malevolent person, but the way he has behaved as a leader in public office is untenable and suggests otherwise.

Out of pathological paranoia, he has acted nastily and vindictively since 1980. In his bruised pride, he has been vicious. In its siege or laager mentality, his regime has been deadly.

Even at their finest moments, Mugabe and his officials have always shown rough edges and the risk of morphing and degenerating into tyrants.

But even then his government has some virtues: it has previously registered successes on social service delivery and human resource development.

It also tackled historical imbalances on land and is trying to change economic ownership patterns, but all this was or is unstructured and being done for self-serving power retention and survival purposes.

Then again in his frantic desperation to cling to power, Mugabe and his cronies have collectively done bad, if not criminal things. They have ruined the country and impoverished people through ine-ptitude and kleptocratic practices.

Their legacy is disastrous even as they paint Victoria Falls red.

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