Mugabe skating on thin ice

THIRTY-six years into his terror-ridden authoritarian rule, President Robert Mugabe, a shrewd and cunning yet an appalling and incompetent autocrat with a disastrous leadership record, has proved time and again to have a cat’s nine lives. He has faltered, stumbled and sprawled, but managed to rise to his feet to continue in charge.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya

Throughout his political career, Mugabe has managed to overcome overwhelming odds and setbacks of various kinds, hence has lasted longer than all founding Zimbabwean nationalist leaders. Most leaders of his generation are gone and he cuts a lonely figure everywhere.

In Africa, he is one of the longest-serving leaders, only behind Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

This may be a dubious distinction, but it speaks volumes about his political acumen and legerdemain. In the lives of nations, some leaders only served periods ranging from only a day to a few months, becoming something of a footnote to history.

As the current demonstrations and protests spread, Mugabe’s opponents seem to be thinking he is finished. When you start to see more frequent protests in an authoritarian country, it suggests the regime is in trouble.
But not necessarily. In a paper Quarterly Journal of Political Science, Berkeley political scientist Peter Lorentzen says protests, as long as they are the right kind of protests, can actually be useful for authoritarian regimes.

“Permitting protests of limited scale and scope can enable a regime to identify and deal with discontented communities before they turn to more extreme counter-regime activities or revolt,” Lorentzen writes. “Protests, being costly, provide a clear division between groups whose grievances are tolerable and those with grievances severe enough to drive counter-regime challenges.”

Naturally, things are not that simple. The paper touches on “loyalist” compared to “revolutionary” protests.

Loyalist protesters tend to focus on local, often economic concerns, rather than trying to topple the political status quo or demanding radical change. A certain number of protests of this kind are actually a sign of health for authoritarian regimes, indicating that discontent is “neither so rare as to be irrelevant nor so widespread as to be unmanageable.”

These are opposed to revolutionary protests which demand complete change. It appears the current protests in Zimbabwe are a mixture of loyal and revolutionary demands. So their efficacy is limited by both lack of leadership, organisation and resources, as well as the balance of forces which still favour Mugabe’s regime.

Despite his history of endurance, Mugabe has never before faced and tackled a crisis quite like this one. With his patronage network collapsing, he now faces enemies on every front. This is not helped by the fact that his regime is broke and thus out of cash to buy loyalty and fund its coup-proofing strategy. For the first time in decades, the odds are overwhelming against him.

This time around, for him survive, Mugabe must ride out the current economic tailspin, internal succession power struggles within his deeply-divided Zanu PF, polarised national politics and toxic divisions within the security establishment, as well as brinkmanship with the military. He must also overcome renewed regional and international pressure.

While he seems to have done this before, the difference between then and now is growing internal strife. Infighting within the ruling class and collapse of elite cohesion has changed the dynamics. Old age and ill-health are also major factors.

Mugabe’s battles with war veterans and the resurgence of the opposition add to his headaches. The unending political purges bleeding Zanu PF make things worse.

With Zimbabwe floundering, political uncertainty and economic insecurity deepening and protests intensifying, Mugabe is clearly skating on thin ice. But it is succession battles consuming him and his party, and the populace’s rising anger and resultant social unrest that might finally sweep away his regime.