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Mugabe succession a puzzle

WATCHING President Robert Mugabe ungainly walking in public or labouring through some turgid and soporific prepared text — often with slurred speech — evokes different emotions ranging from sympathy, astonishment to ridicule.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya

For some his old-age frailty arouses some pity, yet for others shock and derision.

Eyewitnesses who saw Mugabe arrive in Bulawayo for the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair this week spoke of a tired and frail president who now carries himself around, with the help of his wife or aides, in a laboured way; suggesting declining years and old age complications have now really caught up with him.

Even though Mugabe — a vociferous and sabre-rattling strongman in his heyday — lives in denial and wants to pretend he has the endurance of immortality, the rules of biology in the end will prevail. So instead of feigning indestructibility, Mugabe should be retiring for his own good; that of his family and the nation.

It is now embarrassing for him to be wobbling around claiming to be resilient and immortal when everyone can see that he is no longer managing. He is struggling badly with old-age problems and ill-health; he is now clearly too frail and unfit to govern. No one can defy the laws of nature.

Picture this: last week’s Independence Day commemoration in Harare was supposed to be the most important occasion on Zimbabwe’s annual political calendar, but for thousands who attended the sorry spectacle of an ailing Mugabe is what would have remained etched on their minds. He battled to move around and even struggled to light the Independence flame. It was a pitiful sight for many.

A video demonstrating Mugabe’s frailty went viral on social media platforms.

Mugabe has dismally failed to resolve not only the national crisis, but also his succession conundrum. Zanu PF is currently in turmoil because the centre can no longer hold.

I read an interesting op-ed piece last year in the Washington Post by Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor about dictators becoming incapacitated or dying in power.

Their research showed there are 55 authoritarian leaders in power throughout the world. Eleven of them are 70 years old or above, and they are in varying stages of declining health. Most of these ageing dictators, including Mugabe (93), have been in power for decades.

They said on the face of it this paints a hopeful picture for democracy advocates, who have recently documented a slow but steady authoritarian resurgence. Surely, they said, the fact that 20% of the world’s autocracies face the spectre of succession provides an opportunity for new democracies to emerge — or does it?

Alternatively, they added, perhaps the number of ageing and ailing dictators is a cause for concern. Some fear the deaths of these longtime leaders will spark deadly succession infighting or instability that could plunge their countries into chaos.

The fact that most of this ageing cohort, such as Algeria’s Abdelazziz Bouteflika, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, has yet to identify a political successor, seems to give credence to these concerns.

The authors said both perspectives seem plausible — but their research shows that there is little merit to either of them. In a review of 79 dictators who have died in office from 1946 to 2014, they found that the death of a dictator almost never ushers in democracy. Nor does it typically bring down the regime. Instead, in the vast majority (92%) of cases, the regime persists after the autocrat’s death.

The deaths of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2013, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia in 2012, and Kim Jong Il in North Korea in 2011, illustrate this trend. Compared with other forms of leadership turnover in autocracies — such as coups, elections, or term limits — which lead to regime collapse about half of the time, the death of a dictator is remarkably inconsequential. Worrying, isn’t it?

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