Robert Mugabe: A life of power and violence

WHY are we still reading this book called The Prince, a 16th century political treatise by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, which was written 500 years ago? 

MUCKRAKER Twitter: @MuckrakerZim

A simple question, yet difficult to answer. Machiavelli was the first theorist to decisively divorce politics from ethics, and hence to give a certain autonomy and nuances to the study of politics. 

Writing the book to serve as a handbook for rulers, Machiavelli claims explicitly throughout the work that he is not interested in talking about ideal republics or imaginary utopias with their attendant politics, as many of his predecessors had done:

“There is such a gap between how one lives and how one should live that he who neglects what is being done for what should be done will learn his destruction rather than his preservation.”

 Mugabe’s fall

Morals aside and Machiavellianism in; the Zimbabwe Defence Forces led by General Constantino Chiwenga adopted a cunning approach to deal with the deposed former president Robert Mugabe, himself a student of Machiavelli if we were to judge him by how he ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years.

Chiwenga got Mugabe first. For Mugabe wanted to arrest him after firing the then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who bounces back today as the new president in a series of dramatic events full of twists and turns.
Even a Hollywood blockbuster may not be as interesting. The plot was about Mugabe’s succession.

Mugabe wanted to put Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi as his successor, working with his wife Grace as one of the two deputies. Grace and Phelekezela Mphoko would have been the deputies. That was the doomed G40 plan. They almost pulled it off until they made two fundamental mistakes: Dismissing Mnangagwa and recklessly trying to arrest Chiwenga in a quick succession of events. As one army commander told Muckraker this week: “It was stupid to try to arrest a serving military commander when he could actually have been simply released when his one-year rolling contract expired long back without political consequences; Mnangagwa would not have fought his way back successfully without Chiwenga”.

Of course, Mugabe and his power-drunk acolytes also made many other clumsy mistakes along the way, but then again Grace was the major catalyst in Mugabe’s downfall. With Mnangagwa down and Chiwenga facing arrest, the military moved in. Mugabe and his allies never saw that coming. They feared it, but did not think it would happen. But then it did. Dramatically so.

We had repeatedly warned as the Zimbabwe Independent many months ago of brinkmanship between Mugabe and Chiwenga edging towards an explosive endgame. The army eventually manoeuvred in; whether it was a coup or not is now largely irrelevant to the matrix of power. It is important, though, on the democratisation agenda.

That is why the military said it was not a coup. It knew most Zimbabweans and the world thought it was. So it had to be sanitised. Morals were put aside. Morals are about doing what is right for the right reasons. The definition of what is or isn’t moral is influenced by culture and environment, but there is a general consensus in most parts of the world.

Mugabe’s removal became the real issue. Realpolitik was applied. Of course, the military operation was about power in the final analysis. In any case, politics is all about power. Gaining power, consolidating power, maintaining power, maximising power and wielding power. Yes, there are some who have a more altruistic view about power, but they tend to be the exception to the rule. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It attracts corruption like a flame attracts moths. Hence to maintain power, some often use violence.

Power & violence

Stephen Chan, who is very familiar with Zimbabwean politics and has written extensively on the country, in his book Robert Mugabe: A life of Power and Violence, asks important questions.

Mugabe; was he a modern Africa’s Stalin or a patriot fighting to reverse the effects of colonialism and white domination? Chan sought not to demonise Mugabe, but to explain and interpret him in his role as a key player in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.

In this masterly narrative, Mugabe’s character unfolds with the ebb and flow of triumph and crisis over decades of his rule. Mugabe’s story is Zimbabwe’s from the post-independence honeymoon of idealism and reconciliation, through electoral victory, successful intervention in the international politics of Southern Africa and resistance to South Africa’s policy of apartheid.

However, a darker picture emerged early into independence with fierce repression, the savage crushing of the opposition Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo, the elimination of political opponents, growing corruption, disastrous intervention in the Congo war, and all worsened by drought and the HIV and Aids crisis.

Here was a beleaguered president in the face of growing unrest resorting to increasingly desperate measures — systematic repression, violence, crushing the opposition, seizing white-owned farms, muzzling the press and using fear as a political weapon.

Chan’s tightly argued and rigorous narrative, based on close personal knowledge of Zimbabwe, depicts the emergence of a ruthless and single-minded despot amassing and firmly clinging to his power.

It follows the triumphant nationalist leader, reconciling all in the new multi-racial Zimbabwe, degenerating into a petty tyrant consumed by hubris and self-righteousness facing an endgame of potentially horrifying dimensions. The end finally arrived on Tuesday afternoon when Mugabe’s rule came down crushing under the weight of a calculated military intervention.

Well, Muckraker wishes Mugabe the best in his retirement days. Cheers chill Bob.

After all Mugabe must be happy that even if he destroyed the nation and pauperised its people, at least he will still get a hefty exit package: US$10 million in cash; salary; medical aid; security; retain his properties which include expensive cars, prime real estate and farms; and some pension.

So he has nothing to complain about. Most Zimbabweans these days leave jobs with nothing; not even their pensions most of which were wiped out by hyperinflation at its peak in 2008.

Let’s not forget under normal circumstances, Mugabe must not be demanding an exit package as he should be in jail by now. He must be returning everything he stole from the state during his protracted rule characterised by cronyism, corruption and incompetence. By the way, goodbye to Lady Gaga as well. We will miss her tragi-comedy political shows not because they were useful but for their sheer comic value.


Enter Mnangagwa: Return of the crocodile

As Robert P Harrison would add, this is Machiavelli’s political realism — his intention to speak only of the “effectual truth” of politics, so that his work could be of pragmatic use in the practice of governing. But here is where things start to get complicated. 

How so? Let’s take a step back. One of the ironies surrounding Machiavelli is that there has never been anything resembling a Machiavellian school of thought. For all their so-called realism, his political theories have not led to any grand social or political movements, nor has he sponsored any revolutions, nor inspired any new constitutions.

In the history of European or world politics, he is not nearly as important as someone like Rousseau, for instance, who in many ways laid the ideological foundation for the French Revolution, to say nothing of Marx, whose theories led to concrete social and political transformations in many 20th century societies, but speaks to ousted president Robert Mugabe’s downfall.