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Zimbabwe: Good Luck, Grace

“Someone, anyone, with close links, please make sure Uncle Bob reads the correct speech … Old man reads the 2013 inauguration speech and we’re in kak for another 5 years,” tweeted Mubaiwa Bandambira just before Zimbabwe’s beleaguered president, Robert Mugabe, went on television with what was supposed to be his resignation speech. After all, Mugabe is 93 years old, and he has read the wrong speech before.

He did it again, but it was not a mistake. With the generals who intervened last week to remove him from power ranged in chairs behind him, Mugabe stumbled and bumbled through a 20-minute speech in which he made no mention of resignation. No doubt his resignation was a key part of the speech they had agreed he would make, but he skipped those pages.

The Old Man is clearly delusional. He vowed to preside over next month’s congress of the ruling Zanu-PF party, although it has just fired him after 42 years as its leader. He ignored its threat to begin impeachment proceedings if he does not resign the presidency within 24 hours. And his wife Grace, who was being positioned to succeed him as president but has now been expelled from Zanu-PF, is just as out of touch with reality.

It was Grace who persuaded Robert Mugabe to sack two vice-presidents in a row in order to take the job herself. This is what triggered the army’s intervention, because her second victim, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is an extremely powerful politician with close connections to the military. He had expected to succeed Mugabe when the old man finally died, and he took his dismissal personally.

Mnangagwa went into exile in Mozambique for a week, but then the army intervened on his behalf and the current crisis erupted. The generals hoped that they could get Mugabe to resign voluntarily, because they could then pretend that their action was not a military coup.

That was important, because the African Union no longer tolerates military coups in its member states and might even intervene against the generals. But Mugabe has tricked them, using his live television speech to declare that he plans to stay in power – and the soldiers are bound to conclude that it was Grace who put him up to it. She probably did.

Ten days ago, not knowing what was to come, I wrote a piece about Grace Mugabe and her ambition to take the presidency when Robert Mugabe finally dies. But she is hated in the party and deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans in general because of her greed and arrogance, and I ended the article by saying: “Once he dies, she will be lucky to get out alive.”

For a moment there, when the army intervened last week, I thought she might escape that fate. Uncle Bob would be offered a dignified exit from power, she would be excluded from the succession, and they would both go off to a comfortable retirement in Singapore or some other city where they already own very comfortable homes.

Well, that’s not going to happen. She has encouraged the old man to deceive the generals and cling to power, which wrecks their plans for a semi-constitutional transfer of power that doesn’t look like a coup. He will still be ejected from power, but no longer with dignity. They won’t kill him, because he is a hero from the time of the liberation struggle, but she is in mortal danger.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is now back in Zimbabwe, and will shortly be the president. He is known as “the crocodile”, and he has no reason to protect Grace Mugabe. Her best hope is exile, but she had better take the exit soon. And what Zimbabwe will get is not an end of the dictatorship, but just a new dictator.

What is happening in Zimbabwe is not a popular revolution but a power struggle inside the ruling Zanu-PF party, and Mnangagwa is no democrat. He is a brutal political operator who directed the massacre of at least 20,000 people in the early 1980s, when the Ndebele people of southwestern Zimbabwe resisted the takeover of the whole country by Mugabe’s party.

Mnangagwa was also in charge of the military intervention in the 2008 election, in which so many civilians were assaulted, imprisoned or killed that the opposition leader withdrew his candidacy to save lives even though he had beaten Mugabe in the first round. Zimbabwe has always held elections, but there has never been any doubt about the result.

The Zimbabweans are celebrating Mugabe’s impending departure in the streets now, but there is no cause to believe that things will now get better for them. The same elite that has looted the country and run its economy into the ground will still be in power, led by a man more ruthless and violent than Mugabe.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“That..did”; and “Mnangagwa…result”)


Grace Mugabe, second wife of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, had a moment of awful clarity about her future three years ago. Speaking about Joice Mujuru, the woman who was then vice-president and the elderly president’s likely successor, she said: “She has been telling people that once Mugabe is gone…she will drag me in the streets, with people laughing while my flesh sticks to the tarmac.”

It’s doubtful that Mujuru said any such thing, but it was very revealing about Grace Mugabe’s fears. So she had a word with her husband, and Joice Mujuru was no longer vice-president. She was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who served as Mugabe’s special assistant during the liberation war of the 1970s and had been close to him ever since.

Mnangagwa survived an attempted poisoning in August, but now he is gone too. People began to see him as the heir apparent, so on Sunday Grace Mugabe told a rally in Harare “The snake must be hit on the head. We must deal with the real snake behind the factions and discord in the party.”

On Monday, Mnangagwa was fired in an official statement that accused him of “traits of disloyalty.” It was almost verbatim the same statement that was issued when Joice Mujuru was dismissed in 2014 – and it is expected that Grace Mugabe will be appointed vice-president herself at a special congress of the ruling Zanu-PF party next month.

It looks like ambition run amok, but it’s actually more complicated than that. She is rich and powerful at the moment, but as Zimbabwean journalist Andy Moyse pointed out a couple of years ago: “She’s going to be terribly exposed once (Robert Mugabe) is gone because there’s no political structure to save her. She’s trying to entrench her position and her assets.”

Grace Marufu was a 20-year-old typist at State House in Harare when Robert Mugabe, 44 years her senior, started to take an interest in her. She was already married to her childhood sweetheart, an air force pilot, but one thing led to another and she had her first child with Mugabe as his wife lay dying of kidney failure. She later divorced her husband, and in 1996 she became Zimbabwe’s ‘First Lady’ by marrying Mugabe.

For the next 18 years she took no visible interest in politics, but her frequent and expensive shopping trips abroad – she allegedly once spent $120,000 in a single day in Paris, and she was spotted in the business class lounge at Singapore airport with fifteen trolleys full of purchases – made her deeply unpopular with the Zimbabwean public. She was known as the ‘First Shopper’, or ‘Gucci Grace’, or just ‘DisGrace’.

And then, three years ago, everything changed. It was probably just Mugabe’s advancing age that made her realise how vulnerable she would be after he died: he’s in pretty good shape for 93, but he clearly isn’t going to be around much longer. So she suddenly plunged into politics.

She had her husband make her the head of the powerful women’s league of the ruling Zanu-PF party, she was awarded a PhD in sociology by the University of Zimbabwe in the record time of two months (no thesis has ever surfaced), and Dr. Grace Mugabe started traveling around the country holding rallies that became known as the ‘Graceland Tour’.

All the senior members of Zanu-PF are quite rich, but she is probably the richest of all, so she has resources to buy allies. She has the Old Man wrapped around her finger, and he holds absolute power for as long as he stays alive and alert. In only three years she has shoved aside all the other contenders for the succession.

“They say I want to be president,” she said. “Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” And president she will be after Robert Mugabe dies – at least for a week or two. But she has made a lot of enemies in the party, and she has no real popular support.

She will probably have a couple of years to build a political machine of her own, because Mugabe is planning to run for president again next year, and will of course win. But he would be 99 years old when his next term expires, and he is likely to expire himself well before that.

Grace Mugabe is literally a bare-knuckle fighter. In 2002 she beat up a journalist who offended her using a “knuckle-duster of diamond rings”, as one report put it. Just this September she assaulted a young South African “model” whom she caught visiting her grown sons, who are both living the high life in Johannesburg. She won’t go down easily – but she almost certainly will go down.

It was not Grace Mugabe who turned Zimbabwe into an economic wreck so extreme that most people’s main source of income is remittances from the fifth of the Zimbabwean population that has fled to South Africa or Botswana. Her husband is really to blame for this human disaster, but her extravagant spending makes her a target for the resentment too.

Once he dies, she will be lucky to get out alive.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“She…down”)

Count Dracula and the WHO

It was a bit like appointing Count Dracula as the goodwill ambassador for the blood donor service.

Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be plausible. Reality is under no such constraint, and regularly produces events that would never be credible in a novel. Like the decision last Thursday to appoint Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as the World Health Organisation’s goodwill ambassador.

The newly elected head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he hoped that the Zimbabwean president would “influence his peers in the region” to devote more effort to health care, but Mugabe doesn’t really have much by way of peers.

Mugabe, in power since 1980, is effectively president-for-life, whereas all the neighbouring countries except Angola are more or less functional democracies. All of them, again except Angola, provide better healthcare to their citizens than Zimbabwe. Not good, but significantly better.

In Zimbabwe, heathcare improved significantly in the first twenty years of Mugabe’s rule, as did the economy in general. He built clinics, hospitals and schools, and Zimbabweans became one of the healthiest, best educated, and most prosperous populations in Africa. But then it all went wrong.

After a referendum in 2000 rejected a new constitution designed to strengthen Mugabe’s grip on power, he became increasingly paranoid and authoritarian. The sole purpose of government became hanging on to power at any cost (to others), so favoured cronies in the ruling party and the military were allowed to loot the economy – which duly collapsed..

By now, in fact, there is hardly any Zimbabwean economy left beyond subsistence agriculture. Unemployment has soared to 75 percent or higher, and the schools and hospitals have fallen apart. Adult life expectancy has plunged from 61 years to 45, and state-run hospitals and clinics frequently run out of even basic medicines like painkillers and antibiotics.

Mugabe has presided over this catastrophe for seventeen years now, insisting all the while that all is well. At the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban last May, he claimed that “Zimbabwe is one of the most highly developed countries in Africa.” He is planning to run for re-election as president next year at the age of 94, and nobody dares to defy him.

He will win, of course, after the usual number of opposition activists has been beaten up, jailed or murdered – if he lasts that long, but he is beginning to show serious signs of wear. In fact, Mugabe has made three “medical visits” to Singapore for treatment this year.

Why Singapore? The presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, says that it’s a problem with Mugabe’s eyes, which would helpfully explain away the fact that he frequently appears to fall asleep at public meetings. (He’s just resting his eyes, really.) He needs a foreign specialist for that, but for everything else, Charamba claims, Mugabe goes to a Zimbabwean doctor – who is, he assures everybody, a “very, very, very black physician”.

There are very good Zimbabwean doctors, of course, but most of them, frustrated at the lack of medical supplies, have long since left the country for greener pastures. And it does seem unlikely that it’s an eye problem that has caused Mugabe to make three “medical visits” to Singapore this year. It’s probably something more serious, and Mugabe just doesn’t trust his own health service to deal with it.

How did the new head of WHO hit upon the idea of making this man, of all people, the organisation’s “goodwill ambassador” for Africa? He and his advisers must have discussed it in various meetings for weeks before announcing it. Did nobody ever bother to point out that it would be a public relations disaster? “Special ambassadors” don’t have to do very much, but their choice does shine a light on the judgement and integrity of those who choose them.

In the event, the public outcry about the choice of Mugabe was so instant and widespread that within three days his appointment was cancelled. Mugabe had been the head of the African union when the organsation endorsed Tedros as the sole African candidate for the WHO job, and no doubt Tedros felt some obligation to return the favour, but the organisation’s financial support comes from elsewhere.

So it’s just politics as usual. The WHO’s reputation will eventually recover, but healthcare in Zimbabwe won’t as long as Mugabe is alive. And the world will continue to rotate in an easterly direction.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 5. (“In Zimbabwe…wrong”)

Absent Presidents

Newspapers still need copy to hold the ads apart even when nothing much is happening. So I was quite pleased when I noticed that the presidents of two African countries, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, were both “missing in action”: spending most of their time in hospitals overseas, while their spokespersons denied that there was anything wrong.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with the continent’s biggest economy. Zimbabwe is dirt poor and dead broke, but its president, Robert Mugabe is Africa’s longest-ruling leader. So you call the piece ‘Absent Presidents’, you do a few arabesques around the themes of absolute power and irresponsibility, and you get to go home early.

There were even a couple of juicy quotes to lead with. One of the supporters of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Senator Shehu Sani, had warned publicly: “Prayers for the absent Lion King have waned. Now the hyenas and the jackals are scheming and talking to each other in whispers; still doubting whether the Lion King will be back or not.”

And President Buhari’s wife Aisha replied, also in public, that he would soon be back to clean house: “God has answered the prayers of the weaker animals. The hyenas and jackals will soon be sent out the kingdom.” How deliciously ‘African’. The piece practically writes itself. It couldn’t be simpler.

Unfortunately, it’s too simple. It feeds into all the stereotypes about feckless African presidents who cling to power too long and lead their countries to ruin. In fact neither Buhari nor Mugabe is a thief (although some of the people around them are), and Buhari’s illness is a real misfortune for his country. Whereas Mugabe’s demise would not come a moment too soon for his unfortunate country.

Robert Mugabe’s life has been a tragedy. He led Zimbabwe’s independence struggle, and in the early days he was sometimes even compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a wise and generous man who relinquished the presidency after only five years in power to let the next generation take over. But although Mugabe was clever, he was never wise.

Zimbabwe flourished in the early years of his rule, with high education and living standards, but he has now been in power for 37 years and his increasingly arbitrary actions have wrecked the economy. Few people have real jobs, hyper-inflation has destroyed the national currency, and about a quarter of the population has emigrated in search of work, mostly to South Africa.

Mugabe is now 93 years old, but he talks of living and ruling until he is 100, and is certainly going to run again in next year’s election, which will be rigged as usual. His wife, Grace Mugabe, says he should run “as a corpse” if he dies before the vote (but she might just decide to run herself.)

So the fact that Mugabe is now in hospital in Singapore, for the third time this year, is not causing widespread dismay in Zimbabwe. Opposition leaders complain about him “running the show from his hospital bed,” but they wouldn’t actually mind if he died. They think nothing could be worse than more of Mugabe – although they could be wrong about that. The scramble for power when he finally goes could turn very violent.

If Robert Mugabe is a classic case of a good man gone bad, Muhammadu Buhari may be just the opposite. He first came to public notice as one of Nigeria’s revolving-door military dictators, seizing power in a coup in 1983 and losing it to another coup in 1985. The one thing that distinguished him from all the others was that he actually did fight the rampant corruption that has kept the great majority of Nigeria’s 180 million people poor.

Buhari, who calls himself a “converted democrat”, ran for the presidency unsuccessfully in 2003, 2007 and 2011 before finally winning in the 2015 election. There were high hopes that he would be the one who finally brought corruption under control, and perhaps he could have been – but nothing actually happened. In fact, it took him six months just to select all his cabinet members.

In retrospect, it seems likely that Buhari fell ill not long after he took office, and has been severely distracted by his health problems since mid-2016. He has been in London for medical treatment more than half the time since January, and has not been seen in public at all since early May. Despite his wife’s assurances to the contrary, it is unlikely that he will ever really run the country again.

This is not necessarily a disaster for Nigeria – the graveyards everywhere are full of indispensable men. But it may represent a lost opportunity, for Buhari did really sound like he meant it. Better luck next time.

There, you see. I did get an article out of it after all.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“There were…simpler”)