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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”)

The Gambia: A Short Billion Years

“We will win the biggest landslide this country has ever seen,” said The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh before the small West African country’s recent election, and he had every reason to be confident. Jammeh had been in power for 22 years, and he knew how to run an election.

Jammeh, who was an 29-year-old army lieutenant when he seized power, has been in the habit of detaining, torturing and killing dissident journalists and political opponents, and this election was no exception. Two leading opposition politicians were beaten to death in prison and 15 others jailed for three years last April, international election observers were banned, and on voting day last Thursday the internet was shut down.

There was not the slightest indication that Jammeh was ready to surrender power. He said he was “proud to be a dictator,” promised to bury the “evil vermin called opposition nine feet deep”, and once declared that he would rule “for one billion years if Allah wills it.” But when the marbles spoke last Friday morning, he had lost the election.

In the Gambia, they vote by dropping marbles into different-coloured drums, and when they were all counted an obscure property developer named Adama Barrow had 45 percent of the marbles. Yahya Jammeh had only 36 percent.

So he was guilty of over-confidence and poor election management, but nobody imagined that he would actually go quietly. Yet he did.

On Friday, Yahya Jammeh went on television and conceded defeat, saying “I want to make it very clear that I will never rule this country without your mandate and I will never cheat.” The astonished head of the electoral commission, Alieu Momar Njie, said: “It’s really unique that someone who has been ruling this country for so long has accepted defeat” – and The Gambia exploded with joy.

Jammeh was always erratic, but nobody saw this coming. Africans elsewhere who also have a problem with rulers who overstay their welcome were delighted. “Yahya Jammeh has recognised his defeat! Who would have thought it? There is hope!” said Fred Bauma, the youthful leader of a non-violent pro-democracy movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (He has been in detention for the past year.)

Hope soared even higher when Angola’s president, Eduardo dos Santos, declared hours after Jammeh conceded defeat that after 38 years in power he will step down next year. Even 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, was heard to speak last week about retiring “properly” (although with no date mentioned).

Now for the (rather discouraging) small print. Adama Barrow has good intentions, but many of the ambitious people in the coalition of small opposition parties that Barrow put together may approach their time in power in the spirit of that famous Kenyan phrase “It’s our turn to eat now.” As Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt.”

Eduardo Dos Santos first said he was going to leave the presidency in Angola in 2001, but then it slipped his mind. He seems more genuinely committed to quitting this time, but Angola is a one-party state and he has already announced his successor, defence minister Joao Lourenco. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton added.

And Robert Mugabe, who spent a decade in jail while leading the independence struggle and has run Zimbabwe ever since, resorts to violence when challenged politically and has completely destroyed his country’s once promising economy. He may occasionally talk about retiring, but he will hold onto power until he dies. “Great men are almost always bad men,” as Acton concluded.

As for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a presidential election was due this month, President Joseph Kabila has now postponed it until 2018. He has been in power, and his father before him, since 1997, and he has no intention of leaving it now. He just needs more time to rig the next election.

Even when elections are not rigged, it is sheer fantasy to believe that the outcomes are determined by voters who carefully considered all the options and chose the one that was best for the community.

Most people are far too busy with their own personal lives to give political matters much thought. When they do vote, they tend to be guided by their emotions or by their class, ethic or religious identity. As Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy’s populist Five State Movement, cynically urged Italian voters in the recent referendum: “Vote with your gut” (and not with your brains).

Africa is not alone with this problem. Even in older and richer democracies, democratic decision-making is often irrational and sometimes self-destructive. So why bother?

Because governments must be changed from time to time if they are not to become completely self-serving, and elections are a better way to change them than military coups or violent revolts. Because democracy requires and strengthens the rule of law. And because of the “wisdom of crowds”: the voters get it right, or at least partly right, more often than any narrower decision-making group.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Jammeh…down”; and “As…election”)

Amazing Grace

Political dynasties tend to thrive mainly in very large democratic countries where name-recognition is a huge asset: think two President Adams, two President Roosevelts, and maybe soon a third President Bush or a second President Clinton in the United States, or the string of Indian prime ministers from the Nehru-Gandhi clan. By contrast, such dynasties are rare in Africa – but there’s an exception to every rule.

Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of the white-minority regime in 1980. He’s in pretty good shape for 90 (and his mother lived to 100), but it’s inevitable that the question of the succession will pop up from time to time. The answer has usually been that it’s a race between two leading figures of the ruling Zanu-PF party: Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa was generally reckoned to be Mugabe’s favourite for the role, but Mujuru, who fought in the “Bush War” against the white regime and once shot down a Rhodesian military helicopter with a machine-gun, had more support among the party’s activists. In any case, with the next “election” not due until 2018 and Mugabe showing no signs of imminent mortality, there was no urgency in the situation.

Then in September, Joice Mujuru was awarded a PhD by the University of Zimbabwe for a thesis on “strategic exploratory entrepreneurship”, whatever that may be.  (Zimbabwe is a poor and mismanaged country, but it probably has the best-educated population in sub-Saharan Africa, so a higher academic degree is a political asset.)

It’s not clear how much of the work Dr Mujuru did herself, but her thesis was soon on the shelves of the university library. The remarkable thing is that Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace was awarded a PhD in sociology at the same ceremony, although she had only enrolled at the university three months before. Her thesis has still not shown up in the library.

Since mid-September, however, Zimbabwe has been through a three-month political blitzkrieg that saw Grace Mugabe supplant Joice Mujuru as the heir apparent to the presidency of Zimbabwe. First she was nominated as the head of the Zanu-PF’s women’s league, despite a complete lack of political experience. Then she embarked on a “meet-the-nation” tour of all ten of Zimbabwe’s provinces whose main theme was the vilification of Joice Mujuru.

She called the vice-president “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful,” adding that she was “power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace.”  She claimed that Mujuru was collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country’s post-independence gains. And finally she accused the independence war hero of plotting to assassinate her husband, President Robert Mugabe.

The pay-off came last week at the Zanu-PF party congress in Harare (take the newly renamed Dr Grace Mugabe Drive and have the chauffeur drop you at the door). Joice Mujuru was purged from the party, with Robert Mugabe telling the congress: “I don’t  know how many books we could write about Mujuru’s crimes.” Grace Mugabe was confirmed as head of the women’s league, and everybody expects that her next stop will be the vice-presidency.

There were a few dissenting voices: Jabulani Sibanda, a veteran of the independence war, told a meeting that this was a “bedroom coup” and argued that “power was not sexually transmitted.” But he was charged with insulting the president, and most people just kept their heads down. Opposing the Mugabes can be an unhealthy and occasionally even a fatal business.

But what is really going on here? Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady, is a woman of modest education and coarse manners who met the president when she was manning the switchboard at State House. 41 years younger than the president, she began an affair with Robert Mugabe that produced two children even before his wife died.  She was known as “First Shopper” because of her extravagance, but she never showed any interest in politics.

That’s why some observers are persuaded that she isn’t really Robert Mugabe’s choice as successor. On the contrary, they argue, he’s just using her to clear Joice Mujuru out of the way so that his real choice, Emmerson Mnangagwa, can become vice-president. But it seems an unnecessarily round-about way for an autocrat like Mugabe to do business. It also ignores how strong her hold on him is.

At last week’s party congress, Mugabe, frail and sometimes forgetful, took the mike to dissolve the outgoing central committee, and instead wandered off into a lecture about the liberation struggle. Grace wrote him a note telling him to sit down. He did, telling the audience “My wife has written a note; she says I’m talking too much. That’s how I am treated even at home, so I must listen.”

It is entirely possible that Grace’s sudden rise to power is her own idea. If it is, it’s a bad one, because her power would not long outlast Robert Mugabe’s demise. She has neither political skills nor a base within the party. But she might be doing the country an inadvertent favour even so, if the intra-party struggle to get rid of her after her husband’s death shook Zanu-PF’s long and mostly malign stranglehold on power in Zimbabwe.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 9. (“Then…library”; and “There…business”)

The Rehabilitation of Robert Mugabe

24 July 2013

The Rehabilitation of Robert Mugabe

By Gwynne Dyer

Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, is now 89 years old, but he is running for another five-year term in the elections on 31 July. Perhaps his optimism is justified, given that his mother died at 100, but why is he doing it? More importantly, why is the ruling party, ZANU-PF, still backing him as its presidential candidate, given that he has spent the past decade as an international pariah?

He is doing it because, although he is an intelligent man, he has convinced himself that it is only his presidency that forestalls an imperialist reconquest of Zimbabwe. And ZANU-PF is backing him because a) it thinks he can win the election, more or less; b) it believes the international community will grudgingly accept that result; and c) it will then control the succession when he finally dies.

Mugabe was always a despot, but his history as leader of the independence movement meant that he probably did win honest majorities in the elections during his first two decades in power. He only went off the rails completely when constitutional amendments that would have let him run for two more presidential terms were rejected in a referendum in 2000.

That was when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms and handing them out to his own cronies, with the result that Zimbabwe’s agricultural production dropped by half. The country’s economy virtually collapsed, jobs melted away even in the cities, and runaway inflation completed the country’s ruin.

The country is still far poorer than it was in 2000. A quarter of the working-age population has sought work abroad, mostly as illegal immigrants in South Africa, and life expectancy has fallen from a high of 64 years to the present 37 years. Some of that fall is due to the AIDS epidemic, but as much is due to other diseases and simple malnutrition.

Mugabe’s election campaigns have always been accompanied by tight controls on the media, blatant manipulation of the voting process, and a great deal of violence and intimidation. He almost certainly wouldn’t win an election that is “free and fair” this month – but as long as there is less violence this time, the rest of the world will accept his reelection as “credible”.

When ZANU-PF’s vote-rigging and intimidation were at their most outrageous, a lot of countries felt they had no option but to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. But some of those sanctions affect ordinary Zimbabweans too, so no foreign government wants to maintain them any longer than absolutely necessary. And the emergence of a legitimate political opposition that is going to lose the forthcoming election will give them the excuse to stop.

The opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, emerged in response to Mugabe’s increasingly violent repression. Despite all the usual vote-rigging and intimidation it managed to win a one-seat parliamentary majority in the 2008 elections. Moreover, the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, got more votes for the presidency than Mugabe, although not enough to win in the first round.

ZANU-PF and its allies in the army and police went into over-drive, killing or “disappearing” hundreds of MDC members, and Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round of the election. At that point the Southern African Development Community intervened and negotiated a “power-sharing” government in which Mugabe remained president but Tsvangirai became prime minister. Ironically, that has worked to Mugabe’s advantage.

Tsvangirai and his colleagues, given responsibility for the economy and social services, have pulled the country back from the brink. Switching to the US dollar ended the runaway inflation and there is food in the shops again, although poverty is still omnipresent. But Tsvangirai and his colleagues have also enthusiastically filled their own pockets with public money.

Tsvangirai now takes holidays in London and Monaco, and lives in a $3 million home. Many people believe that he and the other MDC ministers have been coopted by Mugabe’s people, and they will not vote for him again. So ZANU-PF now thinks that (with the help of the usual manipulation and intimidation, but minimal amounts of actual violence) it can not only win the election, but get the rest of the world to accept Mugabe’s victory.

However, ZANU-PF’s strategists are clearly not completely convinced by this scenario. Their election posters carry a picture of Mugabe dating from the 1980s, not one that shows the 89-year-old man of today, which betrays a certain lack of confidence. So why didn’t the party just change horses and run somebody younger?

The question of the succession has been a live issue for a long time: US embassy reports leaked to Wikileaks in 2011 revealed that many senior people in ZANU-PF wanted to see if they would have US backing in the post-Mugabe succession struggle. But uncertainty about who would win that struggle means that the leading rivals would rather postpone it and have Mugabe lead the party to victory one last time.

Can he do it? Reliable opinion polls are scarce in Zimbabwe, but one conducted by Freedom House last year showed that ZANU-PF had overtaken the MDC in popular support. If Mugabe wins, everybody will acknowledge his victory and wait to see who is appointed vice-president – because that is the person who will be the president of Zimbabwe before long.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 12 and 13. (“The country…malnutrition”; and “However…time”)