Anyone who has been a watcher of Zimbabwe and President Robert Mugabe’s tortured tenure would not fail to observe the frustration of Zimbabweans, the disappointment of Southern Africans, and the overall disgust of Africa. The Western world had written Mugabe up as a lost cause, partly for its own selfish, some say, and racist reasons. Africa’s “bread basket” as Zimbabwe was called in the 1980s had become Africa’s basket case. It had become a butt of jokes, a showpiece of a failed state, and an example of how not to run an economy.
As a democratic experiment, Zimbabwe was an even bigger failure. He began by squashing the opposition, neutralizing an even better-known hero, Joshua Nkomo who used to be the actual face of the Zimbabwean independence struggle. President Mugabe seemed to go on interminably. Apparently, the constitution prescribed no term limits. So long as he won the elections, he could continue to be president. But in 2008 there was some consensus that he did not win the election of that year. There was evidence that he had used brutal tactics to suppress opposition in Matabeleland and elsewhere, that he had become a source of fear, not just because he was powerful, but also because he had become ruthless in the exercise of power.
It required the greatest show of courage and discipline not to think that the easiest, quickest way to get rid of Mugabe would be his physical elimination. The Zimbabwean Army knew that option was available to it, but it also knew it would be also the most cowardly, the most messy, and probably the most unconstitutional way. The army demonstrated leadership that was unprecedented in Africa through its patience, its tact, its good natured attitude. It showed Mugabe great respect, never badgered him or threatened him even while it deprived him of freedom of movement.
Even so, Mugabe went to the graduation ceremony of the University of Zimbabwe where his wife was said to have been awarded a doctor of philosophy after a two month study. Others need five years for the Ph.D. This allegation is not confirmed because in the last few weeks, Mrs. Mugabe has become the bette noire of Zimbabwean politics. She has become what the Americans call the “fall guy” of the Mugabe regime. She seems to get all the blame for everything.
At first it was that she was extravagant in her shopping; she had assaulted the young woman who was trying to seduce her son in South Africa; she was in line to be named the vice president after the unceremonious dismissal of Mr. Emmerson Mnangagwa, that she had earlier engineered the dismissal of the vice president preceding Mnangagwa, all of which was interpreted to mean that she coveted the job. She probably did overreach herself.
Yet the Zimbabwean Army kept its cool. It was probably angered more by Mrs. Mugabe but there is no evidence the army mistreated her or even showed her any disrespect, knowing that Mugabe would take great exception and might refuse to co-operate.
The Zimbabwean Army’s performance since last week kept many Nigerians thinking what would have been had the Nigerian Army of January 1966 shown as much leadership, as much patience, as much tact, and as much patriotism. They could picture a situation where the coup was dedicated to cleaning up Nigeria as Nzeogwu had professed.
No one was hurt. Suspected corrupt officials were only arrested or placed under house arrest while being investigated for corruption. A credible government of Nigerians with integrity would be instituted to probe the Balewa Federal Government and the regional governments, just to make sure that the so-called 10 per centers were exposed and their nefarious activities ended and a corruption-free government instituted totally without a drop of blood wasted. Nigerians have observed that the Zimbabwean Army was not hustling for political office.
There was no ego-tripping. Even the Army Chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, was out of the picture. There was hardware in the streets of Harare, but not a single shot was fired. And when President Mugabe’s resignation became public knowledge and was greeted by a storm of jubilation, it was a spectacle comparing the Zimbabwean Army with the Nigerian Army. Hundreds of Zimbabweans youths happily climbed the Humvees to take pictures with the soldiers. The soldiers were hugging little girls and being genuinely greeted as the people’s army, as the people’s strength, and as the enforcers of the people’s will.
The Zimbabwean Army performed the true function of a people’s army. The people had a problem. The institutions set up by the people were, somehow, inadequate to solve the problem and needed help. The army then stepped up not to usurp the power of the people but to serve as a facilitator, a mediator, a channel of communication. The army removed the fear of the government by identifying with the people’s sentiments. In other words, they freed the people. The resented police men were out of sight, and the army had no necessity to resort to crowd control, yet there were hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans demonstrating in the streets, peacefully and humanely. The Mugabe regime did enough to warrant riots, yet the hundreds of thousands never smashed a window, they never threw stones at Mugabe’s house. The crowds sang and danced. Resentment was absent, hope was in the air.
The pessimists think Mr. Mnangagwa is the other side of the coin and would bring no change. Stories of his performance as finance minister are encouraging. Indeed, informed opinion is that he at least understands how the economy works, unlike Mugabe and many other African leaders. Secondly, he would have seen from the Mugabe experience that the duty of government is to serve the people, and that people value honest, dedicated service and that even as Zimbabweans had got disenchanted with Mugabe, they did not forget that he served them well during the war of independence.
They were disappointed in him for staying in power for too long and for his excesses, but they still didn’t write him off completely as evil, and even those who do were ready to let him go in peace, in spite of himself.