Farai Sevenzo did not expect it to happen. A Zimbabwean-born journalist who covers sub-Saharan Africa, Sevenzo noted in a CNN op-ed that for over two decades, he has “witnessed with [his] camera the slow deterioration of people’s hopes in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.” On the morning of November 18, he woke up praying for the best. A solidarity march, in which protesters would rally for Zimbabwe’s controversial president, Robert Mugabe, to step down from power, was scheduled to occur, and Sevenzo wondered if Mugabe’s removal “would even happen.” Just twenty-four hours later, the country’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front, fired Mugabe as its leader.
Later that day, in an address to the nation, Mugabe shocked political pundits and Zimbabwean citizens by refusing to officially resign from his position as president, although he was widely expected to do so. But two days later, recognizing that he faced the threat of impeachment by the Zimbabwean parliament, Mugabe officially stepped down, opening the door for Emmerson Mnangagwa, his former vice president, to replace him.
Contrary to the hopes of many, Mugabe’s resignation is not a genuine harbinger of substantive governmental change. Instead, it will primarily serve as an impetus for a more activist civic culture in Zimbabwe.
The Road to Removal
Since gaining its independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe has been led by Mugabe, who rose to prominence by joining the African nationalist movement spearheaded by Joshua Nkomo, informally earning the title “father of the nation.” Prominent Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation recently noted that now 93 year-old Mugabe is the “last [alive] of Africa’s ‘fathers of independence,’” emphasizing the extent to which he “fought for his country’s independence from a colonial power before becoming its leader.” As such, although satirized as a ruthless, oppressive dictator by much of the contemporary Western world, Mugabe was long revered by the pan-African community as a crusader of liberation from colonial rule by a white minority.
However, over the past few months, Mugabe’s rule has been tenuous. After openly supporting his unpopular wife—dubbed “Gucci Grace” due to her apparent love of shopping—to be his presidential successor, Mugabe upset several members of parliament, including ardent supporters within his own party. Moreover, Mugabe’s wife encouraged him to dismiss his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa—a step Mugabe eventually took in early November. This drastic step further alienated his party and the military, which has supported the prospective succession of Mnangagwa and opposed that of Grace Mugabe. Slowly, the state apparatus that Mugabe utilized for years to stabilize his presidential rule turned against him, and he was detained by the military in mid-November. Now, Mugabe faces a future on the sidelines of Zimbabwean politics, officially replaced by Mnangagwa, the very man he once tried to remove.
The removal of Mugabe does not represent a harbinger of substantive change in Zimbabwean governance—rather, it is emblematic of the country’s burgeoning civic culture.
Though Mnangagwa has made promises to rejuvenate the country and promote “peace and economic prosperity,”not everyone believes that he will truly rise to the challenge. According to prominent South African newspaper editor Mondli Makhanya, Mnangagwa is “more evil” than Mugabe, and “was central to some of the worst atrocities of the Mugabe regime.” These atrocities, collectively known as Gukurahundi, include the crushing of dissidents via offensives in the Matabeleland region, which, according to Makhanya, led to the deaths of over 20,000 civilians. Makhanya further claims that Mnangagwa has been implicated in the regular “looting of state and mineral resources by Mugabe’s lieutenants.” South African newspaper IOL agrees, noting that Mnangagwa “is accused of playing a major role in [an] episode of violence in southern and western Zimbabwe.”
As such, while Mnangagwa is presenting himself as a fresh start and promising leader, he is ideologically similar to Mugabe, and bears a share of the responsibility for several of Mugabe’s unpopular actions throughout the past several decades.
Instead of real change in leadership, Mugabe’s removal is emblematic of something entirely different—the burgeoning civic culture in Zimbabwe.
Saturday’s solidarity march is just one example. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to rally against Mugabe’s rule,an example of mass mobilization that is only possible through the development of a civic culture favoring collective action. According to POVO News Africa, over one hundred civil society organizations signed a joint statement advocating for the restoration of law and order in the wake of the Mugabe crisis. This shows that the civic culture of Zimbabwe is evolving—Zimbabweans are collectively taking action to advocate for themselves. In the end, this development, rather than the prospect of substantial change in governance, could be the most significant consequence of Mugabe’s removal. In the words of Sevenzo, “Zimbabweans have found their voice again. Perhaps they will now no longer be afraid of people in power.”
Image Credit: United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons