The recent bloodless military coup of Zimbabwe differs from the near continuous coups (over 200) that the continent has suffered since decolonization in the late fifties. This coup has seen no violence as of yet, has strategically followed the eyes of the world, and appears to appreciate the need for clever politics. Robert Mugabe, ninety-three years of age and ruler of the country for thirty-seven years was held under house arrest over the last week and announced on Tuesday that he would step down.
According to most media outlets the Zanu-PF party leader was overthrown by his recently disposed deputy and other war veterans who anticipated a handover of power to his wife Grace Mugabe, forty-one years his junior.
Mugabe, once a hero of anti-colonialist and socialist movements, has held onto power through an increasingly failing economy marred by hyper-inflation that rivals that of post-WW1 Germany. While citizens of Harare queued in endless lines for loaves of bread, Mugabe and his wife, ‘Gucci’ Grace, a Mary Antoinette figure, known for her excessive spending, sat comfortably upon a net worth valued at about ten million US dollars.
Upon gaining freedom from Ian Smith’s white-only-rule in the early eighties, Mugabe managed to retain an amenable relationship with white farmers, who held most of the wealth and land in the country. He was held in high regard internationally, receiving a knighthood in 1994.
His socialist leanings, however, were heavily distrusted by subsequent UK and US governments, contributing in part to the many economic ills facing the county in the mid to late nineties. To consolidate power, Mugabe, confiscated white owned land, with over 200,000 white Zimbabweans emigrating during his rule, killing the harmony he had created and driving a key source of wealth from the country. Economic failure after economic failure has led to a discontent and impoverished population, keen to see a change of power.
The coup is certainly a positive sign for the South of Africa. The Guardian have labelled it a ‘very modern kind of coup’, watchful of reactions in neighbouring states such as Angola and South Africa. While whoever succeeds Mugabe should not receive unequivocal praise (Aung San Suu Kyi proving we should not idolise foreign rulers we do not really understand) he/she should be supported in the attempt to turn around their nation’s fortunes.
Democracy in Africa understandably needs time to gradually become the norm. The present situation in Zimbabwe should be a rare moment of optimism. Any improvements should be encouraged but equally monitored. Writers such as Martin Meredith, among others, have noted exhaustively the easy irreversibility of seemingly prospering states. This suggestion of democracy is working off the idea that China isn’t involved, a distinct possibility according to another commentator in The Guardian. Gradual removal of dictatorships is what is required. Mugabe will most likely be replaced by another Zanu-PF war veteran, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. A bloodless coup may not be much in the western world but in terms of African politics it is a ray of much needed hope.
Neighbouring states such as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia all have a solid democratic system, albeit with long-ruling parties in all three. Zambia, as well as the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola (the latter also having had a socialist guerrilla movement that transformed into a socialist dictatorship) are all still in the hands of unchecked dictators. The events in Zimbabwe, however, offer the chance for Angola and other such states to one day go a similar route. With the Southern tip of Africa gradually democratizing, it can be a leading example in the forgotten continent of world affairs.