Argument

Mugabe Doesn’t Need An Excuse

Mugabe Doesn’t Need An Excuse

President Robert Gabriel Mugabe is Zimbabwe’s curse. In his three decades in power, Mugabe has traded the country’s economic promise for withering decline. He’s turned what was once the breadbasket of the region into a deathtrap for its own citizens. He has crushed the opposition, cleared slums with bulldozers, ignored a devastating cholera outbreak, and chased millions of desperate migrants over the border into South Africa. His passing, when it comes, may seem like a blessing.

Yet when the ailing, 86-year-old Mugabe inevitably leaves office, by fair means or foul, more trouble is in store for the nation that he has singlehandedly destroyed. And hardly anyone is fully prepared for that game-changing moment — not Zimbabwe’s opposition; not neighboring South Africa; not Western embassies or regional multilateral organizations. No one has a workable contingency plan. And with everyone likely to be caught flat-footed by Mugabe’s demise, the president’s cronies are likely to attempt to seize power and install a regime as bad as or worse than the one left behind.

For now, Mugabe is keeping a tight grip on the Zimbabwean state. After losing a presidential election in 2008, he agreed — under heavy international pressure — to share power with the vote winner, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and the two adversaries were forced into an unhappy marriage in 2009. Although Tsvangirai was made the prime minister, Mugabe continues to run the country according to his own whims. Defying the 2009 agreement, he appoints provincial governors, judges, ambassadors, an attorney general, a central bank governor, and military generals without so much as a nod in Tsvangirai’s direction. In fact, he ignores Tsvangirai most of the time, and blames the prime minister for Zimbabwe’s ongoing economic and social failings. (Just this week, the attorney general, a Mugabe loyalist, said he was considering bringing charges against Tsvangirai for allegedly treasonous behavior supposedly revealed in the WikiLeaks cables.)

Most of the time, Mugabe is still sharp, canny, and uncommonly manipulative. But I am told by Western intelligence and local medical contacts that he is afflicted with a form of prostate cancer that has metastasized to his spine. He takes pain and energy pills and visibly drags one foot. In October, for the first time ever, no photographs of him handing out University of Zimbabwe diplomas — an annual ritual — were published in government-controlled newspapers. Sometimes, in public, his voice is weak and aides help him up and down stairs. No photographs are allowed when he is greeting visitors; they were once ubiquitous. Mugabe could die at any moment.

Imagine that moment arrived tomorrow. According to Zimbabwe’s constitution, the vice president holds the reins until Parliament chooses a successor — within 90 days. In reality, however, a host of potential successors will be jockeying for control — and they will set their own rules. The cast of characters includes Vice President Joice Mujuru and her husband, Solomon; Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, the minister of defense; Sydney Tigere Sekeramayi, now minister of state security; a clutch of various generals; Grace Mugabe, the first lady; and Tsvangirai.

Tsvangirai believes that his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has the votes in Parliament to choose a successor — himself — as president. He would clearly be the choice of the international community. But this assumes that the parliamentary election will be transparent and largely fair, hard to believe given Zimbabwe’s history of rigged and falsified polls at every level.

Meanwhile, regime cronies believe they could triumph in Parliament by gaining control of the vote using various levels of intimidation and, if necessary, direct strong-arm methods, according to my contacts within the military, who are close to the generals in command.

The majority of the serving generals and police commanders owe allegiance either to Solomon Mujuru, the vice-president’s husband, or to Defense Minister Mnangagwa.

Solomon Mujuru was a renowned general during Zimbabwe’s bush war to unseat the minority-white government of Rhodesia in the 1970s. He has strong ties to current serving generals, but hasn’t been directly active in politics recently, preferring to work his charms as a businessman. Western intelligence officials, however, say that Solomon and Joice Mujuru are ill, and in Solomon’s case, quite seriously and terminally — so neither would make a long-term viable ruler.

Mnangagwa, 64, has always fancied himself Mugabe’s successor. He has long assisted Mugabe’s evil doings by styling himself as the enforcer of the president’s tyranny. He is widely known as Mugabe’s "bag man" because of his key role in providing opportunities for economic gain for the president’s cronies since the mid-1990s. Mnangagwa is not well liked within the rank and file of ZANU, the ruling party. But more importantly, he is feared and immensely ambitious. In late November, he told a celebratory crowd that the opposition MDC would never rule Zimbabwe, whatever the results of an election.

Mnangagwa is also close to the Chinese. In recent years, Beijing has provided uniforms and aircraft to Zimbabwe’s defense forces. China is constructing a new training college in the capital city of Harare for securocrats, has acquired farm land to produce food crops, and is energetically mining diamonds in partnership with a cabal of generals.

Another candidate to succeed Mugabe is State Security Minister Sekeramayi, 66. Beholden to the generals, despotic, and corrupt, he could prove the ideal compromise successor for ZANU if a power struggle between Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru ensues.

But all bets are off if Mugabe lives through yet another election. By law, the next presidential contest is scheduled for 2013. Mugabe, however, wants to be rid of the unity government and of Tsvangirai, whose party holds half the ministries (if much less than half the regime’s power). And so he has promised to call voters back to the polls next year. Tsvangirai said recently that he also supports this move — if it is an election for the presidency alone. Both men think they can win that job.

But Mugabe is better prepared. In October, he publicly dispatched five generals, army personnel, and members of his Central Intelligence Office into the field to "prepare" for elections — that is, to intimidate voters and organize gangs to pressure Zimbabweans to vote in his favor. In a speech in late October, he urged his supporters to prepare to "take what is yours," a chilling call to ensure that ZANU wins the vote. Intimidation against the MDC in rural areas has already increased, and according to local humanitarian monitoring groups, dozens of opposition leaders have been killed in the last few years. Usually, the thuggish ZANU paramilitary youth wing is involved, with military backing. Thanks to the regime’s recent diamond windfall, ZANU also has the funds with which to "persuade" villagers and town residents to vote for Mugabe and his designees.

The MDC, meanwhile, is broke. It does have the unquestionable support of the people, however. Tsvangirai predicts that 80 percent of voters would back the MDC in elections that are even remotely free and fair.

The man who can do the most to ensure that a free and fair election occurs, however, has so far shown little stomach for doing so: Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president and the regionally appointed mediator for the unity government. If any poll takes place that is intended to be transparent, either in Parliament or in the nation, South Africa and the regional grouping of countries, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), will have to be its guarantor. Yet, over and over, Zuma has made promises to Washington, London, and Zimbabwean democracy advocates — and followed through on none of them. Zuma has been unwilling, for example, to chastise Mugabe in public for not following the spirit or the letter of the 2009 unity agreement. Nor has the South African president scolded Mugabe for appointing governors, ambassadors, and other officials without Tsvangirai’s consent. Likewise, he has strung Tsvangirai along with meaningless promises to stand up to Mugabe’s authoritarian rule. Nothing has come of any of it.

What are needed instead are concrete plans — not just for this coming election but for what happens after Mugabe’s demise. The U.S. and South African governments must do all they can to prevent the generals and ZANU successors from usurping power. Zuma should make that determination clear now, perhaps even with the threat of force should anyone try to seize power in Harare. Loud public indications of support for a fully democratic transition unimpeded by local thugs are also imperative. Washington can help by tightening its smart sanctions against individual generals, politicians, and other miscreants, even as it pushes South Africa and other SADC countries to isolate Mugabe and his cronies, putting an end to their overseas shopping and medical trips, for example.

Without a free poll monitored by international observers, there will be little the world can do to keep Mugabe or his many men from using his tried and true tactics of remaining in office. The decrepit president (if he still lives) and his generals will literally go to war before they willingly give up their corrupt gains, diamond wealth, and unholy power.