Robert Mugabe is 92 years old and can’t last forever. The world’s oldest head of state, he has been president of the poor, benighted country of Zimbabwe for 36 calamitous years and has made abundantly clear he plans to remain in office until death decides otherwise.
In recent years there have been regular reports that his health had given way and the country would finally be freed from the yoke of his brutal and despotic rule. No such luck. In February he announced, to no one’s surprise, that he intends to seek a new five-year term in 2018. He would stand down, he said, “when God says come.”
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There have been times throughout his reign that hinted Zimbabweans might not wait for God, and could take matters into their own hands. On each occasion Mugabe has responded with ruthless force. Thousands died — no one is really sure of the exact total — when government forcesattacked rivals in Matabeleland in the 1980s. Elections — still held for the sake of appearances — are commonly accompanied by bloody crackdowns. When opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai dared attend a banned prayer meeting in 2007, he was beaten by men with crowbars and carted off to court in the back of a truck.
Now signs are again evident of Zimbabweans’ simmering rage. Public protests have been held, organized by the country’s gaggle of opposition groups. Last week police used tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators demanding Mugabe resign. In July protests organized by a 39-year-old pastor succeeded in shutting down banks, schools and offices.
Odds are their efforts will get no further than those before them. Mugabe has vowed “severe” punishment for all challengers. As usual, he claims opponents are pawns manipulated by foreign powers, especially the U.S. and Britain. “They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country,” he said of recent protests. “We tell them that is not going to happen here.”
Nonetheless there are reasons this upsurge of anger might be different. Mugabe’s power rests firmly in his status as a hero of the war that ended repressive white rule. Veterans of that war are national heroes. But reports indicate the loyalty of security forces may be fraying, the victim of missed paycheques and endemic corruption. Mugabe flew into a rage in July when a veterans group, usually among his most stalwart of supporters, turned against him, citing the “systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts.” War veterans who were granted valuable farms seized from whites are seeing the land seized again, and handed to more loyal cronies of Mugabe and his imperious wife, Grace.
Grace Mugabe is one of several rivals already engaged in a fierce struggle to succeed her husband. Her chief opponents is Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “Crocodile” for his own exploits during the liberation war. Lately Grace has been hinting that Mnangagwa is plotting against her husband, the same tactic she used to oust former vice president Joice Mujuru two years ago. Mujuru recently formed her own party, Zimbabwe People First, vowing to rid the country of corruption, though she continues to live on a farm whose seizure from its white owners was ruled illegal by Zimbabwe’s top court.
Behind the discontent is the decrepit state of Zimbabwe’s economy. After years of spiraling inflation and empty shop shelves, the local currency was shelved in 2009 in favour of the U.S. dollar and several other currencies. But the government ran out of its supply of cash this year and began printing a new currency in May, sparking fears the new “zombie money” will mark a return to financial chaos.
The situation is so dire the government has been reduced to seeking loans from the western powers it regularly excoriates. Unemployment remains chronic and almost impossible to track, with the vast majority of the population scraping out a living in informal jobs. The road to prosperity still depends on unquestioning loyalty to the ruling party, with senior party members living lavish lives amid the national squalor. This year, claiming a need to halt smuggling, the government announced it would takecontrol of the country’s entire diamond industry, among the few viable money-makers still in operation.
The hopelessness facing young Zimbabweans may be one of the greatest threats to the regime: more than two-thirds of Zimbabweans aren’t old enough to remember the liberation war. They know little of the struggle against white rule and see only the decrepit, dysfunctional country produced by Mugabe’s cutthroat rule. To them, Mugabe is the “old man” who should have long since let loose his grip on power.
Unfortunately, the old man has plenty of experience in putting down previous uprisings, and nothing to lose from another round of repression. When Mugabe does finally depart the scene, there’s little to suggest his death will produce a brighter future for his country.