It is hard not to cheer the end of Robert Mugabe’s autocracy. In a continent where free elections are becoming the norm, the 93-year-old despot stood apart, grotesque and cartoonish. He was like a fictional African dictator, with his ill-gotten millions, his retro-socialism, his ululating rallies, his snaking motorcades, his violent rhetoric (“Our party must never cease to strike fear into the heart of the white man, our real enemy”). We might overlook his Hitler moustache, but it is harder to overlook his Hitler complex. “This Hitler has only one objective,” he pronounced at the funeral of one of his ministers in 2003. “Justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold!”
To celebrate his 91st birthday, Comrade Bob held a monstrous party near Victoria Falls, at which various exotic beasts were slaughtered and roasted for his cavorting Zanu-PF bravoes: impalas, sables, elephants, even a lion. All this in a country that Mugabe has reduced from surplus to starvation. Incredibly, per capita calorie intake is lower in Zimbabwe today than it was when the country became independent in 1980. Once Africa’s breadbasket, it has become squalid and frightened. On the most basic measures — access to electricity, drinking water, shelter — it is getting poorer. Its 16 million people rely largely on remittances from four million emigres.
Regression is rare in modern Africa. People used to aver that the vast continent had declined since decolonisation. Old Africa hands would say things like: “My gardener told me the other day that life was better under the British.” (Did you consider that he might have been humouring you, bwana? You pay his salary, after all.) Even in the Eighties, it was possible to lament Africa’s decay, both economic and democratic. “One man, one vote — once,” snickered the wits. When Mugabe first crossed my consciousness, I was a small boy, delighted by the fact that his name was “Ee ba gum!” backwards.
In those days, he was one of a crew of semi-permanent African strongmen, alongside Kaunda, Banda, Mobutu and the rest. Since then, pluralism has spread, albeit fitfully, across the grasslands and forests, and prosperity has followed. Many Africans have gone straight from wads of cash to computerised smartphone payments without the intervening phase of bank accounts. A middle class is growing up in the sprawling cities. Trade, peace and privatisation have achieved in 20 years what international aid couldn’t in 50. Not, though, in Zimbabwe, which remains trapped in its antiquated anti-colonialist quarrels. While the rest of Africa shifts from peasant smallholdings to commercial estates — often with the knowhow of exiled white Zimbabweans — Zim itself has wrecked its agricultural sector, parcelling out once-profitable farms to regime cronies.
So should we be applauding the coup? Isn’t anything better than the old tyrant’s grip on power? Be careful. Coups have a way of making bad situations worse. Most replace civilian regimes with military ones, or swap one general for another. Only a handful lead to democratisation — Mali in 1991, Guinea Bissau in 2003, Niger in 2010. And even these tend, at least in the short term, to provoke more violence and repression. A study of 49 coup attempts between 1989 and 2016 found that, in 48 of them, there was an increase in civilian deaths at the hands of state forces in the ensuing 12 months. It is, alas, a common African pattern. When, for example, Idi Amin overthrew his hapless predecessor, Milton Obote, in 1971, he was hailed both in Uganda and in Britain as a reformer. In the event, he presided over a Caligulan tyranny in which hundreds of thousands of Ugandans died.
Might Zimbabwe be different? The early signs are not encouraging. The putsch was orchestrated by the former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been heir-apparent until this month, when he was knocked aside by Mugabe’s sybaritic wife, Grace. Mnangagwa is old enough to have been part of the Bush War against white Rhodesia and has the support of the veterans’ cadres, as well as of army officers. A hardliner, he helped build Zimbabwe’s one-party state, overseeing the notorious massacres in Matabeleland in the early Eighties. He often boasts that Zanu-PF rule will last forever — eerily echoing what Ian Smith used to say about white minority rule.
It has been a while since Zimbabwe had anything resembling free elections. The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew after repeated arrests and beatings. Since 2013, there has been only the most perfunctory pretence at democracy. Mugabe had intended to stand in next year’s presidential ballot, but there must now be some doubt as to whether it will go ahead and, if it does, whether Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF mobsters will allow any opposition.
The international community might exert some leverage in advance of that poll, at least if Mnangagwa is interested in overseas respectability. Boris Johnson and his Africa minister, Rory Stewart, are deftly coordinating a diplomatic push for open elections. Zimbabwe could conceivably turn and swim with the current. It could, like many of its neighbours, move toward multi-party democracy, private property and judicial independence. Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old genocidaire, might even become an unlikely agent of liberalisation. That, though, is not how coups usually work out. Poor, long-suffering Zimbabwe may be about to suffer some more.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017
Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999.