Is Mugabe a classic strong man?
August 3rd, 2013
11:45 PM ET

Is Mugabe a classic strong man?

By Inesha Premaratne

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has been officially named the winner of elections held Wednesday. GPS Intern Inesha Premaratne speaks with John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former ambassador to Nigeria, for his take on the results and what they mean for Zimbabwe.

Can you give us some background on the election? Who were the major players? Why is this race so important to Zimbabwe right now?

The two leading candidates were Robert Mugabe who led the liberation struggle that resulted in Zimbabwe’s independence, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition MDC and premier in the just-concluded government of national unity. Mugabe’s political party is the Zimbabwe African National Union- Public Front (ZANU-PF). Most Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF supporters are African peasants living in the countryside who have been the beneficiaries of his land redistribution policies. There’s also an important ethnic component here as the largest ethnic group in the country, the Shona, supports him. On the other hand, Tsvangirai’s party tends to be more urban and more concerned with the rule of law.

The rivalry between the two candidates is also intensely personal. In the last elections in 2008, Tsvangirai probably won the most votes but Mugabe controlled the security services. The result was widespread bloodshed and the intervention by other countries in the region, particularly by South Africa. They imposed a power sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai that ended the violence and lasted up until this week’s elections.

Mugabe has been in power for 33 years. Would it be fair to think of him as the classic “African strong man”?

Not necessarily. First of all, he’s 89 years-old and he goes to Singapore for medical treatment all the time. The policy community is in fact divided on the question of whether Mugabe himself is actually running things or whether he is essentially a front for the security services and the army. Some fear that it’s actually a fairly shadowy group of generals and senior police who are running the country – not through institutionalized military rule, but rather as individuals who have often enriched themselves through access to diamonds and seized formerly white-owned farmland. So we can’t take as a given that Mugabe is a traditional African strong man.

In your view, how did the voting on Wednesday go? Were these elections a sham?

Mugabe wouldn’t allow any Western election observers in the country; the only election observers came from African organizations or other African states. Traditionally, Africans are extremely reluctant to criticize elections that take place in other African countries. Far more credible are the observations of Zimbabwe’s Elections Support Networks. This is an umbrella organization of Zimbabwean civil society. This group maintains that there are severe and serious shortcomings to the voting. They found that there was manipulation of polling places and voter registrations. So, yes, I think the opposition’s claims that the elections are fixed are quite credible.

What do you see coming out of this? What comes next?

There are a variety of different possibilities. The first is that the Tsvangirai supporters might take to the streets. There might be riots and there might be demonstrations that in turn would provoke a very harsh reaction from the security services. This could set off refugee flows into South Africa and Botswana. This is essentially what happened in 2008. The second possible scenario is that there is no widespread violence or reaction to the elections simply because people will sit back and wait for Mugabe to die. With his death there would be a reopening of the political drama in Zimbabwe.

What does this election mean for Southern Africa? It seems South Africa is one of the major players here.

South Africa is the principle power in the Southern African Development Community and was the country that brokered the power sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai in 2008. However, South Africa clearly failed to bring about the political and democratic transformation of Zimbabwe that had been the goal after 2008. If the system in Zimbabwe breaks down, South Africa will once again face a massive influx of refugees that might prove destabilizing in particular localities. This also happened in 2008. As Zimbabweans tend to be relatively well educated, a good many of them got jobs in South Africa. That provoked a wave of xenophobia and was in some instances particularly violent. South Africa has to be concerned that what happened in 2008 doesn’t repeat itself. Alternatively, if nothing happens and the Zimbabweans simply decide to wait until Mugabe dies then nothing will likewise happen in South Africa.

So what’s the overall outlook for Zimbabwe?

I think the short-term outlook is that things will largely stay the same while seething under the surface. There is a possibility that we will see some kind of explosion over the elections of July 31 by the supporters of Tsvangirai.

On the whole, there’s a certain school of thought among some political scientists that elections are better than no elections at all because it helps to slowly but surely develop a somewhat more politically democratic culture. The fact that the elections failed in effect and enabled the Mugabe regime to remain in power is a setback, I think, to the general trend of democratization. That being said, such democratization in Zimbabwe, and Africa at large, will only come about because of Africans themselves and according to their own agenda – not anyone else’s.

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Topics: Africa

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