Why Robert Mugabe continues to plod on

Tuesday 1st March 2016

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe returned home from the Far East, where he had been for a month, on 22 January 2016. Mugabe was chipper and appeared physically fit, as he shook hands and exchanged greetings with a long queue of government officials, service chiefs and other ruling party dignitaries who converged on the Harare International Airport to welcome him home. This was Mugabe's first public appearance since mid-December 2015. Mugabe's reemergence put paid to long running speculation in and outside Zimbabwe that he had suffered a fatal heart attack in the Far East. Intense rumours about Mugabe's alleged demise are not new. Indeed the frequency of these rumours once led Mugabe to boast that he had croaked and been brought back to life on numerous occasions: 'I have died many times - that is where I have beaten Jesus Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once'.

Speculation about Mugabe's well-being is unsurprising given that he turns 92 years old on 21 February 2016. His controversial leadership also polarises opinion in Zimbabwe and abroad, meaning that there are many who are eager to see him exit the political scene by any means. Mugabe is Africa's eldest serving president and he has led Zimbabwe since 1980. Among current African leaders, only Cameroon's Paul Biya, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Mbasogo and Angola's José dos Santos have governed their respective countries longer than Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe. While these three leaders have, like Mugabe, faced domestic political opposition to their long incumbency, none of them has encountered more Western disapproval and vilification of his rule than the Zimbabwean president. It is appropriate, then, to ask why Mugabe has remained a mainstay in Zimbabwean politics despite strong external and internal opposition. Here, let me outline four factors that perhaps best account for Mugabe's political longevity.

The first of these factors is that some of Mugabe's challengers have erroneously based part of their strategies against him on the assumption that death or his alleged poor health will aid them in bringing his reign to an end, sooner rather than later. For example, in the course of my research I have come across Western diplomats who are intent on adopting a wait and see approach to Zimbabwe, on the supposition that Mugabe's health will soon fail, leading to his departure from office, which would then enable full Western re-engagement of the Zimbabwean government after over a decade of isolation. I have interviewed Mugabe, in addition to following him closely during his 2013 presidential election campaign. He is an old man, but his political acumen and determination to continue ruling Zimbabwe are not to be underestimated. Mugabe has every intention of running for re-election in Zimbabwe's 2018 presidential poll. Persistent speculation about his 'imminent' death distracts his opponents from focusing on the electoral contest against him, which lies ahead. And, in an eerie way, each time Mugabe emerges from public seclusion looking in good health, following a tumult of rumours that he is dead, it only serves to enhance a myth of invincibility around him.

A second reason accounting for Mugabe's continued hold on power is his authority over Zimbabwe's security establishment, notwithstanding its internal divisions on the country's presidential succession. Mugabe has effectively used the army, police and intelligence to see off his political rivals. Some have maintained, in recent years, that Mugabe has in fact become hostage to Zimbabwe's military generals. The problem with this position is that it is not supported by any compelling evidence. The invention of the military generals' authority blinds Mugabe's adversaries to the real wellspring of power in Zimbabwe - himself!

The third element explaining Mugabe's long incumbency is that he is not without popular support among some Zimbabweans. Political violence, intimidation and fear do not tell the complete story of how Mugabe has sustained his rule. Many Zimbabweans still regard him as a hero of the country's struggle against colonialism and as a founding father of Zimbabwe's independence. Mugabe never misses the opportunity to remind Zimbabweans and Africa more generally of this history of liberation, as a way of shoring up his legitimacy. Patronage, which is most evident in his violent seizure and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms to blacks from 2000 onwards, has also gone a long way towards maintaining loyalty to Mugabe.

A final cause of Mugabe's political endurance is the averageness of the Zimbabwean political opposition. This is not to disregard the considerable repression and other underhand tactics Mugabe has employed against opposition. It is simply to say that the Zimbabwean opposition has made important missteps, which have contributed to the extension of Mugabe's rule. Take for instance how the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party failed to build on their 4 years (2009-2013) as part of Zimbabwe's power-sharing government, to claim a decisive electoral victory in the 2013 post unity government poll. Mugabe is certainly a shrewd political technician but this shrewdness has been exaggerated by the intrinsic limitations of his domestic political rivals.