“Uncle Bob” is helped by geography. He rules in a neighbourhood that presently has few leaders who can outshine him in a significant way.
RECENTLY the internet was abuzz with rumours that Zimbabwe’s long-term ruler Robert Mugabe had abdicated, and his new vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa had taken over the reins.
The rumours of Mugabe’s demise are frequent these days, not surprising considering that he is 91. On several occasions he has appeared in public being supported to walk by his wife, the much younger 49-year-old Grace.
Photographs of the Zimbabwean leader dozing off at international meetings have only helped entrench the image of a strongman whose spirit is still willing, but whose body is too frail to shoulder the burdens of the presidency.
But, amidst all that, Mugabe looks set to have one of his best years. He enters 2015 stronger (politically) than he has been in a long-time. At the end of last year he orchestrated a ruthless purge of vice president Joice Mujuru, who had been one of the pretenders to his throne, and her allies, from the party and government.
After a massive campaign against Mujuru led by Grace, accusing her of disloyalty, plotting to assassinate Mugabe, and spreading factionalism in the party, in a dramatic act of humiliation her local ruling ZANU-PF party branch in November rejected her nomination papers for elections to the party’s central committee. It was classic Mugabe, getting minor party officials to put the VP in her place.
A purge and good fortunes
When the party congress met, Mujuru was in too much of a sulk and demoralised to show up. But Mugabe wasn’t content with that. He got the party convention to rubber stamp an amendment that changed its constitution and gave him all power to handpick the members of its most powerful organ, the politburo. It also endorsed him as party chief, and thus its presidential candidate in 2018 if he still has the lungs to ask for votes.
To ice the cake for “Uncle Bob” as his fan club in Africa likes to call him, the opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MDC) is perhaps in its worst state of disarray.
Even outside politics, fortune has favoured the nonagenarian veteran and former freedom fighter.
In March 2014, he married off his daughter Bona Mugabe, and it will probably not be long before he is attending a new grandchild’s baptism.
But it is in the events on the wider pan-African landscape that Mugabe’s stars have aligned to make him the most powerful 91-year-old African man and politician today.
In August last year, he became the chairman of the 15-member-state South African Development Community (SADC). And at the end of January, he is scheduled to become the next chairman of the continental body, the African Union (AU).
Mugabe’s schedule will be so busy, The Zimbabwe Independent said that that had “raised concerns over the ability of Mugabe, currently on a month-long vacation in the Far East, to cope given his advanced age and deteriorating health”, and the fact that he also had a crumbling economy to contend with.
His enemies at home and abroad, might well see the hand of the god of democracy in all Mugabe’s gifts – giving him a work book that will fell him.
And, given the shambolic state of Zimbabwe’s economy, it would not be surprising that like many other leaders – perhaps none better currently than France’s Francois Hollande – seeking success abroad becomes a very tempting solace from failure at home.
The gift of geography
In this regard, Mugabe is helped by geography. He rules in a neighbourhood that presently has few leaders who can outshine him in a significant way. South Africa’s and global icon Nelson Mandela is dead. His mercurial but very cerebral successor Thabo Mbeki was long dispatched by the current president Jacob Zuma, who doesn’t measure to Mugabe in intellect the way Mbeki did.
And Zuma’s endless scandals, numerous woman troubles, and what critics slate as general incompetence of his leadership, have turned him into a laughing stock and fodder for cartoonists.
The only other veteran leader with the stature that might have rivalled Mugabe’s is Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos.
However, dos Santos was made complacent by Angola’s vast oil and other mineral wealth, that he and his family have gorged on shamelessly. And the older and more sickly he has grown, the grumpier and more inward-looking he has become.
Zambia is in disarray following the death of Michael Sata last year, another formidable but elderly leader.
The rest of the region is littered with new leaders: In Mozambique, newly elected Filipe Jacinto Nyusi will only be sworn in in a few weeks. In Malawi, Arthur Peter Mutharika has not made one year in the presidency, since he led the opposition to a scrappy election victory in May 2014.
In Botswana, the country has kept its record for stability, and president Ian Khama was easily re-elected in October. However, he is aloof, and given to brave plain-speaking, as often as he misspeaks.
A president’s wife search
In 2010, the Botswana president, who is now 61 but still single, joked that he was not married yet because he was still searching for the perfect wife, “tall, slim and beautiful [in a country known for short, heavy set women]…(not one who) may fail to pass through the door, breaking furniture with her heavy weight and even break the vehicle’s shock absorbers.”
A week ago, he said he was still in the market for a bride.
Though Khama can be outspoken on Africa’s failings, something someone at that level needs to do, he is prickly and sometimes comes across as a spoilt brat, a trait that seems to derive from being the son of independent Botswana’s first president, the venerated Sir Seretse Khama.
Khama seems too disdainful of Africa and some of its ways; never attending AU meetings, and rarely bothering to project his nation’s potential soft power.
That has left “Uncle Bob” to own the southern African hill like the lion king of African folklore.
Meanwhile in the rest of Africa, he remains a crowd favourite. Many Africans who are too polite or politically correct, live out their anti-western resentment through Mugabe who doesn’t hold anything back in his denunciation of “imperialists”.
A few years ago, Mugabe was too toxic, and there were some even in Africa who wouldn’t touch him with a 10 metre-long pole.
Not any longer. With his baggage, at 91, and to be in the place where he is, very many would envy him.
If he were to exit the scene this year, it would be a good note to go out on.