Will #Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe retire from politics in 2018?

 James N. Kariuki

Robert Mugabe is on a twin mission to challenge Western neo-colonial quests in Zimbabwe and to continue the indigenization of the country’s economy at all costs. For these reasons it is unlikely he will retire from politics in 2018

Zimbabwe’s last elections have given credence to the suspicion that President Robert Mugabe may never willingly give up power. But an American journalist has suggested that Mugabe can still be enticed to step up away from power in 2018 by offering him an honorable exit now. After all, he will be 94 at the end of his current term having been the country’s president for 38 years.

Kirt Shillinger of the Christian Science Monitor has a hunch that Mugabe could be talked into pledging now that he will retire from active politics in 2018 when his current term expires. Presumably, Mugabe could be lured into a nobler calling of cleansing his legacy and molding young leadership for a solid future Zimbabwe. Rather than remaining in divisive and acrimonious politics, one way of doing this is to spend time coaching Zimbabwe’s budding leadership that will take over after him.

Such speculation is fascinating but it is not convincing because it is premised on the incorrect assumption that Mugabe clings to power in search for political ambitions per se. Such a hypothesis does not fully grasp the dynamics at work in and around the Zimbabwe condition.


A more persuasive line of reasoning is one based on the realization that Robert Mugabe holds on to political power in part for dear life, literally. If he ever loses that power, odds are that the sins of his past will catch up with him. In that case, his fate is likely to be an abysmal free-fall to the rock bottom. Compelling evidence exists that, in Africa, the past can be brutally unforgiving.

Take the case of Zaire’s former President Mobutu Sese Seko. He died and was buried in Morocco in 1997 as a dejected, exiled and stateless person. The Congolese leadership was still too angry with him even in death to allow a grave in his motherland.

Similarly, Mugabe is mindful of the betrayed and deeply humiliated Charles Taylor. After a long trial at The Hague for his misdeeds as Liberia’s Head of State, he is now serving a 50 year sentence languishing in a British jail. He was handed over to the ICC by fellow Africans upon reneging on an immunity-from-prosecution deal.

Equally disconcerting were the woes of Frederick Chiluba in Zimbabwe’s neighboring Zambia. He relinquished power democratically to his former protégé, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, fully assured of exemption from prosecution for his missteps as the Head of State. However, it did not take long for that immunity to fizzle. Chiluba endured agonizingly long cases of graft before his death in June 2011.

Mugabe has been in power longer than Taylor or Chiluba. The winding road that he has travelled is infinitely longer, bloodier and full of intrigues. He must personally shield the skeletons in his closet as long as he can. After all, who on the African political landscape can be entrusted with such a volatile task? Even a villa on the Atlantic Ocean in South Africa, a sworn pledge of prosecution immunity, will not do.

Poor Robert Mugabe is a caged man. There is no place for him to hide except in Zimbabwe, but only under his iron rule. In this sense, clinging to power is a life-and-death-proposition to Bob. In that case he has some control. This obsession with personal safety will be just as strong in five years as it is now, if not more so. The impulse will still be there to control the instruments of state for personal security. You do not control state power is you are retired.


But, what about the issue of legacy? The national heritage that Mugabe would like to bequeath to Zimbabwe is now so enmeshed in him that it is virtually indistinguishable from what is strictly personal. It is inconceivable that Mugabe can imagine another Zimbabwean doing an equally good job as himself in upholding the national causes that he considers dear and non-negotiable. This becomes an additional major reason to cling to power.

What are these national crusades? First is a commitment never to submit to Western neo-colonial quests in Zimbabwe and, second, to keep pushing the indigenization of the country’s economy at all costs.

In the Western world Mugabe is demonized as a villain, devil incarnate that has unleashed staggering suffering on his fellow countrymen. Yet, the same Mugabe is adored as a hero in much of Africa and Global Africa. While regretting the human consequences in Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s admirers insist that he is entitled to another, more open-minded hearing. How can the national hero for Zimbabwe’s liberation simply turn around and tear his own country to shreds? It does not add up.


A Mugabe protagonist once protested that, short of a shooting war, international economic sanctions are the worst thing that can happen to any country. They are punitive measures that kill, starve and impoverish innocent people indiscriminately. Zimbabwe has been under international economic sanctions for nearly two decades sponsored by Britain and its allies. Is Mugabe a victim or a perpetrator of Zimbabwe’s economic strangulation?

Britain’s attitude towards Zimbabwe has been clearly tainted by Mugabe’s land reforms policy. Specifically, it has consistently shown a keen desire to see Mugabe’s so-called ‘forceful land seizures’ reversed and giving back the land to the previous white owners. Mugabe and his enthusiasts argue that the land was originally stolen from Africans. Why should they pay for their stolen property? That is the crux of Zimbabwe’s on-going war against the international community.

Since the launch of the land-seizure program, relations between Zimbabwe and Britain have deteriorated from bad to worse. In his view, Mugabe is locked in a do-or-die battle over a principle: affirming Zimbabwe’s right to undertake a land redistribution scheme that gives economic substance to the claims of political independence to a formerly colonized people. In short, Mugabe is following the famous dictum of his predecessor, Kwame Nkrumah, who once said: ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom and all things shall be added unto you.’

Mugabe faces a recalcitrant opponent in the British who clench their fists in the conviction that the evicted white farmers in Zimbabwe are the legitimate owners of the seized farms. Meanwhile Mugabe muses, over my dead body. It is the proverbial situation of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. There is no room for negotiations; it is a classic case of zero-sum-game.

But Britain has a huge advantage in having friends in high places like the UN Security Council. Hence the international economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s big war. To Mugabe, there is a profound built-in injustice in this real war. It is a war of the rich and powerful of the world versus the poor and the weak. In the general perception, that divide also captures the race factor.

It is public knowledge that Mugabe does not much care for the British for political and deeply personal reasons. Consequently, he tends to see political opponents in Zimbabwe as proxies of the English on a mission to execute the Anglo-American neo-colonial agenda. That mission is far from affirming the substance of democracy generally understood. It is to oust good ol’ Uncle Bob by hook or by crook and give back the repossessed land back to the white farmers.

In Zimbabwe’s scheme of things, electoral politics is the real war in microcosm. As Mugabe recently put it in his victory speech, ‘We have dealt the enemy a heavy blow, and the enemy is not (opposition leader Morgan) Tsavangirai. He is a mere part of the enemy. The real enemies are the British and their allies.’

To Mugabe, giving back the repossessed farms is anathema. Indeed he considers any hints in that direction treasonable. Now his ambition is to speed up his indigenization process of expanding economic control to black Zimbabweans by ceding to them majority shares in banks and big businesses.

That kind of political agenda is inconsistent with a man who would entertain retiring from active politics in 2018 to cleanse his legacy.

*James N. Kariuki

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