Source: OPEN FORUM: Facade of ‘sophisticated dictatorship’ falls | The Financial Gazette September 21, 2017
JOURNALISTS covering Africa have often been burdened by stereotypes handed down from old, often white ‘seasoned African hands.’
The list of stereotypical African dictatorial folly is long, but often includes lengthy rule, clinging to power by all means possible, brutally dealing with opponents, mansions in exotic lands, conflating the national purse with the family purse, Swiss bank accounts, dynastic tendencies and being — as Dave Cameron famously quipped to Elizabeth Windsor the other day — “fantastically corrupt”.
It also includes having roads, airports, national stadiums named after them and, the face on the money.
Most of these stereotypes are well earned. For instance, Africa leads the world with the highest number of presidents on the longest-ruling leader board.
Since his fall-out with his government’s traditional western backers at the turn of the century, mainly over his seizure of white-owned farms as well as charges of human rights abuses and election fraud, President Robert Mugabe has been called all sorts of names, including dictator.
But even his most strident critics begrudgingly credit the urbane veteran with some level of sophistication.
Chris Dell, formerly Washington’s man in Harare said in a July 2007 cable:
“Robert Mugabe has survived for so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalise the political dynamics and force everyone else to react to his agenda.”
For a long time, Mugabe’s cerebral style, oratorical flourishes as well as manners and sartorial tastes with strong western influences contributed to an image which, while he brutally dealt with his opponents and clung to power, never quite saw him being caricatured as a garden variety African autocrat. Until now.
In the final years of his lengthy rule, Mugabe seems intent on ticking the remaining boxes of the stereotype.
Revelations this week show Zimbabwe’s main airport will be renamed Robert Mugabe International Airport.
Last month, government declared Mugabe’s February 21 birthday a national holiday.
According to Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo, this was after 22 years of lobbying by Mugabe’s supporters.
August also saw government announcing plans to use taxpayer funds to finance a $1 billion Robert Gabriel Mugabe University in Mazowe, to be owned and run by a trust controlled by the president and his wife.
Always seeking refuge in humour, sardonic Zimbabweans joke about how, one could soon “land at Robert Mugabe airport, on Robert Mugabe Day, drive along Robert Mugabe avenue and enroll at Robert Mugabe University!”
Several years ago, Zimbabweans with an interest in continental affairs, or hectored mature leaders, found the surreal “I have only one wife” press conference by the then Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki, and his now late wife, Lucy, to be amusing.
Not many would have expected their own first lady to make a habit of publicly humiliating senior government officials, including two vice presidents, during televised rallies.
Mugabe makes no effort to conceal his contempt for Africa’s Francophone leaders.
Recently, he told his supporters in Bindura that, unlike some leaders in that part of the continent, he would not anoint his wife to succeed him.
While we cannot recall any African leader who has been succeeded by his spouse (yet), we take Mugabe’s point to be that he bears no dynastic ambitions.
He has, however, allowed his wife to interfere with his government’s executive functions.
At the same Bindura rally, Mrs Mugabe, who has made several claims of wielding real power, censured ministers she accused of discriminating against Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko in support of his co-Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mugabe cannot realistically argue that his wife’s doctorate degree, awarded in controversial circumstances, or her ascendancy to the top of the ruling party’s women’s league adhere to the strictest rules of meritocracy.
It is even harder to argue that the veneer of a sophisticated dictatorship has worn off.