When I read last Friday of the death of Zimbabwe's vice president John Nkomo at the age of 78, it occurred to me that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is 88, has outlasted nearly every friend and foe in his long and very eventful career as a bush warrior, politician and African ruler.
Nkomo was the third vice president in 13 years that President Mugabe would outlive; he succeeded Vice President Joseph Msika who died in 2009. Msika himself succeeded great old man Joshua Nkomo, who died in office in 1999.
In March 1980, Robert Gabriel Mugabe assumed power as Prime Minister of newly independent Zimbabwe after two decades in the bush as a guerrilla fighter who survived many assassination attempts, policy zigzags by the White-settler Rhodesian government as well as torturous negotiations hosted by the British colonial overlord at Lancaster House in London. I was one of the students who celebrated Mugabe's victory throughout the night. Today after 33 years I have my doubts, at least about the longevity.
Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary who organized the 1979 talks at Lancaster House, is now 93 and may hardly remember Robert Mugabe. The American Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, who played an important role in Zimbabwe's transition, left that post 32 years ago. Lord Soames, the British administrator who presided over the transition to Zimbabwe's independence, died 16 years ago but Mugabe is still ruling.
Robert Mugabe has seen the backs of almost all his enemies in the independence struggle. Lt General Peter Walls, who commanded the Rhodesian Army that pursued Mugabe's ZANLA guerillas up and down the bushes of Mashonaland, died two years ago. Ian Smith, leader of the rebel White settlers who declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence [UDI] in 1965, died 5 years ago. Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who did the "internal settlement" with Ian Smith, died 2 years ago. The other black collaborator of internal settlement, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, died 13 years ago.
Robert Mugabe has seen off his ZAPU partners turned rivals, then enemies and partners again. Apart from commander in chief Joshua Nkomo, ZIPRA's top commanders that fought Ian Smith from Zambia namely Lt Gen Dumiso Dabengwa and Major General Lookout Masuku were imprisoned by Mugabe in 1981 for allegedly concealing weapons at a ZAPU-owned farm outside Bulawayo. Masuku died 26 years ago but Dabengwa is still around.
General Josiah Tongogara, the famed commander of Mugabe's own ZIPRA, died four months before Mugabe assumed power. Most of the early Zimbabwean ministers are gone now. Dr Stan Mudenge died last October. The great former Finance Minister Dr Enos Nkala is still around, as is Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. Reverend Canaan Banana, the first president, died ten years ago.
If Mugabe looks to the east, his great comrade President Samora Machel of Mozambique died in a plane crash in 1986 and even his successor Juaquim Chissano left power 8 years ago. President Kenneth Kaunda, who provided military bases to ZIPRA guerillas in Zambia, left power 22 years ago. Current President Michael Sata is his fourth successor. If Mugabe were to look to the south west, his sparsely populated neighbour Botswana has seen off three presidents since 1980: Sir Seretse Khama, Quett Masire and Festus Mogae. President Ian Khama is the fourth.
Across the once fortified border in South Africa, Die Groot Krokodil President P.W. Botha was the president when Mugabe came to power. Botha died 7 years ago and apartheid rule itself ended 19 years ago but Mugabe is still here. Namibia, his robust SADCC partner to the west, was still a colony under brutal South African occupation when Mugabe came to power. Old man Sam Nujoma, leader of SWAPO who like Mugabe waged a guerilla war from the bushes of southern Angola with much help from Fidel Castro, only came to power 10 years after Mugabe. He left after 15 years and that was 8 years ago!
In Sam Nujoma's old host Angola, Mugabe only just missed Agostinho Neto, who died in 1979. Mugabe is however in a hot Methuselean race with Neto's successor Eduardo Dos Santos, who still rules Angola. All the great men who ruled East Africa when Mugabe came to power are now gone. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere left Tanzania's presidency in 1985 and has had three successors. Kenya's redoubtable Daniel arap Moi is long gone and Uganda's Milton Obote was banished again from power 27 years ago.
Far up the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, Mugabe's great old friend Lt Col Mengistu Haile Mariam has been out of power for 22 years now. In fact, he is sheltering there in Zimbabwe under Mugabe's protection. Meles Zenawi, the man who succeeded him and pressed Mugabe very hard to repatriate Mengistu, himself ruled for 20 years and died last year, but Mugabe is still here.
Many small African dictators will be shaking their heads at Mugabe's longevity. In our neighbour Chad here, Goukouni Ouddeye was still heading the GUNT when Mugabe came to power. Gaddafi's boy Hissene Habre sneaked in in 1981 and banished Goukouni, but Habre himself was banished 10 years later by President Idriss Deby. That was 22 years ago but Mugabe is still there.
Even bigger African rulers must be in awe of Mugabe's longevity in power. From Ghana, Dr Hilla Limann attended Mugabe's inauguration in his flowing white robes and white cap. Jerry Rawlings, who banished Hilla Limann in 1981 and went on to rule again for 21 years, has had three successors since then [John Kufour, Atta Mills and John Mahama] but Mugabe is still here.
From Nigeria here, Alhaji Shehu Shagari went in his flowing robes and very long kubbe cap to attend Mugabe's party. Old man Obasanjo, who left the scene 6 months earlier, must had been surprised to see Mugabe when he returned to power in Nigeria 20 years later. A string of Nigerian Army Generals who ruled between 1983 and 1999 all danced on the stage for awhile, retreated and left Mugabe. When General Babangida's convoluted transition program that Chief Gani Fawehinmi said was amended 110 times was still unfolding, Mugabe was there all the while and he is still here 20 years after IBB stepped aside.
Actually, Robert Mugabe has outlasted even the Egyptian Pharaohs. Many people think President Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt since time immemorial but Anwar Sadat was still ruling Egypt when Mugabe came to power. He must have condoled with the Egyptians for what happened at the parade ground in October 1981. Whoever thought that anyone will see the back of Muammar Gaddafi? He had been ruling Libya for 11 years when Mugabe came to power, but Gaddafi is now gone and Mugabe is still here.
Apart from Angola's Dos Santos, the only African ruler who will nearly equal Mugabe in Methuselean record is our neighbour Cameroun's Paul Biya. He came to power a few months after Mugabe when a French doctor tricked Ahmadou Ahidjo and told him that he was about to die.
Even among the world's leaders beyond Africa, most of the ones who gave Robert Mugabe a good run for his devalued Zimbabwean dollar are gone, including Fidel Castro, General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, Syria's Hafiz al-Assad and Iraq's Sadam Hussein al-Tikriti. Far as I can see, only King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand has been around longer than Mugabe, though he is a ceremonial monarch.
Mugabe has even seen off two Saudi Kings, King Khalid who died in 1982 and King Fahd who died in 2005. French presidents are imperial and often long-lasting, but Mugabe saw off four of them [Giscard D'Estaing, Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy]. Mugabe saw off four British Prime Ministers [Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown], and he also saw off five American Presidents [Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton and George Bush Junior]. Look, Mugabe even saw off five general secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party, namely Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. This man Robert Mugabe reminds me of the Methuselah tree in California.