Africa: What Mugabe's Troubles Teach Us About a Dictator's Art Form

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, DR Congo's Joseph Kabila, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, Congo Brazzaville's President Dennis Sassou-Nguesso, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Cameroon's Paul Biya.
15 November 2017

This week has offered a feast of dramatic news, thanks to the events in the fair land of Zimbabwe.

On Tuesday, tanks and armoured cars were seen moving towards the capital Harare, sparking off speculation of a coup a against 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe, who has tormented the country for most of his 37-year rule.

The moves came a day after the head of the armed forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, warned that the military was prepared to "step in" to end a purge of supporters of Vice-President Emerson Mnangagwa, who was sacked last week.


Mnangagwa, a liberation war hero who enjoyed loyalty in the army, has long been viewed as Mugabe's likely successor.

Mnangagwa's supporters and the military, viewed his dismissal as a purge of independence and liberation-era figures to pave the way for Mugabe to hand power to his tempestuous wife Grace.

Whichever way this ends, it was remarkable that, on social media, at least, there was wide support from sections of Zimbabweans, fed up with the depredations of a military coup.

Coups are supposed to have fallen out of fashion in Africa, too, and that anyone should support one even in the basket case conditions of Zimbabwe, tells a lot about the level of desperation in that once great country.

At a wider level, the dilemma of the corrupt and cruel African despot was fully on display.

The primary problem they have to deal with is what to do with the people. They usually face a few options. First, is to starve and impoverish them, so they are too broken or grateful for crumbs, to rise against you.


This was the route taken by the venal Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo. Mugabe must have picked a few pages from his book.

The second is to ply them with bread, butter, and monuments of glory, so much that many become content to trade freedom for comfort -- without you having to resort to the whip.

Because most African countries have been or are still poor, this model has not fully been implemented anywhere, but a few have a watered down version of it. Asia has had more success with it.

The next problem is what to do with the security services, especially the military. Here, there are three general approaches. The first was again the Mobutu model.

Here, you don't pamper the military, leaving them poorly equipped and paid. To make a living, they have to prey on the population.

The result is that they become so hated, the people can never join them in an uprising.

At the same time, they will not have the resources -- the cars and fuel -- to drive from their bases around the country and converge on the capital to seize power.


It's an approach that works, until as in the case of Mobutu, you provoke a determined neighbour such as Rwanda. In 1997, Rwanda led Congolese rebels and ousted Mobutu all the way in Kinshasa. The soldiers will not take a bullet for you.

It was, therefore, interesting that the Zimbabwean military had tanks and armoured cars, and the fuel to run them, although one of them, not surprisingly, broke down.

The other approach is to treat the military like nobility, with special privileges and a vast stake in the economy.

Nowhere has this been perfected into an art form in Africa than in Egypt.

It works, but a military that is treated that way soon rises above narrow partisan squabbles, and because it has so much to lose, will not fight back the people once a million of them come out on the streets, as the revolutionaries did in Egypt in 2011 and ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.


The successful model for Big Men, is somewhere in the middle, and as seen in Uganda, and which also kept Muammar Gaddafi in power in Libya for a record 42 years, is to take care of the army just about enough, but set up a well-paid, trained, and fed praetorian guard (call it special forces group, republican guard, or presidential guard), that has an edge over the regular military.

To top it, have a half-or-quarter democratic order, and allow a business class to emerge and grow rich, creating a constituency that provides you with endless cash to buy votes at fraudulent elections.

Mugabe, for all his seven university degrees, has just not done his despot's homework. He has lasted long, yes, but won't end well.

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