THE old maxim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” sums up the 37-year rule of the deposed president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and suggests why his ultimate downfall was inevitable. Not surprisingly, the overthrow of Africa’s infamous and longest serving despot whose actions have destroyed the lives of so many has attracted huge international media attention.
The dramatic recent events which led to his humiliating resignation this week were precipitated by his earlier sacking of his vice president in an unwise attempt to prepare the ground for his wife’s eventual succession to the presidency. There had also been well-substantiated accusations that she was already pulling the strings of government through her frail 93-year-old husband and was enjoying an unacceptably lavish life style.
Mugabe’s authority crumbled with lightning speed after intervention by the nation’s armed forces and his resignation followed preparations by his own ruling party, ZANU-PF, to remove him from the presidency by impeachment on the grounds he had become a “source of instability” and had disrespected the rule of law.
Unlike military action to overthrow elected leaders elsewhere in Africa, the leaders of Zimbabwe’s armed forces made it clear they had not mounted a coup to take over the government but were seeking Mugabe’s removal by constitutional means following his expulsion of the vice president, and there was no violence or bloodshed.
To most observers, the writing had been on the wall for a long time because Mugabe had become a tyrannical dictator who had persecuted his own people in order to stay in power and had presided over a disastrous collapse of his country’s economy.
His brutal oppression of political opponents and perceived enemies - involving rigged elections, harassment and intimidation, torture, abduction and murder - is well documented, not least the tribal massacres in Matabeleland during the 1980s in which as many as 20,000 civilians died. In addition, the forcible eviction of white farmers from their land without compensation had resulted in unspeakable violence and killing and had also irreparably damaged the nation’s thriving agricultural sector.
All this had led over the years to massive emigration to South Africa and elsewhere creating a Zimbabwean diaspora. But, before the onset of his corrupt and murderous rule, Mugabe had preached reconciliation, national unity and a free market economy when he first came to power after winning a landslide election victory in 1980 - and Zimbabwe had briefly prospered as a result.
This had followed the 1979 Lancaster House conference in London when Britain brokered a deal to bring about black majority rule in the former colony of Rhodesia which had proceeded with its illegal unilateral declaration of independence in 1965.
Unlike other British territories in Africa, Rhodesia had been a self-governing colony, but it had acted outside the law in breaking away from Britain which finally lost patience with the rebellious white minority government and forced it to negotiate.
Mugabe was regarded by his own supporters and by other African nations as a liberation hero who had taken part in the bush war against minority rule. However, he soon turned into an unprincipled and destructive villain after the switch from a British-style prime-ministership to an executive presidency and, in effect, a one-party state.
The reaction in Zimbabwe to Mugabe’s fall from power has been predictably ecstatic because many feared him but did not like him and many have been celebrating the prospect of a new dawn.
Reportedly, on return from his short exile in South Africa, the expelled vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, will be sworn in as president to serve until elections scheduled for next year. He has pledged to be a voice for all Zimbabweans in a new democracy. Some people are sceptical since he was Mugabe’s right-hand man and brutal enforcer for many years. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the new president will take the country in a fresh direction and whether the so-called new ‘popular power’ can hold him fully to account. It also will be interesting to watch the public reaction to the grant to both Mugabe and his wife of immunity from prosecution.
The sudden ending of Mugabe’s hideously long period of harsh and failed leadership could well serve as a lesson for other dictators in Africa and elsewhere. Likewise, it could be a cautionary tale for political leaders of young democracies - particularly in small developing countries which lack the well-established checks and balances in older and larger democratic nations - to reject corruption and the abuse of power.
Even in our own country, where we enjoy a system of democratic government bequeathed to us by Britain through our Constitution, we need constantly to be on guard against our leaders arrogating to themselves extra powers inconsistent with the interests of the people who elect them.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, only the people themselves can govern the governors.