Why revolutionaries should not be president
In the waning days of the Mugabe Administration, the 93-year-old president who had ruled Zimbabwe for the better part of three decades, lost the support of his key allies.
His Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa who he had fired week’s prior purportedly at the behest of his wife Grace Mugabe who it was rumored had plans to step into the role. He lost the support of his military, which staged an intervention, which they were careful not to call a coup, to stop the First Lady from filling the role.
Perhaps most importantly he lost the support of the ruling party ZANU-PF, which ousted him after over 40 years as party leader and filed articles of impeachment against him, forcing him to reluctantly resign the Presidency.
The news was greeted in the streets of Harare with excitement and by the news media with images of the hopeful early days of his administration when the young charismatic revolutionary who had fought against white minority rule first ascended to office.
The rise and fall of Mugabe from freedom fighter to political prisoner and from iconoclast to the narcoleptic caricature he came to be known for in his latter days is a master class in why revolutionaries should not become presidents.
While they are great patriots who should be rewarded with the highest honors of the land, they have a unique sense of entitlement that makes them almost impossible to get rid of when they inevitably run out of favor or good ideas.
Following the guerrilla war and the Lancaster Agreement that gave way to the first inclusive elections, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s first black on 17 April 1980 with promises of economic reforms and racial reconciliation.
He built a cabinet team of rivals that included his main rival Joshua Nkomo and even some white Zimbabweans. He sought guidance from the United Kingdom (UK) to help train the revolutionaries who had now been thrust into a governing role.
With the help of the UK Armed Forces, he created a new Zimbabwean military, which integrated the freedom fighters and the Rhodesian security forces. Mugabe introduced free education and healthcare, which increased the adult literacy rate from 62% to 82%—still one of the highest on the continent—and child immunization rates from 25% to 92%.
He invested heavily in infrastructure and was committed to providing more access for black citizens previously disenfranchised under minority white rule while maintaining policies that ensured that the white minority didn’t flee the country.
Mugabe’s policies made him extremely popular at home and earned him tremendous goodwill abroad. But it wasn’t long before dissenting voices started to be silenced; Mugabe ordered crackdowns in the strongholds of his political rivals in which thousands of people were systematically massacred, starved and suppressed.
By 1987, the ruling ZANU-PF, which controlled parliament, had rewritten the country’s constitution to allow Mugabe to become president. The new position granted him unfettered powers to dissolve parliament, and removed term limits among other things. This decision ultimately cleared the way for Mugabe to be president for life, an opportunity he would gladly accept going on to become the oldest head of state in the world.
Much was made of the fact that his wife Grace’s ambitions for higher office was his ultimate undoing, but not enough has been said about the troubling trend of revolutionary entitlement that led to him stay as long as he did, even after overseeing perhaps the worst economic decline in modern history with inflation soaring to 500 billion percent at one point.
It is the idea that a leader who sacrifices everything to successfully lead a revolution has earned the presidency until they die or voluntary relinquish it.
Of the 16 current world heads of state that have spent 20 years or more in power, 8 of them are African and nearly all of them were part or leaders of armed rebellions, movements that were popular at the time. This figure does not include the recently ousted Mugabe and Gaddafi who was killed in an uprising in 2011 after 42 years at the helm in Libya.
Most of these cases follow a similar pattern. A corrupt, brutal, discriminatory or otherwise unpopular regime is ousted by a group of military officers or guerrilla fighters. Their victory is greeted with hope and some dissention – after all they are mostly the result of bloody conflicts, which are sometimes broken down along tribal lines.
There is an initial period of reforms, reconstruction, reconciliation, inflow of foreign assistance and an economic boom, which is welcomed by the global community, which values stability over anything.
Over time, however, legitimate voices of concern begin to be silenced as part of the “old guard” who are eager to return to the status quo. Before long, the president or prime minister moves to consolidate power, which their parliament or cabinet often grants either for fear of reprisal or for their own party/ selfish interest. Then comes the amendment of the constitution to extend or remove term limits on the president.
In the unlikely event that they do resign or serve out their terms, they hand down power through the party ranks, which mirror the revolutionary leadership structure, ensuring that leaders in the revolution are rewarded by their turn in power.
When they run out of ideas and the economies inevitably begin to underperform, they blame it on foreign governments who rightly or wrongly have an interest in changing governments, urging their citizens to stick with them, as they are the only ones who can truly defend the country against the intruders. We have seen this pattern from Libya to Liberia and Egypt to Ethiopia.