by Taylor Brodarick, Contributor | Forbes
If you reach back to your high school American history books, you may recall a watershed event that occurred in 1801. Having lost in the 1800 election, President John Adams peacefully surrendered the presidency and the new White House to Thomas Jefferson, a fellow leader in the American Revolution and his political rival. This event has been mentioned in previous essays mainly because it seems so remarkable despite how much we take it for granted. From 1801-2009, the incumbent party honored the election’s results and allowed the winning candidate to assume the presidency twenty-two times. With the exception of the Civil War, these elections did not result in armed conflict. However, in much of the world, it is a newsworthy event for the clique or person in power to voluntarily cede power to opponents.
Last week’s presidential election in Zimbabwe shows that Robert Mugabe will never relinquish the presidency to someone outside of his ZANU-PF party. Winning over 60% of the vote may have stemmed from voter fraud, intimidation by his security forces, a lack of a real majority for the opposition MDC, or some combination of each. The fact remains that his 33-year rule (the last 26 years as president) has ruined the country once called the “breadbasket of Africa,” and dashed any hope that it could continue developing into a prosperous democracy.
Mugabe’s disastrous and illegal land seizures of white-owned farms have made Zimbabwe a “no-go” zone for most foreign investment. His brutal suppression of political opponents and minority groups have turned the country into another dysfunctional kleptocracy. Reckless monetary policy drove runaway inflation of the Weimar Republic variety until the U.S. dollar was adopted as currency in 2009. Zimbabwe has become the modern textbook example of what happens when the money printing press goes into overdrive.
Despite all the corruption and monetary error, Mugabe has won three presidential elections in 11 eleven years by margins that would be considered landslides in the U.S. His three-time challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai (“Chang-uh-rye”) has been turned into Africa’s William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic nominee for president and three-time runner-up.
Why is anyone surprised? Tsvangirai couldn’t have been. Figure the election was already decided when anti-Mugabe voters were quoted by first name only. Apparently, disagreeing with the status quo dictates anonymity. A quotation surfaced from a senior military leader that they “would not accept someone who did not fight in the liberation struggle [the 1970s “Bush War” fought against the white minority-ruled Rhodesian state that preceded Zimbabwe].” Well, that pretty much showed the military was not going to allow new leadership in Harare.
Ok, now what? It has become obvious that the almost nonagenarian leader isn’t going anywhere. He continues to trade on his war credentials and thinks they excuse brutal behavior. Apparently Mugabe thinks it’s still 1978 and Ian Smith is still alive; leading the Rhodesian cause while the Selous Scouts hunt down his men with great success. Since this is not the case, it’s time Mugabe acknowledges that his revolutionary resume no longer matters when the economy has been destroyed.
Many black Zimbabweans weren’t even alive before he assumed power in April 1980. This country’s only hope is for a rational, younger leader in ZANU-PF to convince him a new direction is needed. Maybe someone in the party can explain to him that most of his 1970s/1980s rivals, black and white, are dead. Maybe someone under his tent can remind him that hyperinflation cooled when the U.S. dollar was accepted as currency, not because of sound policies. Maybe someone else who isn’t still trading on his accomplishments from over thirty-three years ago will realize that it’s pretty hard to attract investment and grow the economy through “indigensation,” or requiring all foreign companies to have majority ownership by black Zimbabweans (read: ZANU-PF insiders).
One wonders if even his own party elite know how terrible the descent into a corrupt police state has been for most citizens. Maybe new, younger leadership will wake people up to the fact that independence credentials shouldn’t trump competence and morality.
It’s hard to know who such a person is, or if they actually exist. You have to figure there is someone in the inner circle who realizes the status quo no longer suffices. Maybe that person can convince Mugabe to ease into retirement or delegate more power to other officials. What Zimbabwe really needs is someone on the inside to stand up and say ‘landslide victory’ rings hollow when you have driven the country into such a desperately poor and frightened state.
George Washington is often praised for not only refusing to be crowned king, but also for setting a precedent that leaders must give up their power at the end of term in order to maintain the integrity of representative democracy. The latter is true even if the people themselves would like to have let them stick around longer.
No one would dare compare Mugabe to Washington, but maybe the essential compromise here is to find someone “in-house” to start taking the reins of government soon. Washington was essentially a federalist (lower-case “f”), so the transition to John Adams marked a first step in a new country toward creating a truly competitive political system. The idea in Zimbabwe would be for Mugabe to first cede power to someone on the same side to get the rest of the country used to seeing it transferred. After that, the eventual handover of control to another party would more easily take place.
It is critical that this happen while the aged Mugabe is alive. Otherwise, his death would likely set the stage for a vicious, decidedly undemocratic power struggle. The odds of a military coup would likely rise significantly. External change seems highly unlikely for now in Zimbabwe. Someone in ZANU-PF must knock some sense back into the government and end this senseless dictatorship.