Letter from Harare: why Mugabe is unlikely to share Gaddafi's grisly fate
The ageing dictator's greatest enemy is not an army of rebels but failing health.
Guardian Mondy 21 ovtober 2011
The jacaranda trees are blooming in Harare, draping its broad avenues with canopies of purple and green. The shops are bustling, hotels and restaurants are often full, children are at school, young couples are walking in the park. No sign of a revolution here.
Coming to Zimbabwe after two spells in Libya this year, I felt like they were not merely the length of a continent apart, but on different planets. While north Africa has been convulsed by revolution, life in Zimbabwe in 2011 has continued to flow in a comparatively gentle, uneventful way.
President Robert Mugabe, immovable for three decades, has little cause to be kept awake at night by last week's chilling images of a bloody, battered and bewildered Muammar Gaddafi pleading for his life. Could it happen here? Not likely.
I wondered why not. After all, Zimbabweans (led by Mugabe among others) rose up a generation ago to overthrow Rhodesia's white minority regime.
"Fear," explained one former minister in Mugabe's government. Past public marches have been brutally crushed. Earlier this year 46 activists here were arrested and charged with treason for merely watching a video of the uprising in Egypt.
Okay Machisa, director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, told me: "The Arab spring did not go down well with the Mugabe regime. Jailing those activists was a way of saying we don't want people to go on the streets and demonstrate."
But there was plenty of fear in Gaddafi's Libya too.
What's different is that Zimbabwe offers the illusion, at least, of freedom of speech and democracy. On street corners vendors sell independent newspapers with virulently anti-Mugabe headlines and editorials. (TV and radio remain a different story. Some newspapers too. One ruefully exclaimed: "If only British politicians were as brave and selfless as Robert Gabriel Mugabe!")
Whereas Libyans had no hope of removing Gaddafi except by desperate force, Zimbabweans can channel their efforts into a political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The MDC possibly acts as a sponge, soaking up revolutionary fervour that would otherwise find expression on the streets.
I visited the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has survived beatings and electoral fraud to become prime minister in a fraught power-sharing agreement with Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.
He lives in a relatively modest three-bedroom house with a big, English-style garden surrounded by a high wall with razor wire. The sound of birds and crickets fills the air. We sat in a back office where an old campaign poster adorned the wall and Bill Clinton's autobiography was among books on the shelves.
Does Tsvangirai envy the Arab spring? "No. It's their situation and circumstances and conditions that dictated behaviour. One of the fundamental things that I can say is that you cannot suppress people for ever. One thing to learn from that is people will always cry for freedom. It is universal.
"We are in a different situation, we have different circumstances and we have got our own way of dealing with our situation. That is why the MDC has pursued change without bloodshed and I think we are correct."
Elections are expected in the next year or so, and with them the fear of a return to violence and chaos.
For Mugabe seems unwilling to ever let go of power, not least, some claim, because he fears prosecution for past crimes under international law.
At 87, Mugabe is the oldest member of Africa's ageing dictators club.
Three of the 10 longest serving leaders have fallen this year – Ben Ali of Tunisia ruled for 23 years, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt for 30 and the longest, Gaddafi, for nearly 42.
But all were in the Arab north. South of the Sahara, in "black Africa", the winds of change are mere zephyrs. Still going strong are Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (32 years), Jose Santos of Angola (32), Mugabe (31), Paul Biya of Cameroon (29), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (25), King Mswati III of Swaziland (24) and Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso (24).
There has been some mild turbulence for some of them this year but nothing to frighten the presidents' horses. Far from Gaddafi's grisly demise, Mugabe seems destined to go quietly into that good night. His greatest enemy is not the gun-toting revolutionary with a mobile video camera, but time.
The octogenarian president makes mysterious trips to Singapore for medical treatment, has been photographed falling asleep at meetings and, according to a US cable released by WikiLeaks, is suffering prostate cancer that could spread and kill him by 2013.
Gossip about his ailing health now grips Harare's bars, diplomatic circles and international newsrooms already transfixed by 93-year-old Nelson Mandela's pulse. I asked one analyst if all this speculation is paralysing politics in Zimbabwe. He replied: "Mugabe's health is politics in Zimbabwe."
Tsvangirai gave this view: "President Mugabe's health is a national question, a national concern. Why? Because when you have a partner whose state of health is unpredictable, and that partner holds the key to the unity of the opponent, what is likely to be the outcome should he die is instability in the party, which leads to instability in the country."
It was a question that arose with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and now again with Gaddafi in Libya. Once the linchpin of dictatorship is yanked out, must infighting and anarchy follow? Some believe that Mugabe, whose reign is as old as independent Zimbabwe itself, is the toxic glue that holds his party and country together.
But others point to neighbouring Zambia, where recent elections saw the president accept defeat and a democratic transition of power. Rupiah Banda is little known around the world and his unbloody, unspectacular fall gained only a fraction of the coverage of Gaddafi. But it may have been just as revolutionary in its way – and just as unnerving to that cabal of ageing dictators.