Saturday, 23 December 2017

No.53 - Robert Mugabe and the fragility of power

"Blow, winds, blow!" (c) Dan Wylie
Some friends have asked whether I am going to write about the Zimbabwe situation. After all, I am ‘from there’, so I should, no? As it happens, I have no more an inside track on developments there than any other outside observer, though I have followed events with great interest. I plan to go to Zim soon, and will report back on my experiences.

In the meanwhile, anyone who has any kind of historical consciousness will be neither surprised by Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s ouster, nor particularly utopian about the immediate future. We have to be grateful that it has happened with minimal bloodshed and public upheaval, while recognising that the coup consists of little more than a shuffle amongst the incumbent stalwarts of the party. Emmerson Mnangagwa has been the staunchest securocrat of them all, the organiser-in-chief behind the suppression of ZAPU and the Ndebele from even before 1980, more viciously in the 1980s, including the Entumbeni clashes of 1980-81, and the massacres of Gukurahundi (his denials notwithstanding), the serially rigged elections. His recently announced cabinet does not have a man in it under the age of 65; despite their pragmatic noises since the coup, this doesn’t feel like a team that is going to radically change direction to reboot production, resolve the cash crisis, open up genuine reconciliatory dialogues to address the buried past, or transition smoothly to truly transparent electoral democracy. We can but wait and see.

Meanwhile, I share the national delight that at least RGM (the Rogue Grand Manipulator) and his poisonous wife have been sidelined. As it happens, I have been reading Stuart Doran’s great doorstopper history of ZANU(PF), Kingdom, Power, Glory, which was published before the coup but offers a densely-documented backdrop to it – especially Mugabe’s willingness to use violence at any point to gain his ends.  Doran cites Mugabe himself, speaking in 1981:

Our methods will differ according to the situation. If a situation warrants we use vicious methods, I can assure you that we will use vicious methods. ... If other people are planning coups, planning revolts, then let them be warned that we are well prepared for such eventualities. Once again, if it is to be an eye for an eye, well, we will remove two eyes for one eye. (Doran, p.270)

Talk about being hoist with one’s own realpolitik petard! It is only too ironic that Mugabe’s deposition, for which he seemed wholly unprepared, happened so non-violently – not the norm amongst the world’s tyrants. There has to be some psychological link between tyranny and short-sightedness – for who, gazing down the bloodied steppes of history, would dare become one? A sorry outcome would seem fore-ordained: look at Caesar, Hitler, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Mengistu – overthrown by outsiders they have provoked into war, assassinated by trusted brothers, driven into exile... Live by the sword, etc.

"Et tu, Brute?" (c) Dan Wylie
It so happened that I have also recently seen an excellent Al Jazeera documentary on the 2016 trial of Chadian strongman Hissène Habré. At almost the same moment as Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade was killing off Ndebele ‘dissidents’ in the south of his country, Habré was doing the same in the south of Chad. Like Mugabe, Habré had come to power through the entanglements of a civil war, occasioned in part by colonial boundaries having shackled together historically incompatible peoples in a new ‘nation’. Like Mugabe, he was well-educated in the ways of the West – each gained several degrees –  which helped persuade some powers to overlook his obvious abuses. Habré was propped up by France and the United States because they could use him as an ally against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who had invaded disputed territories on Chad’s northern border. With French help, Gaddafi was repulsed, eventually to meet his own bloody demise. Habré himself lasted only eight years as leader of his horrifically abusive one-party regime, from 1982 until his overthrow by Idriss Déby in 1990. Habré fled into exile in Senegal, but his crimes, which included rape, sexual slavery and ordering the deaths of 40,000 people, followed him. After protracted negotiations to get him extradited from Senegal, Habré was finally brought to trial by a supra-national African court. On 30 May 2016 he became the first ex-dictator to be convicted of crimes against humanity in such a court.

It has often been asserted that Mugabe had been clinging gamely and lamely onto power because he is afraid of being hauled up before such an international court himself. The question may now be moot, seeing as how his former henchman, now usurper-successor, Mnangagwa has granted him immunity – though on what divinely-appointed judicial authority one man can immunise another for mass murder is a perennial mystery. And one doubts that conscience is much of a driving force amongst such people. Mugabe will probably, like some other ex-tyrants, die in muffled and luxurious isolation.

It also so happened that while the Zimbabwe coup was unfolding I was marking exam scripts – students responding to a question on Shakespeare’s magical play The Tempest. Nowadays one is pressured to interpret even such ‘old’ works in a ‘decolonising’ or ‘post-colonial’ context – or be deemed irrelevant, if not white supremacist. Since the story involves an Italian-European magician, Prospero, taking over an island from its pair of native inhabitants, Caliban and Ariel, The Tempest is indeed susceptible to such a reading. (Another colonised islander, Caribbean writer Aimé Cesaire, did just that with his counter-play, Un Tempête, which our students also study.)

"Monster/Magician" (c) Dan Wylie
But The Tempest is about nothing if not power and usurpation of power: Prospero is exiled on the island following his overthrow in Naples by his very own brother; and not only the oppressed Caliban is scheming to overthrow him – so are some of Prospero’s own countrymen, themselves shipwreck victims. This is, it seems, Shakespeare’s symbolic vision of history: cyclical dislocation and chaos breed unseemly squabbles for position and patronage – not to mention getting the girl.

As I’m sure many commentators have observed before, Shakespeare was positively obsessed with the usurpation of kingly or tyrannical power, returning to the theme in play after play. Hamlet opens famously with the eponymous hero confronting the ghost of his father, murdered and usurped by his own brother. Macbeth strives in vain to atone for his lethal royal sins and avoid being ousted by his erstwhile lieutenants. Julius Caesar is assassinated by men he has always known, including even his closest colleague, Brutus. King Lear (sort of) voluntarily hands over power to his daughters, but the unexpected consequences drive him into crazed exile, raging at the storm which is also the upheaval in his mind. (What a scene: I was immediately provoked into painting tableaus from these plays!) The History plays – all those Henrys – are about little else than the moral legitimacy or otherwise of kingship, and the mechanisms by which one ruler takes over from the last. In Henry V Shakespeare penned the immortal, rightly oft-quoted line about the fragility of any tyrant’s hold on power:

            “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

If I remember right, I first encountered that line as the title of a biography of King Hussein of Jordan. Anyone – decolonised or otherwise – who argues that Shakespeare is irrelevant or passé has either never truly read him, or is too narrow-minded to understand. Few writers are more incisively observant about those psychological blind-spots that make the lust for power both so dangerous and so fragile.

In contemplating these commonalities of human political behaviour, the patterns that go on repeating themselves, century after dispiriting century, I always find myself going back to another doorstopper book, St Augustine’s City of God, written around the year 400:
"His father's ghost" (c) Dan Wylie

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? ... If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralised that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity. (IV.5.4)

Augustine had your measure, RGB, 1700 years ago. Please read the script, Emmerson.


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