Not knowing how to quit the stage when the ovation is loudest is one of the banes of African presidencies. Once they become celebrated as heroes, the power, allure, perks and appurtenances of the office get into their heads and they begin to think they are the best thing their citizens discovered since sliced bread. They begin to think they are indispensable.
They contrive all sorts of creative ways to remain perpetually in power. They forget that in their struggle to get to power, they didn’t fight alone. They forgot that those underneath them have aspirations and ambitions too. They forget that they have subordinates and supporters who are angling for the presidency as proof of their own upward mobility in life. Those people, sensing that you do not want to leave, start to conspire against you. They may even challenge your authority or rebel directly against you. You put down their rebellion in the most brutal way because you know they know your secrets and the secret to your staying power. Essentially, you become a Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
How in earth does anybody enjoy being in one position (when it is not a company you own) for more than four years? I would be bored to death! Also, most reasonable people believe that if you stay too long in one position, you get too comfortable and you start cutting corners. It happens to everybody at their places of work; which is why employers rotate people around to create new challenges and new sets of motivating factors. You tend to think you already know everything and how best to do everything. Your mind is closed to new ideas. People who patronize your business know and see you as the alpha and omega for the company. They know what they need to do to win favors from you. Before you know it, you are steeped in corrupt practices. You become severely compromised. And when that happens, you are afraid to leave out of the fear that your successor will discover all your crimes and prosecute you
For all his notoriety, you’d be surprised to learn that Mugabe IS (as of the time of writing this, he is still under house-arrest and no successor has yet been announced) NOT the longest-serving leader of an African country, despite having ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. That ignoble title goes to Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang’ Nguema who has been ruling his country since 1979 after overthrowing his uncle. Nguema then made charges of nepotism against our own Buhari seem minor when he appointed his son, Teodoro ‘Teodorin’ Obiang’ Mangue, as Vice President last year. You know that that country of just 1.2 million people, less than half the population of Ibadan, is more or less a Limited Liability Company of the Obiangs…until a couple of soldiers will grow a pair of balls and decide to end that nonsense.
In the category of sit-tight African leaders are also presidents Dos Santos of Angola (also since 1979), Paul Biya of Cameroon (since 1982), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (since 1986), Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (since 1989) and Idriss Deby of Chad (since 1990). Clearly, something in the water that these leaders drink makes them believe they are the only ones destined, or possessing the monopoly of wisdom on how to govern their respective countries. Even in the light of apparent growing unpopularity amongst their people and more strident opposition to their rules, these leaders shamelessly dig in.
But Mugabe wasn’t always this unpopular. He was, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the doyen of African revolutionists when he led the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) to fight the white minority government of Ian Smith during the Rhodesian Bush War – the struggle which culminated in the overthrow of white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and the general elections of 1980 which Mugabe led the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) to win.
You could see Mugabe in nearly the same light as Nelson Mandela. He fought apartheid; fled to exile in Mozambique, went to jail for 10 years and won the election to rule the same country he fought to liberate. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Mandela, Mugabe was not unanimous in victory. He went after the white minority people and snatched their lands (forcibly at times) in a widely-criticized re-distribution of land exercise. He took farm lands from the original white owners and gave them to blacks, most of whom did not have the foggiest ideas or the financial wherewithal with which to operate profitable farms. This, of course, led to a steady decline in food production, and the country which was one time the bread basket of the region now became a basket, leaking food. You must have seen video clips of empty supermarket shelves and sparse foodstuff at the local markets. Hunger took over the country.
Yet, Mugabe continued to display the warped sense of entitlement that the country of 16 million people (less than that of Lagos State) is his private entity. For 37 years, he enjoyed the power to hire and fire every Zimbabwean. The military, an extension of the ZANU-PF, which he still leads (one might argue, until his final status is determined), was beholden to him until the coup happened. Even at 93 and clearly out of full sentience, Mugabe still called the shot. Or his wife did – which was, some have said, the catalyst for the coup that now has him under house arrest.
A coup…a military coup d’etat is an aberration…always an aberration, whether bloody or not. It is a change of government accomplished by the use of (or the threat to use) the State’s instrumentalities of coercion, particularly the military. Democrats all around the world abhor coups. Even with the glaring imperfections of their own democracies, the west has never hailed military coups (not even the ones they orchestrated), whether such coups toppled authoritarian, trigger-happy despots or saintly weaklings. At best, the west urges “quick and peaceful resolutions” of post-coup crises as is the case with Zimbabwe today.
The conundrum for every so-called democrat is clear: do you allow a brutal leader who is in full control of the military and manipulates the electoral system to sustain his stranglehold on the citizenry to remain in power? Or do you sponsor his violent removal (a coup) to free his people? If you can’t orchestrate a coup, do you give tacit encouragement or approval to home-grown rebellion to force the change to your idea of what democracy should look like?
And what should democracy look like that would satisfy the west? The kind that we have in Saudi Arabia where one family rules? The kind that we have in Israel where a whole people (the Palestinians) can’t have their own country? The one we have in Egypt? How come the west (in this case, just America) accepts China’s democracy but doesn’t respect Iran’s? Is Russia truly a democracy like we have in America? Is the British Prime Minister the product of the plurality of popular votes? Is the American President the product of one-man-one-vote?
The hypocritical, selective, self-serving condemnation of military coups by “democrats” from the west and those of us in Africa (including myself) does not proffer cogent solutions to the plague of eternal presidencies. Right now in Togo, the people are fighting to remove President Faure Eyadema who has been ruling them since 2005 and still wants to continue ruling them. Faure succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who, as a Sergeant, carried out the first coup that overthrew and killed the first post-independence leader of Togo in 1963. He installed a stooge as president but overthrew him too in 1967. Eyadema ruled Togo from 1967 until in death in 2005. In other words, between father and son, they have successively and consecutively ruled the same country for 50 years, except the 20-day inconsequential interregnum during which Bonfoh Abass held office. In other words, if you are 60 years old, the only leader of Togo you really can remember is an Eyadema. And on the other side of Nigeria, you have Cameroon. If you are 60 years old, you only have a vague recollection of one Ahmadou Ahidjo as Cameroonian president. Then you have Paul Biya. That’s it.
So you have all these old hags who will not voluntarily leave power and they have full control of their militaries. How else do you remove them without a coup…a bloody coup for that matter? In the current case of Mugabe where the military seemed to have shown a lot of deference to the “father of the nation” by not killing him outright but placing him under house arrest and pleading with him to step down with whatever is left of his dignity, Mugabe is still proving difficult. Were he to have been shot on the first day of the coup, all of us would have roundly condemned “the mindless killing of a harmless” nonagenarian. Yet, there is no other way to remove him.
I detest military coups with every fiber of my being. In fact, I detest the use of the military for law enforcement crises within a country. I believe that a country’s military is primarily to defend the territorial integrity of the country against all threats. I can understand the use of the military when the territorial integrity of the nation is threatened by armed internal groups like Boko Haram, MASSOB and IPOB. But I believe that it demeans and diminishes the military when it is unleashed against unarmed and unorganized civil unrests. I believe the psyche of a truly professional soldier is forever damaged the moment he opens fire on defenseless citizens of his own country. But how do you remove presidents who have made a peaceful electoral change impossible to achieve?