Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has served in an executive capacity as head of the country’s government for 34 years.
In the process, he has come to be viewed as both an icon of African liberation struggles against colonialism as well as an impediment to post-independence developmental progress.
At the age of 90, Mugabe no longer just represents his own generation, but at least two of them, not only by way of his own participation in the liberation of his own country and Africa but also by way of his example of how to lead a post-independence African government.
He is regularly applauded when he goes to public events in African countries, not least because he has come to represent one of the old guard of African liberation struggles.
Of those African leaders who can claim to have been close to the beginning of liberation struggles, Mugabe stands side by side with Abdel Azziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and Armando Guebuza of Mozambique. The latter three have however not been at the helm of their respective countries for the entirety of the period since national independence. In fact all of them came to power well after their respective countries independence.
So Zimbabwe’s long serving President is unique in that he remains the only immediate post-independence head of government who is still serving in the same capacity in contemporary African politics. And controversially so.
Under his tenure as head of both the Zimbabwean state and its government, Mugabe has presided over periods of stability, allegations of ethnic cleansing, neo-liberal economic policies as well as allegations of human rights violations.
He has also been applauded in the country and on the continent for remaining true to some of the fundamental objectives of the liberation struggle, even if radically or expediently so. Particularly where it concerns the issue of addressing colonial imbalances over and about land ownership.
Despite the demonization or praise, Mugabe is at the end of his long political career. From liberator to government leader who has failed to make his country a model of economic success and back to a re-imagined liberator role again, the Zimbabwean president is now at the long anticipated twilight of his political career.
Even if one is an aficionado of the man, it is well nigh impossible that he can continue – at least coherently – until the end of his current presidential term.
The emerging question has been for both locals and the international community: “Who takes over after Mugabe?”
An initial answer to that question resides in the new Zimbabwean constitution wherein his successor is generally deemed to be his first vice president. Currently this is Vice President Joice Mujuru, a liberation war veteran who has served in every cabinet since 1980. In terms of Zimbabwe’s new constitution she is automatically in line to succeed Mugabe should he become incapacitated or retire. She will however also require a nomination from her party in order to serve out any remainder of Mugabe’s term.
It is however the succession to Mugabe as party President and First Secretary of Zanu PF that is much more contentious. Two factions have emerged, one led by Mujuru and the other by current Minister of Justice, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He has also been in cabinet since 1980. Both have however publicly denied leading any such factions and have also pledged loyalty to the incumbent.
The dilemma of Mugabe’s succession is therefore primarily a problem for the ruling party. It has known no other leader since the late 1970s and all attempts to remove him from office in between have been futile. It is only largely due to his advancement in age and the inevitable health problems that come with it that have made the succession issue much starker.
Zanu Pf is due to hold an elective congress in December this year and that, perhaps, is where it will become clearer as to who is likely to succeed its nonagenarian leader. Barring an instruction from Mugabe himself to exclude her, Mujuru is likely to retain the post of second vice president and by dint of the same, remain in line to succeed Mugabe.
The more significant question however is what the impact of Mugabe’s departure from political office will mean for Zimbabwe. If it is a smooth succession, that is, one that is foreseen and understood, with Mugabe deliberately handing over power, it will not affect the broader political environment. In fact it will probably lead to a new engagement paradigm for Zimbabwe in international relations and politics.
If it is sudden, due to physical incapacity or other unforeseen circumstances, it will cause some political anxiety within the ruling party and in the country. But given the constitutional clauses that outline how succession is undertaken, together with the two-thirds majority Zanu PF has in Parliament, the anxiety will only be in the corridors of power and not widespread. Even the opposition will probably applaud his departure without gaining any new political impetus.
And that sums up Mugabe’s legacy, always maintaining a benevolent but repressive political stability in the country while at the same time refusing to understand that because time and politics are intertwined, at one point or the other a leader has to make way for others. Sooner rather than later.
At this stage, it would be too early to say the country will miss him when he leaves political office. It has known only him as its president and one would be hard placed to measure how much he would be missed until a successor president assumes office.