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Zimbabwe celebrates as Mugabe falls - but future remains uncertain


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The joy which greeted the resignation of Robert Mugabe this week is a testament to a career – and a life – which has been sorely wasted.

Considerable goodwill accompanied Mugabe when he was first elected President of Zimbabwe thirty-seven years ago, but decades of corruption and thuggery have transformed him into a figure of global ill repute.

Mugabe was common amongst dictators in that he came to power in a democratic election, only to decide once in power that he was too comfortable to move. The 1980 elections, which saw Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) win by a landslide, were supervised by the British, ending decades of colonial rule in what was then called Rhodesia.

Initially, the new President sought to conciliate with the white population fearful that he was a Communist, if not so much with rival clans in regions such as Matabeleland, where under his orders, horrendous massacres took place.

What ‘went wrong’ with Mugabe, so to speak, has been the subject of much debate. Certainly, the death of his first wife, Sally, in 1992, was not good news, not least because she was replaced by his current wife, Grace, the kind of wife who, in the words of one journalist, ‘likes shopping sprees and private jets and different palaces for summer and winter.’

His hatred of homosexuality and maltreatment of Zimbabwe’s agriculture further damaged his standing in the eyes of his citizens, and the wider world.

Mugabe was of Communist politics but ideology mattered little to him. He was more interested in power itself, with a particular admiration for the Kim dynasty and their method of running the country like a family business. It could, therefore, be said that he always had the mind of a dictator.

Yet deaths under Mugabe were few compared to other regimes, and elections continued to be held throughout his near four-decade reign. That Mugabe lost many votes in parliament and eventually his own majority suggests he enjoyed the prestige of power more than the ability to radically reshape his country one way or another.

It was once speculated that Mugabe fostered a deep jealousy of Nelson Mandela and the adulation his South African leader received. Mandela gracefully stood down after one term, but Mugabe went on and on and on – he refused to resign live on TV, sullenly handing in a letter to parliament instead.

Many thought his death would be the only way they could get rid of him. Instead, Mugabe can retreat into retirement in the knowledge that has probably become the opposite of Mandela: the most despised man to emerge from post-colonial Africa.

Now that decades of waste have drawn to a close, the people of Zimbabwe have a chance to begin afresh. This may not be simple, as opposition parties are shown little respect by the still-dominant ZANU-PF.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president whose sacking by Mugabe sparked the crisis, will take over as President. Aged 75, he is hardly young blood, while his close connections with the military and his nickname – ‘The Crocodile’ – someone who bides his time before killing - are hardly reassuring signs in a struggling democracy.

But Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition is strong and durable – it predates and has outlasted the spontaneity of the Arab Spring. It will perhaps one day be the harbinger of another Mandela moment, when a long-suffering African nation throws off the shackles of a degraded way of doing things, as Zimbabwe could have done had the once-impressive Mugabe not come to power so many years ago.

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