President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has revealed his intention to run for president again in 2018. At age 92, it seems that he plans to rule until he dies.
Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia, which is now known as Zimbabwe. He founded the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), a resistance movement against British colonial rule in 1963, and became prime minister of the new Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980 when British rule came to an end. In 1987, he became the president of Zimbabwe through an election.
Mugabe’s Source of Power
Mr. Mugabe came to power in 1980 through the support of Zimbabwe’s war veterans. Ever since, he has relied heavily on the support of veterans to remain in office as the leader of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.
It is said that during the war for independence, Mugabe received support from guerrilla fighters in the ZANU Rebel Movement, which ultimately made him emerge as leader of the militant ZANU faction in 1975. From that point onward, Mugabe and the rebel fighters (now veterans) established a strong bond.
Simon Egbo, an analyst of Zimbabwean politics says:
“Some people wonder how Mugabe has managed to last for so long as president of Zimbabwe. However, the simple secret of his longevity in office is the veterans. These veterans have always demonstrated blind loyalty and an unbreakable bond with him, which has translated to everlasting victories in politics. That’s why he is able to rule Zimbabwe anyhow he likes and yet keep winning elections.”
More Reasons for the Veterans’ Continued Support
Indeed, President Mugabe has benefited from the veterans in no small measure. However, it is widely believed that the veterans have continued to support President Mugabe because of how they have benefited and still benefit from his government.
He has rewarded the veterans for their support and enriched them in many ways. Zimbabwe’s war veterans have been offered the best and most senior positions in government and the military since Mugabe came to office. Even the most profitable areas of the economy – such as the diamond industry – have been placed under the control of veterans. Mugabe also went as far as creating a new Ministry in 2014 just to administer the welfare of veterans. So why should the veterans now withdraw their support for him?
The Reality of Zimbabwe’s Failing Economy
The main consequence of the veterans’ blind support for Mugabe through the decades appears to be the bad economy that Zimbabweans now face. According to a BBC report, under President Mugabe’s watch, Zimbabwe’s economy “has gone from bad to worse to disastrous.”
In the first round of the 2008 presidential election, Mugabe came second to Morgan Tsvangirai mainly as a result of public anger over Zimbabwe’s bad economy. But with the help of the veterans, violence was employed to help Mugabe remain in office. Mr Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from the second round of the elections to save the lives of his supporters. And in the end, President Mugabe was forced to share power with Tsvangirai as his prime minister.
Professor Tony Hawkins of the University of Zimbabwe says this about Mugabe: “Whenever economics gets in the way of politics, politics wins every time.”
Mugabe has always claimed to be fighting for the interests of blacks. For this reason, he instigated the invasion and forceful takeover of white-owned farms by blacks in 2000. The white-owned farms had been the pillar of Zimbabwe’s economy. But Mugabe vowed to redistribute the land in order to empower blacks. With the support of the veterans who helped to end white-minority rule in 1979, Mugabe had his way, with disastrous consequences for the economy.
Dissent in the Ranks – and a Warning
However, with President Mugabe’s recent declaration to run for president again in 2018 and to rule until he dies, a significant number of veterans now claim to be withdrawing their support for him. In a statement they made last week, the war veterans said they would no longer be supporting Mugabe to remain in power.
Mugabe’s typical response to dissent or opposition has always been to punish all who oppose him and also to blame the West, particularly Britain and the USA for “inciting” the opposition.
This week, ZANU-PF party supporters and veterans who remain loyal to him sang Mugabe’s praises at a rally in Harare, the capital. In addressing them, Mugabe was clear about what would happen to the faction of veterans who had published last week’s statement:
“Once we find out who wrote that statement, the party will punish them. During the war we had rebels who we punished… some by detaining them underground, feeding them there…the enemy is trying to divide us,” he added in an apparent reference to Western powers, particularly Britain and America.
Loyalty vs. Economic Reality
Even before Mugabe’s threat, not all the veterans seemed to agree with the published statement. The veterans now seem to be in a dilemma over their continued loyalty to Mugabe vs. the reality of an economy on the brink of collapse.
Factions within the veterans’ association accuse Mugabe of corruption and mismanagement of the economy, while factions in the ruling ZANU-PF party are reportedly “openly fighting to succeed him.” Some of the veterans appear likely to still maintain their support for Mugabe at all costs. But a significant percentage of the war veterans now seem to be looking at Mugabe through a new lens.
Part of their statement read:
“We are dismayed by the president’s tendency to indulge in his usual vitriol against perceived enemies, including peaceful protesters, as well as war veterans, when the economy is on its knees.”
How long can Mugabe last without the veterans?
Without doubt, Zimbabwe’s war veterans constitute the backbone of President Mugabe’s grip on power, but without a united front, how can the veterans keep Mugabe in power?
According to Simukai Tinhu, a political analyst based in London and Harare, the majority of Zimbabwe’s war veterans now seem to support Mugabe’s Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa (aka The Crocodile), as his successor.
The war veterans exert tremendous influence over Zimbabwean politics and society. Veterans are the heads of Zimbabwe’s security and military organizations and also hold big positions in government. As a result, the veterans are likely to decide who emerges as Zimbabwe’s next leader.
Perhaps Mugabe understands this fact. That may be the reason why he called for unity among the veterans and party supporters in this week’s rally. He even urged the veterans to change their leaders. Without a united veterans’ association solidly behind him, Mugabe will most likely lose power.
Tinhu writes that the war veterans see Vice President Mnangagwa as “the person who – more than anyone else in ZANU-PF – can cater for their interests in a post-Mugabe era. And they possibly want Mnangagwa to take over as soon as possible in order to start preparing for the 2018 elections.”
He adds that if the recent statement withdrawing support for Mugabe “reflects the feelings of the larger group, it would not be an exaggeration to see this as the moment Mugabe’s reign began to disintegrate beyond repair.”
However, some watchers of politics in Zimbabwe believe that it would be impossible for all the veterans to withdraw their support for Mugabe, that their selfish interest in the benefits his presidency provides to them would not let all of them turn their backs on him.
In the final analysis, if it seems rather impossible for all the war veterans to withdraw their support for Mugabe, the battle will boil down to the question of which faction of war veterans is strong enough to constitute a majority and decide whether Mugabe leaves or stays in power. “That faction of the war veterans,” according to analysts, “will be the faction that wins.”