Photograph — The Week

After remaining executive dictator for 37 years through unmitigated repression and authoritarian rule, Robert Mugabe ended it all last week with a simple letter addressed to Zimbabwe’s parliament; “I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, in terms of Section 96, Sub-Section 1 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, hereby formally tender my resignation as the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe with immediate effect.” the letter read.

As news of Mugabe’s resignation filtered into the streets of Zimbabwe, thousands of people were seen jubilating, dancing and singing to the tune of the Zimbabwean anthem with vigor. “It’s like a baby opening its eyes for the first time” were the words used to describe Mugabe’s resignation. People waved Zimbabwean flags and took selfies with smiling soldiers, a rare sight in the Southern African country.

When Zimbabwe’s army incarcerated Mugabe in his house last week, presumably to keep him safe from his enemies after people thought it was a coup, many around the world immediately noticed the irony. The same apparatus of the government that helped prop up Mugabe’s dictatorship for more than three decades suddenly found the confidence to force Mugabe to step down.

Zimbabwe army’s involvement in politics

The drawback to involving the army in political affairs is that they eventually begin to think and act like politicians themselves. Constantin Chiwenga, Zimbabwe’s army head was once described as “a desperate politician in army uniform,” and this isn’t far from the truth. The Zimbabwean chief of Army staff was appointed by Mugabe. However, Zimbabwe’s Army chief is close friends with the country’s current interim leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Chiwenga’s anger to Mugabe’s succession plans with Grace Mugabe, coupled with Mnangagwa’s sack as vice-president motivated his plans to meddle in democratic matters. Downside is, it probably won’t stop with Mnangagwa.

Nigeria’s military past, including how democratic governments were toppled through Coup d’etats is a prime example of what happens when democratically elected leaders liaise with army generals by bringing them into political parties; they probably end up being betrayed by the same. It then becomes a cycle. Some of these army generals are still playing major roles in Nigeria’s politics today.

In 2002, in the run-up to another needless presidential election in Zimbabwe, the then 83 year old Mugabe enlisted the help of the Army, and also his longtime ally Emmerson Mnangagwa, to rig and win the elections. Mugabe promised to step down even if he won the elections, to which the army agreed to. The election was one of the worst in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history.

Zimbabwe’s soldiers stuffed the ballot boxes with thousands of fake votes, while also waging a war of intimidation on the opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change and his supporters. The same thing played out in the 2008 and 2013 presidential elections, with the help of Mnangagwa who was Defence minister for Mugabe. The role played by Zimbabwe’s army in Mugabe’s various re-election campaigns suggest that they were an essential part of his government.

The role of the army in other dictatorships in Africa

For Mugabe and other dictators pretending to practice democracy across the continent, the army is their fourth arm of government and also their most revered and preferred tool for repression. Though these dictators espouse democracy to give their government some sort of legitimacy, they hold on to power with a mix of violence and democracy; usually provided by the army and a dominant and desperate ruling party. If there are two things African dictators’ love, it is to have a very dominant ruling party to contest under so as to disguise its authoritarian rule, and a well-paid army to maintain such governments. For many, the thin line between being called a democracy and a military dictatorship is rather blurry.

Dictators in other African countries, in the same shoes have been propped by their own army, while also having one party rule for most of their post-independence years. Museveni, who has been Uganda’s president for 31 years after he overthrew two successive military dictators, is also no stranger to enlisting the help of the army in retaining power. He has largely held on to the army’s loyalty by frequently sacking top officials and replacing them with young, energetic candidates. However, to redeem his image as a dictator and present a facade of democracy, he has held various sham presidential elections. Elections are fraught with opponent intimidation and violence, provided by the army. And after Mugabe’s exit, Museveni is already making moves to plug every loophole that could make him lose power.

He shuffled the military heads 2 weeks ago, and last week announced that he would be increasing the salaries of all government workers, including soldiers.

For dictators in countries with weak armies, former colonial masters have largely helped to maintain their status quo. The link between France and former colonies in West Africa and Central Africa readily comes to mind. France has army bases in Gabon, Togo, Cameroon, Djibouti, the Central African Republic; all of which could be used for the aid of the dictators, or used against them depending on the situation.

Hence, it isn’t surprising that when the army withdraws its support for dictators, mostly due to international pressure, or a unified political opposition with mass citizens demonstrations, or a combination of both, African dictators lose the leverage they have. Yahya Jammeh didn’t leave the Gambia until his Army chief General Ousman Badjie promised not to interfere with the peace process. “This is a political problem. It’s a misunderstanding. We are not going to fight Nigerian, Togolese or any military that comes,” the General told Reuters in January, describing the folly of defending Jammeh just before West African regional forces arrived in Gambia to topple the dictator. After Chiwenga withdrew his support for Mugabe, and gave it to Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s regime fell like a pack of cards.

What happens when Chiwenga gets tired of Mnangagwa?

Emmerson Mnangagwa’s installation as interim president should be treated with trepidation. His long standing association with the military, and especially with the army chief of staff is a cause for concern. Having reportedly rigged elections for his former mentor with the help of the Zimbabwean military, next year’s presidential election is perfectly posed for him to begin his own tyranny. A weak opposition, evidenced by its no-show in the transitional government will make it even easier for the military-backed Mnangagwa to cement his place. However, the most pertinent question to be asked is, what happens when Chiwenga gets tired of Mnangagwa?

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