Mugabe clings on to power, but his stature among his peers is unquestionably diminished

Jan 15, 2012

If who your associates and friends are says a lot about who you are and how you are perceived, President Robert Mugabe’s stature even amongst his African peers is now a mere shadow of what it once was. A man whose presence at an event or meeting used to add considerable prestige to it now has trouble getting invitations, and has few visitors. As talk of a new election heats up, he may well be able to engineer yet another controversial term, but he is clearly now increasingly barely tolerated as a relic from the past. It is a high but unavoidable price to pay for not knowing when to let go.  

Mugabe’s presidency is increasingly accompanied by farce. In 2011 he had reportedly eight extremely poorly explained/justified trips to the Far East, reportedly for medical treatment. This reason is denied, but none is offered for why an 87 year old man would put himself through the rigors of such a long trip eight times in one year. Why should the president of a country find it necessary to spend so much time so frequently in another country?

So rumors; sometimes harsh, unkind and unsympathetic, swirl that he is a walking corpse on his last legs, fooling himself that he is still as vigorous as he was when he was 30. Whether the rumors about his having terminal cancer are true or not, Mugabe and his handlers have lost control of this situation. The talk of his medical problems, his shriveled appearance and the denials has combined to greatly reduce his image and, his ‘mystique.’ Sometimes one senses that even people nominally on his side now public speak about him as if he is no longer in the room or can’t hear what is being said about him. Much of the previous respect for him, as well as some of the fear of him, have evaporated as more people look beyond him, as if he were already no longer on the scene.

Mugabe has never had much interest in the ‘mundane’ day to day issues of running the country. He has little interest in actual management, but is content with overall control. But oh, how he has always loved to get on an international stage and give a speech on some lofty subject, falling in love with the sound of his own voice. Even today, when Western countries make it clear he is not welcome in their capitals, he and his large entourages continue to find various covers under which to attend UN meetings there on one obscure subject or another.

In Africa, Mugabe was among the first line of respected statesmen, in some ways on a par with and perhaps even ahead of the Western-adored Nelson Mandela. Ordinary Africans could very easily identify with Mugabe’s rhetoric of African empowerment and anti-imperialism. He championed these causes with a fierce eloquence which no other African leader could or dared to do. Even the many Western-compromised African leaders who might have been skeptical or fearful of Mugabe’s radicalism had to accept the long projection and strong influence this gave him amongst their own populations.

Much of this has faded away. The reasons for this are many, but they include Mugabe’s now badly tattered legacy. He has simply been in power so long and so controversially that even for people who admire his positions on various issues, his ‘legitimacy’ and influence to be their standard bearer has tremendously diminished. There is no way he can avoid responsibility/blame for a great deal of Zimbabwe’s great economic troubles of the past decade, which were eagerly beamed around the world even by media that otherwise finds little interest in African affairs.

The Mugabe who is so in tune with African grievances and aspirations also represents many of the worst excesses of Africa’s rulers. So many Africans are able to say, “Mugabe’s rhetorical position on this or that issue is right, but I would not want to actually be ruled by him if Zimbabwe is an example of the best he can do.”

So Mugabe retains respect in Africa amongst ordinary people, but his leader peers no longer feel in awe or fear of his now waning stature. The signs of the latter are abundant and frequent.

No foreign president showed up at the recent ZANU-PF conference where Mugabe was again crowned as his party’s presidential candidate. Some foreign low –level officials attended and dutifully delivered support messages, but no foreign leader any longer saw being in Mugabe’s presence as a desirable matter of prestige.

The South African ANC’s just-held 100th birthday bash was in contrast attended by many African leaders. Mugabe awkwardly did not attend this symbolically important event of a neighboring country, leading trade partner and key player in resolving Zimbabwe’s political mess. Mugabe, as is now his custom, was on his annual ‘holiday’ in his ‘second home,’ the Singapore-China region. The great rhetorical Africanist preferred to be on another continent as the ANC, one of Africa’s premier liberation movements (never mind its own ZANUPF-like present problems) celebrated its centenary. And it does not appear he was particularly missed there anyway.

Young incumbent Joseph Kabila recently engineered a messy, controversial election win for himself in the DRCongo. Mugabe leaped to go and attend the inauguration, the only foreign leader to do so. Even amongst Africa’s many dubiously-elected dictators, none found it possible to go and effectively show support for and confidence in the process that gave Kabila another term. But Mugabe had no problem giving a clean bill of health to an election that most others have raised grave questions about, mirroring the violent, crooked Zimbabwean election of 2008 that led to Mugabe’s current term of office. The point is that this is low, once unimaginable company for the once great Mugabe to keep. Now it is about the only quality of company he can keep.

This week long-time dictator of Equatorial Guinea Obiang Nguema almost sneaked into Zimbabwe to visit Mugabe. It was a low key, stiff, joyless affair. The Harare capture a few years ago of British missionaries on their way to Guinea for an attempted coup brought the two leaders close together, but Mugabe was once in a very different league from Nguema, who is a dictator with none of the pan-Africanist, intellectual pretensions of Mugabe, or his liberation-era credentials. In many ways, Nguema is just the sort of African leader who Mugabe might once have been expected to have contempt for and avoid.          

If ‘by their friends you shall know them’ is a true adage, what is now seen of Mugabe’s ‘friends’ shows that he has come down very far from his once lofty perch. Engineering yet another term of office at the age of 88, and with all his considerable and increasing baggage, will do absolutely nothing to reverse this sad decline.


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