Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mugabe and the founding fathers

The recent resignation of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has revived memories of a whole generation of African leaders, writes Walid M Abdelnasser

The recent resignation of the former leader of the ruling Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) Party and former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe signalled a new development in the contemporary history of the African continent. 

It brought back to mind memories related to the historical leaders of the continent, those who are usually called the “founding fathers” of its independence and solidarity. These are the leaders who were in the forefront of the fight of the peoples of the different countries and sub-regions of Africa, or even the whole continent, in the context of the historical struggle against European colonialism and foreign occupation. They led the continent’s struggle against the rule of white minorities in some countries that were originally migrants who came from Europe and settled in a number of African countries and soon monopolised wealth and power. 

The list of such historical figures and founding fathers of the independence and solidarity of Africa includes leaders such as Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt, Ahmed bin Bella and Houari Boumediene in Algeria, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Moktar Ould Dade in Mauritania, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ahmed Sekou Toure in Guinea, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Sam Nujoma in Namibia, Agostino Neto in Angola, Samora Machel in Mozambique, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Modibo Keita in Mali, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Omar Bongo in Gabon. It also includes both Robert Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo in Zimbabwe. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but simply gives some of the best-known examples.

Some of these leaders realised at one point or another that they needed to put an end to their time in power and even retire from holding any executive post in their countries, without necessarily retiring from public life either in their own countries or internationally. Some of those belonging to this category even played a leading role from a civil society perspective to bring peace to the world or to their own regions. 

Examples of leaders belonging to this category are the late Leopold Senghor in Senegal, the late Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, and the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa. These leaders laid the foundations for political pluralism and its sustainability in their respective countries. They also helped establish among their peoples a culture that respects the rules of rotation of power and freedom of expression and enhances the power of institutions over individuals, even if those individuals were founding fathers or the leaders of national liberation struggles. These leaders realised that it would be better for them to step down at a relatively early point while their popularity was still at its peak.

However, there is another list of leaders who were among the founding fathers of Africa’s independence and who were different from those who voluntarily and unilaterally decided to leave power when nobody expected them to do so. On that other list we find leaders who were the targets of coup d’états, popular revolutions, or uprisings that were either organised by segments of the armed forces in their countries, or, in some cases, by comrades in the same national liberation struggle and in the newly established national governments. They may also have been undertaken by popular parties or political organisations or by labour unions or professional syndicates. 

In this list there is a second category that includes other leaders who stayed in power for many years until they passed away, but usually with a gradual decline in their popularity over time, and occasionally led their countries into military defeats, economic failure or social unrest. There is a third category of African leaders who stayed in power until they were ousted from office through foreign intervention or direct or indirect pressure including military, political or economic means.

Mugabe lived through a number of difficult periods in his 37 years at the top of his country as well as in the leadership of its ruling political party. These led to the migration of significant numbers of the economically better off and of the skilled white population of the country after the implementation of agrarian reform laws that were perceived by several observers as lacking in justice because of their absence of fair compensation. More recently, there has been hyperinflation, widespread unemployment, and mounting trade and financial deficits in Zimbabwe, all of which have drastically affected the country’s already fragile economy. 

Yet, Mugabe insisted on going on and doing things his own way, whether on the economic front or on the policies adopted towards the white minority of his country, or regarding the decision-making process in the country at large or inside his own ruling party. As he grew older, he started preparing the stage for a form of family succession in the state and the ruling party, something which might have been unexpected from a former freedom-fighter who fought for many years for the sake of the salvation of his country and people from foreign domination as well as from white minority rule. 

His strategy of succession within the family was largely opposed inside the ruling party as well as among the people of Zimbabwe as a whole. Although the vast majority of Zimbabweans who have appeared in the media in recent days have seemed happy about the resignation of their historical leader under pressure from the leaders of the Zimbabwean armed forces and of the ZAPU Party, they have also mentioned that they would continue to acknowledge the historical role played by Mugabe in establishing the African state of Zimbabwe to replace the former white minority-controlled country of Rhodesia.

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