A FEW days ago, Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe yet again disappointed his opponents and critics.
The 92-year-old Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state and one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders, returned home alive after an overseas absence that led to intense speculation about his health and rumours that he had died.
Mugabe, taunting his ill wishers, joked that he had come back to life.
“Yes, I was dead, it’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do. Once I get back to my country I am real,” Mugabe said September 3 after arriving in the capital Harare.
He had left a regional summit, but flight data showed his plane went to Dubai after an original flight path indicated a course toward Asia.
Mugabe has received treatment in Singapore in the past, and speculation about his death has become a cottage industry as his rivals get more frustrated at their inability to oust him even as he turns a once prosperous country into the ultimate basket case. The speculation has only intensified after increasing signs of his fraility in recent months.
The Zimbabwe veteran leader’s departure, however, would also mark a key point in the continent’s politics.
Whereas a lot of commentary on African politics gives the impression that the continent is dominated by liberation parties and once “revolutionary” leaders, they are actually a disappearing species.
From Algeria, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Ethiopia, to Rwanda and Uganda liberation parties and their leaders have kept a clean electoral sheet, none having lost a vote or power respectively.
However, of all these countries, only four still have leaders who actually led bush war against the government of the day – Mugabe, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda.
Of these, only two – Museveni and Museveni – led their movements to a military victory on their terms. In Burundi and Zimbabwe, the leaders came to power after a negotiated settlement.
In the rest the “founding fathers”, the first leaders, died before the current incumbents took over; in Angola Agostinho Neto in 1979 making way for Jose Eduardo dos Santos; in Ethiopia Meles Zenawi in 2012 and was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn; in South Africa Jacob Zuma is the third president after the end of apartheid; in South Sudan Salva Kiir became president in 2005 in a soon-to-be new-born nation after his more charismatic successor and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash.
In the rest the “founding fathers”, the first leaders, died before the current incumbents took over; in Angola Agostinho Neto died in 1979 making way for Jose Eduardo dos Santos. In Ethiopia Meles Zenawi in 2012 and was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn.
In South Africa Jacob Zuma is the third president after the end of apartheid; in South Sudan Salva Kiir became president in 2005 in a soon-to-be new-born nation after his more charismatic successor and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash.
While Mugabe is deservingly portrayed by critics as an oppressive power-hungry and incompetent ruler, his fraility and likely exit in the near future also represents an important shrinkage of the “old Africa” club.
Today, more than at any other point in it’s the last 50 years, the majority of African leaders are regular politicians who might sometimes rig elections to stay in power, but they didn’t come to power by the gun. It is an important shift, which tells volumes about politics on the continent has been shifting.
One of the shifts is the quality of rebel leaders – it has dramatically declined. The rebellions in West Africa, especially Sierra Leone and Liberia, threw up a series of brutal low calibre insurgent leaders, and lately Nigeria, in the form of Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, continued the trend.
These are no Meles Zenawis or Musevenis, and are unlikely to lead a movement that gains the national appeal or is able to build a strategy to win power.