This Saturday our veteran benevolent leader, Robert “Bob” Mugabe, will celebrate his 91st birthday, and we in Zimbabwe are all patriotically scurrying around to contribute in some way to his magnificent pink birthday cake. But some imperialist sellouts are trying to ruin his birthday, and how dare they! Isn’t your Naughty 91st as important as your Sweet 16?
“Naughty” and far worse words—authoritarian, tyrannical, genocidal—have been thrown at Bob for years. He stands accused of massacring thousands of Matabele people and so-called dissidents in Zimbabwe’s southern region in the early 1980s. Bob also oversaw the entrenching of corruption among the political elite in the ’90s, giving birth to an opposition movement that he attempted to crush ruthlessly. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) saw scores of its supporters beaten and killed by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)’s militia and war veterans in the bloody 2000 elections. Oh, and there are also the allegations of rigging national elections and fleecing the country of its diamond wealth. Apparently Bob’s been a bad boy.
In 2008 we made global headlines for having the highest inflation rate in world history. People carried around bricks of cash in backpacks, and beer cost about a trillion dollars.
To set the record straight, it’s not the opposition causing problems for our president in the run-up to his birthday; MDC leaders are preoccupied with infighting at the moment. Nor is it the crumbling economy (a decaying economy only seems to make Mugabe stronger). The biggest opposition to ZANU-PF at the moment is itself. Yes, ZANU-PF has finally met its match after all these years. They’re looking at themselves in the mirror and are having a good ol’ knife fight. See, they’ve been experimenting with this new creature called “the faction” over the years, and now it’s on the loose, tearing the party apart and prematurely blowing out Bob’s birthday candles (made in China, of course, like the other cheap imports that have ruined a once vibrant industrial base).
We haven’t always had a floundering economy. Zimbabwe has been celebrated since the ’80s as having some of Africa’s highest literacy rates and an extremely educated populace. It also has the second-highest mobile broadband internet penetration on the continent. So we’re clever people who browse Facebook from time to time. But our country has had its dream hollowed out by the destructive synergy of a dysfunctional colonial state, Western-backed structural adjustment programs and deep-seated ZANU-PF corruption and mismanagement. So we now have a crumbling economy, a kleptocratic political elite, a disillusioned populace and an unemployment rate hovering around 80 percent (though we’re not even sure of the jobs we don’t have, as some statistics even cite a 95 percent unemployment rate).
ZANU-PF rode into power in 1980 after fighting a spirited guerrilla war against a morally bankrupt white minority regime and winning the first-ever democratic elections in the heady atmosphere of independence. Not everything the party did was bad either: ZANU-PF prioritized education and health care for all in the early years, leading to a 90 percent literacy rate and the building of clinics across the country. But 35 years down the line, it has lost the plot, failing to deliver on its promises of jobs, empowerment, land and a functioning economy. In 2008 we made global headlines for having the highest inflation rate in world history. We even beat Weimar Germany’s legendary inflation rate. People carried around bricks of cash in backpacks, and beer cost about a trillion dollars. It was anything but happy hour.
Who needs Game of Thrones when you have ZANU-PF?
In the current economic environment, ZANU-PF’s saber rattling and talk of “sovereignty” and “indigenization” (black empowerment) ring hollow. Unfortunately the current opposition doesn’t provide much of an alternative: formed on the back of the militant, anti-IMF student and worker movements of the late ’90s, the social democrat–aligned MDC has splintered into factions. The veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai lost his shine after a spate of undemocratic actions and womanizing. However, his former lieutenants Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube, who broke away from him to form separate rival factions, have now entered a unity pact. They are also now in discussions to form a united front with other opposition parties, which could create an interesting new element in Zimbabwe’s democratic struggle.
Bob has been at the helm of ZANU-PF for more three decades and had successfully managed the power dynamics within the party—until last year. We seemed to have an eternal soap opera of succession politics, with two main factions pitted against each other. It was Zimbabwe’s homegrown version of Game of Thrones. Our politics are filled with factions and families vying for the coveted throne. In the red corner, we have the Mujuru faction, led by former vice president Joice Mujuru. Think of Joice as Daenerys Targaryen flying in on factional dragons from the south. And in the blue corner, we have the Mnangagwa faction, led by Minister of Justice Emmerson Mnangagwa, our cunning and ever-plotting Stannis Baratheon, mounting a battalion of boats to the north. The Mujuru faction is seen as a more reformist group, whereas the Mnangagwa faction is viewed as one of securocrats and hard-liners.
Bob would play off the two factions against each other like a cunning Mafia boss. It seemed that by last year Mujuru had built a firm power base and was all set to take over the party whenever Bob decided to exit. But then there was an unexpected twist. A new character was added to the plot. Enter the first lady, Amai Grace Mugabe. Why don’t we call her Cersei Lannister just for fun? Not that she is the power behind the throne or anything of the kind.
Grace met the people two months ago, and now she is bored with them, so she is saving the animals instead.
Last year Grace broke a world record for the fastest Ph.D. in history. It took her just two months to achieve it, and her chief examiner apparently happened to be her husband. (Our president is such an effective multitasker.) Anyway Grace next made headlines because she was nominated to take over the ZANU-PF Women’s League ahead of the party’s all-important congress in December 2014. She then embarked on a controversial nationwide “meet the people” tour in which she didn’t really meet the people—she talked at them and venomously attacked Mujuru. This set the stage for the ZANU-PF Congress, at which the Mujuru faction was decimated by Grace and the Mnangagwa faction. Mujuru lost the vice presidency, and her allies lost their positions of power, with some even expelled from the party for life. Mnangagwa took over as vice president, and his faction is now in the driver’s seat, ready to take over from Bob. As I said, who needs Game of Thrones when you have ZANU-PF?
This brings us to where we are today. Grace met the people two months ago, and now she is bored with them, so she is saving the animals instead. She is evicting hundreds of villagers from their homes on Manzou Farm, Mazoe, so she can set up a personal wildlife sanctuary that will feature the Big Five: elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalos and leopards. The independent media is crying foul as Grace proceeds to defy court orders against the evictions. She has now decided that she won’t evict the villagers and will abide by the court’s ruling. The villagers won’t be evicted by fellow humans—but the 100 zebras that Grace let loose on the property will probably do the job. Our Cersei Lannister is a cunning one. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority is bending over backward to help her, and the state media are doing their best to defend her. Her PR people are probably kicking themselves once again.
Meanwhile the Mujuru faction is picking itself up and dusting itself off. The unruly upstarts have written a letter through the former ZANU-PF secretary for administration, Didymus Mutasa, to the citizens of Zimbabwe challenging the legality of the congress and saying that it defied the values of “one man one vote.” Mutasa is set to mount a legal challenge to the congress, and now ZANU-PF is pulling out every trick in the book: assassinating his character in the press and even threatening to take back his farm (no more patronage for you, young man!). It’s charming to see that the Mujuru faction, which has happily been party to 35 years of intimidating the opposition and rigging votes, has stumbled on the notion of “democracy” after all these years. Yes, a faction stacked with 80-year-olds wants to reclaim the party and breathe new life into it. As the local blogger Joe Black put it in a recent headline, “Breaking: Mujuru Allies Suddenly Discover Citizens.”
Mujuru is apparently reaching out to opposition leaders to form an alliance against ZANU-PF. Rumors abound that that she may even form a new political party. Two of the opposition MDC factions have recently signed a unity pact. And of course, Mujuru’s lieutenant Mutasa is set to challenge the legality of the ZANU-PF congress in court. So these are the unfortunate events that are putting a damper on Comrade Bob’s preparations for what would otherwise be a fabulous 91st birthday. Our Game of Thrones continues. You couldn’t write a better plotline if you tried. Stay tuned.