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20 November 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 8:37am

Why removing Mugabe is proving to be no easy task

Until the Zimbabwean president hands over to a transitional government there is no easy way forward.

By Martin Plaut

Forcing Robert Mugabe out of the presidency of Zimbabwe is proving to be extraordinarily difficult. Appearing on television on Sunday night, he failed to deliver his expected resignation speech.

His stubborn refusal came despite the ruling party that he forged, Zanu-PF, having removed him as its leader, while depriving his wife Grace of her role as head of its women’s league. Zimbabweans turned out in their tens of thousands to demand his rule ends. The military, who hold Mugabe under house arrest, have urged him to step down. Southern African presidents have pleaded with him to go.

Yet despite this, 93-year-old Mugabe remains ensconced in his presidential residence. Driving him from office is proving to be very hard indeed. This is so for two reasons.

Firstly, the army is loath to force him out, since this would amount to a coup, which is banned by the constitution of the African Union. As its Constitutive Act states, the Union stands for: “Condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments.” It was for precisely this reason that the army denied it was staging a coup, insisting instead that Mugabe was not only safe, but continued to be “president of the republic of Zimbabwe and commander-in-chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces”.

Secondly, Mugabe’s election in 2013 may have been rigged, but it was backed by his fellow heads of state. The election deprived as many as one million people of the vote, according to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network. But a southern African observer, despatched by the region’s presidents, went on to declare that it was “generally well-managed” and “conducive” for the people to freely participate. Having approved of the vote, it is difficult to now argue that Mugabe is illegitimate and that he deserves to be removed.

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Until Mugabe publicly hands over to a transitional government there is no easy way forward. Yet anyone who witnessed the president’s rise to power will understand just how stubborn and ruthless he can be.

While the bush war against the white regime was still raging, Mugabe showed his determination to eliminate all opponents. He had won the leadership of his movement with the support of youthful guerrillas, but they soon saw the errors of their ways. Their leader, Wilfred Mhanda, later reflected: “It became obvious very quickly that we’d made a terrible mistake … that he was arrogant, paranoid, authoritarian and ruthless, a man believing only in power.” 

Several hundred party cadres were detained and murdered. They were by no means the last to suffer this fate.

The Lancaster House talks in London that led to the end of white rule in 1980 also proved just how stubborn Mugabe could be. He rejected a series of compromises on land and voting rights and was on the verge of walking away from the talks. It took the intervention of the Mozambiquan president, Samora Machel, who had provided rear bases for the guerrilla fighters, to force Mugabe to sign the agreement. Machel threatened that the bases would no longer be available if Mugabe walked away from the talks. The deal was signed and independence followed.

Time and again the president has shown a steely resolve. It is hardly surprising that those close to the president now say he has no intention of going. Mugabe is “ready to die for what is correct”, according to his nephew.

If this is the case, impeachment lies ahead. Parliament is due to consider this on Tuesday – assuming the president is not convinced to step down of his own accord – but this could be a long and difficult road. It would require a majority of both houses of parliament in a joint sitting.

This provision has never been tested and could be open to all sorts of difficulties. As David Coultard, a senator for the opposition MDC put it: “In my view if President Mugabe refuses to accede to the military’s demands this is the only lawful means for those within Zanu-PF, who are annoyed by President Mugabe’s recent decisions, to address the situation.”

In the meantime, Mugabe can continue to exercise considerable influence – over his own destiny and that of the country – even if he is no longer in power. Zimbabwe still has an uncomfortable hurdle to overcome. 

Martin Plaut and Sue Onslow are the joint authors of the forthcoming book “Robert Mugabe”, published by Ohio University Press

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