The most encouraging news out of Africa this past week is the fall of Robert Mugabe, who had been Zimbabwe’s president for 37 years. The 93-year-old former president resigned after the Army intervened and the Parliament decided to impeach him. Writing in The New Yorker‘s News Desk, novelist and lawyer Petina Gappah presents an account of how the country freed itself from its founding father.
Here is an excerpt.
Thirty-seven years after he brought independence to the last outpost of the British Empire in Africa, Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is no more. Mugabe’s resignation, announced in Harare on Tuesday, ushers in a new era for his country, and his continent. At ninety-three, Mugabe was the last of Africa’s generation of modern founding Presidents. His resignation came after a tumultuous eight days in which the Zimbabwean Army intervened in the political process for the first time in the country’s history, thousands of Zimbabweans marched and danced in delirium in the streets, and Mugabe addressed the nation to resign, only to pull back in a final act of spectacular brinkmanship, before resigning when Parliament threatened him with the ignominy of impeachment.
For the many Zimbabweans under the age of thirty-seven, the end of the brutal Mugabe era is a vista-shifting, imagination-opening opportunity. More cautious voices from civil society and opposition parties caution against both euphoria and complacency: Mugabe, they warn, may be gone, but his zanu-P.F. party, so closely associated with both his failures and cruel excesses, remains in power.
Zimbabweans will forever associate the Mugabe years with the authoritarian repression that saw those who threatened the President’s power either killed, jailed and beaten, intimidated with treason charges that carried the death penalty, or, if they were fortunate, silenced and co-opted through patronage. His final years have all but obliterated the glorious promise of the period soon after Zimbabwe gained independence, in 1980. A vibrant economy collapsed, as his obsession with threats to his rule from within his own party paralyzed government. Rising levels of poverty went hand in hand with corruption and cronyism, meaning that, just as in the classic abuser-victim cycle, the same government that had destroyed livelihoods masqueraded as the benevolent provider of everything from food to tractors, and in return demanded that the recipients give the President their votes.
Among Mugabe’s most effective instruments, and one that he deployed frequently, was his extraordinary voice. It may seem odd to outsiders, but Mugabe’s speeches were one of the ways he held sway over his country. They contained sweeping phrases invoking Zimbabwe’s fifteen-year liberation struggle against the Rhodesian settler regime of Ian Smith. He employed rhetorical devices that made his words weapons: the amplification and over-enunciation; the deliberate, timed pauses between words; the elongation of the second syllables of certain words, such as “among,” ”indeed,” “comported”; and the evocation of emotion through lilting inflection at unexpected moments. His is the most recognizable voice in Zimbabwe not only because he was the only leader that generations have known but also because he speaks like no one else.
In his thirty-seven years in power, Mugabe tyrannically centralized power around his person, both at the national level and at the level of his political party, to such a degree that he seemed invincible. With longevity came decrepitude. Since he won a controversial election in 2013, his government has been battling an economy that, unlike his party, would not bend to his will. As Tendai Biti, a government critic and former finance minister, pithily retorted, you can rig elections but you can’t rig the economy.
Read the full essay HERE.