CALIGULA wanted to make his horse consul. Robert Mugabe wanted his wife, Grace, to take over from him as president of Zimbabwe. The comparison is a bit unfair. Caligula’s horse did not go on lavish shopping trips while Romans starved; nor was it accused of assaulting anyone with an electric cable in a hotel room. Grace Mugabe’s only qualification for high office was her marriage to Mr Mugabe, a man 41 years her senior with whom she began an affair while his first wife was dying. Her ambitions were thwarted this week when the army seized power, insisting that this was not a coup while making it perfectly clear that it was (see article).
Thus, sordidly, ends the era of one of Africa’s great dictators. Mr Mugabe has misruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. As The Economist went to press, he was in detention but unharmed. Even if he is allowed to keep his title, his power is gone. At 93, frail and forgetful, he has finally lost control of the country he ruined. The wonder—and the shame—is that he lasted so long. There is much to learn from the failure of his revolution.
Coup de Grace
Mr Mugabe was once widely admired (and still is, among those who think anti-imperialist rhetoric matters more than competence). He fought against white rule in the 1970s, in what was then called Rhodesia, and legitimately won an election in 1980. He preached reconciliation with the white former oppressors. Buoyed by aid, global goodwill and good harvests, the new country of Zimbabwe prospered for a while.
But like so many revolutionaries, Mr Mugabe could not tolerate any challenge to his rule. Viewing the second-largest ethnic group, the Ndebele, as disloyal, he used a minor insurrection as an excuse to crush them. In 1983 he unleashed his special forces (trained by North Korea) on the Ndebele, raping, torturing and murdering thousands of civilians. Survivors of village massacres were forced to dance on their neighbours’ mass graves, singing praise to the ruling party, Zanu-PF, in the language of the Shona majority. Unlike, say, Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin, Mr Mugabe did not particularly enjoy violence, but he never hesitated to use enough of it to stay in power.
His grasp of economics was revolutionary in the worst sense. He liked the language of socialism because it let him boss people around while posing as a champion of the poor. He spent public money wildly—some of it on good things like education, but much of it on patronage. When he ran out of cash, he started seizing things, such as white-owned commercial farms, and giving them to his supporters. His disregard for property rights scared off investors. He printed money to pay the army and the civil service, sparking hyperinflation so severe that, at one point, Z$1trn would not buy a boiled sweet. He tried to fight inflation with price controls, causing shops to run out of basic goods. All the while his cronies gleefully looted the country’s public purse and diamond mines. After nearly four decades of Mr Mugabe, Zimbabweans are on average a fifth poorer. This year a quarter of the population were short of food; perhaps 3m-5m out of 17m have emigrated in despair.
Will the coup improve matters? It is hard to be optimistic. Coups are never legal and usually spread misery. The generals and ruling-party old guard who engineered this one are not reformers; they are part of the grubby system Mr Mugabe created. Many have profited handsomely from it, and intervened this week not out of principle but to stop Mrs Mugabe and her younger supporters from taking their places at the trough. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old man who may end up in charge, is a longtime Mugabe loyalist and every bit as nasty as his ex-boss. (He was security minister during the Ndebele massacres; during an election campaign in 2000 his supporters burned his opponent’s home down.) This bloodstained crew of plotters make unlikely national saviours.
A big ditch to climb out of
Nonetheless, there is a sliver of hope. Zimbabwe’s ruling elite have long honoured the forms of democracy, and have occasionally lost elections despite cheating on a grand scale. Mr Mnangagwa may be a thug, but he is a pragmatic one, free of the Messiah complex that caused Mr Mugabe to lose touch with reality. He knows that the treasury is empty, and that Zimbabwe needs urgent help from donors such as the IMF. He has put out feelers to the opposition. He talks of ending some of Mr Mugabe’s woeful policies, such as the law requiring all companies above a certain size to be majority-owned by black Zimbabweans (in practice, ruling-party fat cats).
An election is due to be held by the middle of next year. Any aid to a new, transitional government should be conditional on a free and fair ballot. Exiles, whose remittances have saved countless Zimbabweans from destitution, should be allowed to vote. The polls should be monitored by neutral observers such as the UN and the EU. South Africa will no doubt play a role in the transition, but it may not be a constructive one under Jacob Zuma—another ruler who tolerates grotesque corruption and wants to put his former wife on the throne. China, which propped up Mr Mugabe for a while but then decided he was a deadbeat, has not made its intentions known.
There are two morals to draw from Mr Mugabe’s long, ignominious career. The first is that bad policies, corruptly implemented, can wreck a country with alarming speed and go on wrecking it long after you would have thought there was nothing left. Venezuela has little in common with Zimbabwe culturally, but has also achieved disastrous results by embracing a Latin version of Mugabenomics. By contrast, Botswana, Zimbabwe’s culturally similar but well-governed neighbour, was roughly as rich in 1980 but is now seven times richer.
The second moral is that, for all its disappointments, democracy remains the best antidote for bad rulers. Had Zimbabweans been allowed to choose, they would have tossed Mr Mugabe and his henchmen out long ago. Were there an honest vote now, his successor would start out with real legitimacy.
The world has abandoned Zimbabwe to its fate too many times before. This time, outsiders should offer a hand to help it climb out of the ditch into which Mr Mugabe drove it.