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Are there lessons to be learnt from Zimbabwe?

Are there lessons to be learnt from Zimbabwe?

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I was struck by the comment of one of the thousands caught up in the jubilation over Robert Mugabe’s resignation. He was glad the people had given Mugabe a reality check, since he had for long been living in an echo chamber. I wonder if the events of the past two weeks have lessons for us in the Caribbean.

It is reasonable to assume that if the Zimbabwean leader had his way, his wife Grace “Gucci” would have replaced him as party leader and president. Recent elections were clearly rigged and marred by bribery and violence directed against the Opposition. In 2008, for example, Morgan Tsvangirai, who had defeated Mugabe in the first round of elections, had to withdraw from contesting the final round because of the violence that confronted him.

After 37 years, the loyalty of the people was taken for granted. The Mugabes felt that they had an indefinite hold on that loyalty. In fact, they said as much. Only God who appointed him will remove him, said the president. His wife suggested that he could win even as a corpse. The mass celebrations that accompanied news of his house arrest and subsequent resignation must have shocked them as much as it did the rest of the world. What is it with those leaders who refuse to accept that they have reached the end of the line and have outlived their usefulness? The belief that they were on the path to creating a dynasty with his apparent “heir”, his wife, assuming control, drew the anger of the people who resented her extravagance, arrogance and presumption that she had right of succession.

Mugabe’s role in the liberation struggles was respected, but that was over 37 years ago. The country had since fallen on rough times. The people hoped he would go gracefully. The euphoria on the streets was their way of releasing their pent-up emotions, bottled up for so long. Despite the concerns about the future and the continuing role of the army, their intervention, along with that of the war veterans, gave them a chance to express their hidden feelings.

Despite the role played by the military in Zimbabwe it was the voice of the people that eventually mattered. The military, even with the realization of wide support, treaded carefully. Support for the man who had ruled for 37 years quickly evaporated, showing how narrow it had become. The people had had enough and took advantage of the opening provided to make their statement. One suspects that those who are given the task of governing in the interim will realize it cannot be business as usual. To the people, recent events marked a second revolution. Will there now be a determination to ensure a democracy defined by them and not by the military?

Sadly, this formidable figure of the liberation struggles was presiding over a state in serious trouble economically. But after 37 years, he seemed to believe that the country was family territory and was his to move in the direction he and his wife determined. Fortunately, so far, there has been no violence. An uncertain road lies ahead. What role will the army continue to play? How long will the honeymoon with the military last? Will the people who have suffered so much and faced so many challenges allow their “second revolution” to pass them by? Will the events of the last two weeks send a warning to those who will assume power?

Many of our Caribbean leaders similarly live in echo chambers with their own version of reality floating around. What is the reality outside the echo chambers? Their supporters profess to demonstrate undying love, beset by fear and the hope of getting a share of the slender resources.  How will they respond when the real test comes?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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