By: Simon Fischer
Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe finally resigned on November 21, 2017, after facing intense scrutiny from many and being placed under house arrest by the military. The uproar began after he fired his Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing a path for his wife, Grace, to take over as his successor. Initial rejoicing by politicians and protesters at his resignation – which signaled the end of a 37-year-long rule that began heroically but quickly spiraled into a chokehold on the country – may have come too soon. Thus far, Mugabe’s exit from power has been far from a smooth one. Zimbabwe is technically a representative democracy, but his party has been accused for years of rigging elections in his favor. Even after the final straw of firing his own VP and the ensuing chaos, he released a statement just two days before his resignation refusing to say whether or not he would resign. With leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte, Kim-Jong Un, and Donald Trump in power and watching Mugabe’s every move, his resistance to resignation and blatant disregard of democratic norms in Zimbabwe sets a dangerous precedent in today’s growingly unstable global political climate.
Mugabe’s rule began with rosier aspirations. He was elected as the country’s inaugural Prime Minister in 1980 and was instrumental in founding the Republic of Zimbabwe itself. He was then elected to a four-year term as President in 1987 after their constitution was implemented. However, by the turn of the century, his rule, and as a result Zimbabwe as a whole, began to deteriorate. He was re-elected in 1996, but all of his opponents suspiciously dropped out days before the election. He ordered all white farmers to give up their land in 2000, which affected nearly 4,000 landowners and slashed the country’s agricultural output. A year later, he abruptly announced Zimbabwe would be switching to a quasi-socialist economy after years of market-driven growth. He was accused of widespread human rights violations in 2004 by the Human Rights Watch campaign, which led to the withdrawal of numerous honorary degrees from American and English universities and invited worldwide scrutiny and sanctions. He even threw a lavish party for himself on his 85th birthday that reportedly cost nearly $250,000 despite the country’s cholera outbreak and economic hardships at the time. Whether Mugabe should be revered or reviled in his homeland is another conversation entirely, but his rampant abuses of power and willingness to court constitutional controversy and perhaps even civil war instead of giving up power is an incredibly poor example to set for other leaders who may now think they too can follow Mugabe’s footsteps.
That being said, Zimbabwe (and Africa as a whole) is rather different politically from the rest of the world, so it makes it harder to draw parallels between Mugabe and other leaders. Kim-Jong Un may very well currently be the world’s most notorious dictator, and his stranglehold on power in North Korea makes it likely that his reign has no end date in sight. Rodrigo Duterte was elected as President of the Philippines last year and has already courted controversy for human rights violations of his own and his comments regarding topics such as rape and shooting his opponents. He will not face reelection until 2022, though, thanks to the country’s sexennial elections. Donald Trump was also sworn in just 10 months ago and has similarly courted controversy for his overall disregard of the institutional norms and practices of the United States government. He has expressed disdain for concepts like the Senate filibuster rule, staff members speaking with the press, and congressional investigations. Unlike Un and Duterte, though, Trump is still bound to the numerous checks and balances of the government that limit his power as president.
While these three powerful leaders do not have a whole lot in common, one could reasonably picture a day in the future in which they are in a similar situation to Mugabe: on the brink of having to relinquish their power, either by losing an election or by force, and being unwilling to give in, just like Mugabe. The world should feel fortunate that the Mugabe situation was not any worse than it could have been. Next time, though, we may not be so lucky.