Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe fired his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa earlier this month, clearing a path for his wife, Grace, to succeed him with Trumpesque subtlety. That proved a bridge too far for both the military and his ZANU-PF party, the underwriters of the 93-year-old dictator’s nearly four decades in power. Mugabe resigned on Tuesday after both pillars of his authority turned on him, while Mnangagwa, who fled the country to escape an alleged plot against his life, is expected to take over the presidency within 48 hours.
For a 37-year dictatorship to end without bloodshed is no small miracle. Africa’s other most famous post-colonial dictators — like Uganda’s Idi Amin, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) — required wars to dislodge them, and none of these cases led to freedom and democracy. Uganda has come a long way since Amin was deposed in 1979, but it has now had the same president (Yoweri Museveni) for 31 years. Freedom House’s 2017 report on the state of freedom in the world actually labels Uganda as “not free,” whereas Zimbabwe is considered “partly free.”
As for Libya and DR Congo, the collapse of their longterm dictatorships led to devastating wars that turned these countries into failed states for years to come. With past as precedent, to see Zimbabwe remove Mugabe nonviolently is a heartening development. It gives the country a much better chance at coming out of this transition a freer country than it was a week ago. It has certainly raised hopes of more honest elections being held there in the future.
But there’s also a good chance those hopes will be dashed.
Just as many in the western media have been taken in by Saudi Arabia’s palace coup masquerading as a genuine “drain the swamp” anti-corruption project, those cheering on the Zimbabwean military for putting Mugabe under house arrest and convincing him to finally cede his office may be putting too much faith in the people who made this happen. Both the ZANU-PF and the military want Mnangagwa, not Grace Mugabe, to be their next leader; they are less concerned about whether he uses that position to democratize Zimbabwe or not. In fact, they might not appreciate it if he does.
Zimbabwe, after all, has never exactly been a free country. The white colonial leaders of what was then Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence in 1965 (citing the precedent of 1776), but Britain did not grant the country independence until 1980, when Mugabe took power. In the interim, nationalist militias including Mugabe’s ZANU battled the white settler government in a brutal civil war. There literally was no “Zimbabwe” on the map before Mugabe put it there, and he’s only leaving now because he has lost the support of the army. His party is set to remain in power under new management.
Part of the reason Mugabe lost the army is that he has run the country about as far into the ground as it can bear to go. Corruption and mismanagement under the Mugabe regime — including his theoretically just but economically destructive land reforms that seized white farmers’ property and redistributed it to landless black Zimbabweans — turned the nation from Africa’s agricultural powerhouse of the 20th century to an economic basket case in the 21st. In light of how bad things got under Mugabe, even something less than full democracy would still be a huge improvement over his geronto-kleptocracy.
In other words, even if Mnangagwa doesn’t make Zimbabwe all that much more democratic, if he is more competent, less greedy, and less brutal than Mugabe, that’s still a small win for the country. The Trump administration isn’t likely to make guiding Zimbabwe onto a more democratic course a priority. But even if it did, Zimbabwe’s biggest foreign trade partner, investor, and influence is China, not the U.S.
That’s all the more reason to doubt whether Zimbabwe’s future will be free. China values stability in its African clients, not democracy. It has stood behind ruthless dictators like Qaddafi and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir as long as they keep handing out oil contracts to Chinese firms. While these relationships have forced Beijing to get more involved in African politics and wars than it had intended, its objectives there remain economic, not political. Mindful of the lessons of Libya, where it paid a price for sticking with Qaddafi and lost those precious contracts after he fell, China won’t stand in the way of Zimbabwe’s deep state replacing the aging Mugabe, but it is unlikely to demand much of Mnangagwa in the way of reform, as long as he keeps the country open for business.