A New Lease For ‘Thugtatorship’ In Zimbabwe – OpEd

By Professor Alemayehu G Mariam / August 12, 2013
Robert Mugabe, the senile octogenarian and the only president since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, “won” for the seventh time by 61 percent of the vote . His Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) clinched a supermajority in parliament that will allow it to change the constitution.

This past May, Mugabe signed a new constitution which sets a term limit of two five-year terms for president (not retroactively applicable to Mugabe) and eliminated the post of prime minister. In 2009, following a violent election aftermath, a coalition government of national unity was formed designating opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.

General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, who led the African Union Election Observer team (69 observers) in Zimbabwe certified the election as valid declaring, “I have never seen an election that is perfect. The point has always been and will always be, how much the infractions, imperfections have affected the reflection of the will of the people and up to the point of the close of the polls our observation was that there were incidents that could have been avoided. In fact, up to the close of the polls we do not believe that those incidents will amount to the result not to reflect the will of the people.”

Bernard Membe of Tanzania who led the Southern African Development Community (SADC) election observer mission (442 observers) chimed in declaring that the election was “free and peaceful”. The observer mission from the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) likewise gave its approval and urged all parties to accept the election result. None of the observer missions used the phrase “free and fair” to describe the elections outcomes.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) (7,000 certified domestic monitors) declared the elections were “seriously compromised” and pointed out a number of serious irregularities. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai called the election “a huge farce” and a “sham that does not reflect the will of the people.”

Only Botswana called for an investigation

Botswana’s observer team did not buy Mugabe’s election victory or the AU/SADC’s affirmation of it. After reviewing the preliminary report of its 80-member election observer team led by former Botswanan vice-president Mompati Merafhe, the government of Botswana issued an official statement advising that “there is a need for an independent audit of the just concluded electoral process in Zimbabwe. Such an audit will shed light on the conduct of the just ended election and indicate any shortcomings and irregularities that could have affected its result, as well as the way forward.”

This is in sharp contrast to the conclusions of the 60-person African Union (AU) observer team led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire which concluded that the 2010 “election” in which the ruling regime in Ethiopia claimed a 99.6 percent victory was “free and fair”. Masire said his team found no evidence of intimidation and misuse of state resources for ruling party campaigns in Ethiopia and proclaimed, “The [elections] were largely consistent with the African Union regulations and standards and reflect the will of the people … The AU were unable to observe the pre-election period. The participating parties expressed dissatisfaction with the pre-election period. They did not have freedom to campaign. We had no way of verifying the allegations.” Masire’s report was a travesty of election observation.

I am gratified that vice president Mompati Merafhe’s observer team in Zimbabwe made its recommendation for an audit investigation based not only on observed election irregularities but also because the “various incidents and circumstances [that] were revealed call into question whether the entire electoral process, and thus its final result, can be recognised as having been fair, transparent and credible in the context of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections within the Community.” I would like to underscore that the Zimbabwe election also fails to meet the AU Elections Observation and Monitoring Guidelines.

No honour among African election thieves?

Are elections in Africa a colossal exercise in futility? Is it possible to have a free and fair election in any African country? Is the African Union (as “African Dictators’ Club”) capable of undertaking an independent and fair observation of elections in an African country? Is electoral democracy a quaint game played by African dictators for the amusement of Western donors and loaners? Is dictatorship in Africa by any other name democracy?

I have long argued that many African governments and regimes including those in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia are thugtatorships. In my February 2011 commentary Thugtatorship: The Highest Stage of African Dictatorship, I sought to explain in simple terms the nature of steroidal African dictatorships:

If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, a thugocracy (thugtatorship) is a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves. Simply stated, a thugtatorship is rule by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugs) in designer suits. It is becoming crystal clear that much of Africa today is a thugocracy privately managed and operated for the exclusive benefit of bloodthirsty thugtators. In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population scarce resources necessary for basic survival.

Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a classic thugtatorship. In March 2008, Mugabe declared victory in the presidential election after waging a campaign of violence and intimidation on his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, “a small group of high-ranking Zimbabwean officials (including Grace Mugabe) have been extracting tremendous diamond profits.” Mugabe is so greedy that he stole outright “£4.5 million from [aid] funds meant to help millions of seriously ill people.”

In 2010, Mugabe announced his plan to sell “about $1.7 billion of diamonds in storage”. Today, Mugabe and his cronies have sucked Zimbabwe dry. Zimbabwe has no national currency of its own and uses the currencies of other countries. When the Zimbabwe Dollar was in circulation, it had denominations of insane proportions. At one point in 2009, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe issued notes in the amount of 100 trillion dollars, which would not buy a bus ticket.

In 2003, Mugabe boasted, “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.” Mugabe with his trademark Hitler moustache (tooth brush moustache) remains President of Zimbabwe.

Ethiopia also a ‘thugtatorship’

The regime in Ethiopia is also a thugtatorship. The ruling ‘Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front’ (TPLF), its handmaiden the ‘Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Revolutionary Front’ (EPDRF) and their supporters pretty much own the Ethiopian economy. According to the World Bank, roughly half of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.

In June 2012, the World Bank released its 448-page report, ‘Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia’ with substantial evidence showing that Ethiopia under the TPLF regime has become a full-fledged corruptocracy (a regime controlled and operated by a small clique of corrupt-to-the-core vampiric kleptocrats who cling to power to enrich themselves, relatives, friends and supporters at public expense).

Change is inevitable even though African dictators believe they can remain in power indefinitely by stealing elections and harassing, jailing and killing their opponents. African thugtators believe they can use their military and police to crush their opposition out of existence. Yet many African dictatorships have fallen from their own internal weaknesses and contradictions. Behind the tough and gritty exterior of regimes such as those in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia remain fragile structures and confused and ignorant leaders who are clueless about good governance and what to do to remain in power legitimately.

Neither Mugabe’s regime nor the regime in Ethiopia have clear long term goals or strategies to achieve legitimacy. Their deepest aspiration is to transform themselves from bush thugs to urbane statesmen, but there is no political alchemy to do that. As long as the U.S. and Europe continue to provide endless handouts, Africa is doomed to remain a thugocracy.

Change could come through peaceful free and fair elections in Africa. It is more likely that real change in Africa will come through the expression of the tornadic wrath of the people as seen in the ‘Arab Spring’. African thugtators would be wise to heed a simple advice. “Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.” Arrrrgh! The thought of poor Zimbabwe wearing the same diapers since 1980…


Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer. This is an abridged version of the author’s commentary on August 11, 2013 headlined ‘Dishonor Among African Elections Thieves ‘ published in Al Mariam’s Open Salon. .

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