How the mighty have fallen—sort of.
The past few weeks in southern Africa have been astounding. Zimbabwe’s military dislodged Robert Mugabe, the country’s president since independence from Britain in 1980. Around the same time, the newish Angolan president, João Lourenço, sacked Isabel dos Santos, the billionaire kleptocrat daughter of his predecessor, from the state oil company on which the economy hinges. Both putsches would have been unthinkable just weeks ago.
That they went down so efficiently seems to speak to a new war on impunity. But don’t start talking about an African spring just yet. Public opposition played no role in eradicating the demons, and Mugabe’s exit was of questionable constitutionality. The degrading of once dominant figures does not change the political status quo, although we might see some changes in economic policies. Mugabe and dos Santos suffered jolts because they angered the political elite, which hailed from the liberation movements. The sense of entitlement of these erstwhile freedom fighters has over the decades pushed opposition to the fringes, whether by intimidation, vote rigging, or because citizens can’t imagine someone else in charge. Ministers and their families peddle their influence to control big business, if they don’t actually loot coffers themselves. Monopolization of power means rampant nepotism and few checks on abuses via the various institutions that might ordinarily prosecute wrongdoing.
It also spells longevity. The African National Congress (ANC) has governed uninterrupted since the end of apartheid in 1994. Namibia’s South West People’s Organization (SWAPO) has presided for 27 years. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has clocked up 37. The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) have each held onto the presidency for 42.
It’s doubtful that these cliques will suddenly embrace transparency that would end their influence or enrichment. The MPLA has a slogan: a luta continua, “the struggle continues.” It should be rephrased “the party continues.”
Take Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s party enabled his profligate ways and human-rights abuses until he did the unthinkable—fire the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to allow succession by his wife, Grace Mugabe. A former typist 41 years younger than Mugabe’s 93 years, she played no part in the independence war, which infuriated the old veterans surrounding the president. So the military held the despot under house arrest and threatened impeachment until he finally stepped down. Mnangagwa was sworn in on Friday to take his place, promising greater openness to opponents and foreign investors who treated Mugabe as a pariah after he seized white-owned farms in 2000. But the new president’s résumé doesn’t inspire confidence. Known as “the Crocodile” for his ruthlessness, Mnangagwa was at Mugabe’s side during the most brutal moments of the regime. Mnangagwa headed the security apparatus during 1983 massacres of 20,000 political opponents. He ran the violent campaign of 2008 that made a mockery of free elections. He steadfastly stood by as Mugabe devastated the economy. Even if Mnangagwa suddenly sees the democracy light, the Mugabes are unlikely to face justice or part with their vast wealth, accumulated while the rest of the nation struggled on a per capita GDP of around $1,000. The former president has been granted immunity from prosecution, under the terms negotiated for his resignation.