The fall of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been welcomed by many Ugandans with excitement. For many people tired of President Yoweri Museveni’s long rule, Mugabe’s fall gives hope that their nightmare is about to end. That a long serving president who had ruled his country like a colossus can fall from power must be encouraging to many anti Museveni Ugandans and worrisome to Museveni’s supporters.
Yet Mugabe fell not because he ruled for long but because of what I would call “family overreach.” Contrary to the sentiments of many Ugandans, those who have taken power in Zimbabwe – the army and most likely with former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa behind it – have not raised Mugabe’s longevity as an issue. Instead the attempts to purge ZANU-PF of its “historicals” precipitated the military intervention.
Thus Mugabe has been sidelined (I am avoiding using overthrown) because his wife was wrecking the foundation on which her husband’s power rested i.e. the old guard of ZANU-PF in both the political and military sphere. Indeed Mugabe has not been overthrown by the army. He had already been overthrown by Mrs Grace Mugabe. The old man had been reduced to acting merely in the interests of his wife rather than the interests of the political and military structure that was a repository of his power. This is a coup against Grace, not Robert. In sidelining Mugabe, the political and military structure of ZANU-PF has reasserted its power.
Mrs Grace Mugabe has been ambitious, brass, reckless and arrogant. Yet she knew little about the dynamics of power. Like most people, she thought power in Zimbabwe resided in Mugabe. She did not appreciate that Mugabe, like any other leader in the world, cannot hold power singly. Leaders act as representatives or faces of power. Their personality compliments and reinforces that power but it is never the foundation of it.
Once the structural foundation on which that power rests shifts, the face of that power loses it. Leaders wield power by making a series of bargains with the most powerful social forces in their societies. An effective leader is not the absolute ruler who decides singly on the destiny of a nation (as western media and academic propaganda on personal rule in non western societies posits) but one who is a good referee to the competitions among powerful interests. That is the source of Museveni’s or Vladmir Putin’s power, not their personalities. Personality does not create power, it buttresses it.
Grace wanted to exploit her husband’s advanced age to propel herself to the presidency. She cultivated support of the ZANU-PF youth and began using them as an instrument against the ZANU-PF old guard. This way, Grace represented an actual change of power in Zimbabwe from an old, tired guard to a new demographic. But she forgot that Mugabe had cultivated and consolidated his power by building a broad alliance of an old guard whose foundation was the military and this had remained solid. When she alienated them, they struck back.
This brings me to Museveni’s Uganda. Those worried about his longevity need to worry even more. Museveni has actually disbanded the old guard in the NRM and the UPDF, but most especially the UPDF. While the military leaders of Zimbabwe are all from the old guard who fought the bush war, Museveni has purged UPDF of these people. Almost the entire leadership of the UPDF today was not in the bush. And with the exit of Amama Mbabazi, the NRM lost the last historical with political weight that could resemble that of Mnangagwa. Events in Zimbabwe may hasten Museveni’s elimination of any serious rival for power within NRM’s Old guard.
Secondly, Museveni is still young and alert. I think Mugabe lost the plot because he had grown too old and tired to conduct all the intrigues of power. Museveni is 20 years younger than Mugabe. Unless his health deteriorates faster than his age, he still has the alertness of mind and vigor to control power by placating the interests of Uganda’s diverse and unruly elites. The push to remove age limits only shows the strength of his power and his ability to position himself as the most important vehicle for the furtherance of the interests of the most critical social forces of our country.
Far from changing his mind on longevity, Mugabe’s fall may only remind Museveni of the reforms and changes he needs to accomplish in the power structure of the NRM and UPDF to protect himself from any unwelcome power grab. Besides, Museveni’s family seem firmly under his control. No one drives him the way Grace drove Robert. They all act at his beck and call. Attempts by his son in law, Odrek Rwabwogo, to run for the post of NRM vice chairman for western Uganda were thwarted. His column on ideology was banned. With Mugabe’s example he may learn better how to disguise any plans for a family succession.
Therefore those keen to see Museveni go need to study the source of his power and acquire means to wreck it. Hoping that Zimbabwe will play itself out automatically in Uganda is most likely going to be a pipe dream.
By Andrew M. Mwenda