Belligerence and bitterness: The Mugabe and Berlusconi connection

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IT’S still early days, but it appears former president Robert Mugabe has not readily accepted the reality of his departure from the presidency. After all, the man ruled Zimbabwe from 1980, and had become accustomed to all the trappings such a high profile brought; never mind that the country was in morbid decline for the better part of his reign.

It is manifestly clear that Mugabe feels cheated and robbed, through his forced departure on November 21 2017. “There is no democracy anymore in Zimbabwe…I`m saying this as Robert Mugabe and, of course, I am not afraid of anyone,” Mugabe is reported to have said in February while meeting Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union Commission`s chair.

Clearly, this is a man who feels hard done by and who – by the looks of it – would give almost anything to get back in power. In fact, in the heat of the November “military assisted transition”, Mugabe is reported to have offered to send his wife Grace into foreign exile in one last hurrah to save his skin, as the nation waited for his resignation.

What has also become apparent in the wake of his much publicised utterances since leaving power is the fact that the man still believes he is hugely popular nationwide. “They said to me people have marched, they want you to go. They said they have filled the stadium demanding that I should go, I said: ‘Which people, MDC people? What about those in Kadoma, what about those in Mutare; did you ask them?’” he is reported to have said at his private birthday celebrations. Engrossed in his sense of self-importance, it seems the ousted president believes he can play the king-maker role in the upcoming national elections. State media reports suggest that the he has lent his endorsement to the new political party, the New Patriotic Front, headed by Ambrose Mutinhiri.

It is not every day that one gets to draw parallels between Zimbabwe and Italy, but Mugabe`s reported foray into politics post-retirement, conveniently affords the opportunity to bear comparison between him and Italy`s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Like Mugabe, Berlusconi was forced out of power in 2011, following a tax fraud conviction in connection with his broadcasting company, Mediaset. This conviction bars the 81-year-old Berlusconi from holding public office until 2019.

Despite the ban, Silvio Berlusconi chose to remain involved in politics through his Forza Italia party, taking centre stage in campaigning on behalf of his party’s candidate. Like Mugabe, Berlusconi still sees his 2011 departure amid the European Debt Crisis as a “coup” against him. For many, the ban spelt the end to Berlusconi’s career in politics, having come into power in 1994. On the campaign trail however, he constantly described himself as “usato sicaro,” whichloosely translates means “used but still in good condition”.

In spite of regular appearances on national television, with a plastic surgery altered face, plastered in make-up, campaigning on behalf of his political party’s candidate, Berlusconi`s party performed poorly in the March 4 elections. Forza Italia only managed a miserly 14 percent of the vote, thereby eliminating any hopes Berlusconi may have harboured of being king maker in Italy`s coalition government.

Perhaps Robert fancies himself as “used but still in good condition” too, but he would do well to learn from Berlusconi`s ill-fated venture into politics. Essentially, Berlusconi overestimated his appeal and heft as he threw his weight around a candidate whose victory would have seen Berlusconi back in power, albeit via proxy. For the time being, it appears this is exactly what former Mugabe is attempting, which plan ironically entails denying Zanu PF, the party he has given his life to, an outright majority in the forthcoming elections.

Of course Mugabe has his rights of freedom of association protected by the constitution. However, it is not lost to most Zimbabweans how he presided over the collapse of the economy largely on account of the policies his administration propagated. If the media reports currently doing the rounds are anything to go by, then Mugabe could perhaps be making the same mistake Italy`s Berlusconi made; that is overestimating his influence.

Lately, the state media has been making pronouncements which were unfathomable prior to November 2017. Who could have ever imagined that The Herald could ever upbraid Robert Mugabe for any transgression whatsoever? Yet, one of its columnists recently said, “Mr Mugabe should dump his politics of entitlement and egotism”. Publicising such sentiments, let alone in the state would be taboo under Mugabe`s administration. He went to great lengths to muzzle freedom of expression during his rule.

Part of Mugabe’s failure that perhaps works against him in so far as his continued flirtations with politics are concerned is his inability to evolve both as a leader and in his political ideologies. The deposed president’s more recent speeches prior to his departure were long ramblings, often repeating strident tales from the liberation war. This is his fundamental failure. Beyond ideological lectures about Zimbabwe’s sovereignty and the oppression of the black man by the whites, Mugabe did not cast a forward-looking national vision for the country.

Some might even go to the extent of saying that, beyond liberating the country and assuming the reins of power, Mugabe and his administration never actually had a national vision of advancing Zimbabwe, hence its progressive decline since 1980. Now it seems, people are interested in more than just idealism, but tangible development at a personal and national level. Belligerent and bitter, Mugabe`s narcissism severely weakened his own party, and ultimately led to his forced departure at a time he was so drunk in power.

Now with revelations of corrupt dealings by his close family, specifically as regards to leasing out farms to dispossessed white farmers – a practice he was vehemently opposed to in public  – Mugabe`s hypocrisy is coming to bear. It would be overly simplistic on his part to assume that he holds the same level of influence to potentially shake things up in the upcoming elections. No doubt, his contribution, negative or otherwise, will forever be etched in the annals of Zimbabwe`s history. He is the founding father of the nation, and no one and nothing can take that away from him.

However, one way or the other, Zimbabwe is seeking to chart a new course, a brighter and prosperous future, as cliché as this may sound. This new future neither includes nor involves Mugabe. Maybe this is something he has yet to come to terms with. He is all but a consumed man now. Just like Berlusconi eventually found out, politics is a game of relevance, and it appears Mugabe has not yet gotten the memo.