TRADITIONALLY, President Robert Mugabe’s electoral strengths boil down to violence, rigging, fraud, charm and state media bias. His weaknesses: old age, bad image, corruption and Zanu PF’s internal divisions. For decades now, this has been standard and universally accepted reportage.
At face value these verdicts make sense for they could indeed be true if they were not already so. Mugabe is indeed indisputably and proudly violent; he enjoys an arthritic grip on the state media and to the extent he has never been criticised, not even once for a straight 33 years.
At 89, his candidature in today’s election comes across as some detail to a folk tale. More so when considering both his ogre image and the fact that many within his party privately wish he was long gone. And yet the sense and depth of these explanations get easily lost when strengths mutate into weaknesses and vice versa.
Corruption and violence, for example, can pass as both strengths and weaknesses. Voter fraud, which has played a key role in past elections, could yet again determine this year’s outcome. And yet it is this corruption characterised by the routine looting and daily bribery of public officials which feeds the widespread resentment for Mugabe’s rule.
While violence seems to have the immediate and obvious benefits of spreading fear and therefore forced devotion, the opposite has often tended to be the case in Zimbabwe. As recentlyas 2008, the Murambatsvina (Drive out rubbish) campaign still fresh in their minds, urban dwellers across the country voted overwhelmingly against Mugabe.
Clearly, these paradoxes- the occasional mutation of strengths into weaknesses and vice versa- point to an overwhelming system of gargantuan proportions; and what are accepted as standard explanations to Mugabe’s electoral endurance could just be details to this system in whose inner workings may lie the answer to that vexing question: how does Mugabe rig the election?
This system which has worked wonders for Mugabe and may do so again this week, has got both loyalty and devotion as its main arteries. To achieve both devotion and loyalty Mugabe, ever an arch-manipulator, has over the years managed to tie his cohorts and perhaps everybody’s fate to his and in a way that has fostered a ubiquitous and inescapable sense of mutual vulnerability making him both the image and conscience of the party.Advertisement
Corruption and violence, twin vices which form the nucleus of Zanu PF’s bad image, are ironically Mugabe’s magic wands making him the sole dispenser of both goodwill and fate. While both vices are officially said to be frowned upon they are in reality practiced at Mugabe’s discretion and must always serve his totalitarian project.
And, as this election will show both these practices can be discontinued or perpetuated at the leader’s whims which explains why violence seems to have ceased while voter fraud in said to be in full swing.
To be admitted into the patronage system, one must, on behalf of the master, commit either of the two crimes or both; and once in and guilty there is no going back. Crimes committed in service to the system remain un-prosecuted in return for devotion. So the system of cronyism serves as a facility for membership recruitment and as a mechanism to secure collective loyalty and an inbuilt disciplinary system.
Such is Mugabe’s system to which even the top army generals have fallen victim. Everybody fears accounting in the post-Mugabe era. Bring in propaganda this loyalty is attributed to charm. Notoriety becomes popularity.
Consequently, the whole system becomes some kind of a political orchestra in which the members may change but not the conductor. Members may resent one another, as is the case with the Emerson Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru rivalry camps, but not when they must serve the orchestra. Come election time they must naturally sing in unison and to the same old symphony- a medley of threats and denunciations. Perhaps nothing best illustrates this than the fact that among the champions of Mugabe’s survival are not just arch enemies but some who, according to wikileaks revelations, pray to see his back.
That the conductor of the orchestra is so old and in such poor health so as to force discord is neither here nor there. Rather, his old age comes in handy. In Zimbabwe, as elsewhere in Africa, age comes with wisdom and the older the conductor gets the more loyalty he inspires. Again here we see a weakness becoming strength.
As can be seen Mugabe’s core strength is the sophisticated and manipulative totalitarian system- a mosaic of self-generated and naturally given advantages. So efficient is the system that even when disaster strikes the orchestra-that massive body of mutually vulnerable servants will, foul or fair, save him and therefore themselves. Before, during and after crisis, Mugabe seems secure. As Zimbabwe votes today and as the whole world remains on tenterhooks the machine might just be at work.