Is Mugabe now a prisoner of his patronage network?

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Could President Robert Mugabe’s tragedy be a story of a despot who does everything to secure perpetual ownership to a throne, unknowingly forfeiting the liberties of a relaxed retirement?
A FRIEND of mine recently shocked me when they expressed some sympathy for President Mugabe’s ‘commitment’ to continue working long after what would be expected of any person of his age group. My friend had taken the view that it was unlikely that “clinging on” was Mugabe’s choice; my friend had taken the view that no one wants to be the oldest executive country President in the world.
He posited that it is almost impossible to imagine that a man of the President’s age would still be keen to continue exposing his battered body to the demands and rigors of running a country that is going through the turbulence Zimbabwe is currently experiencing. The hypothesis therefore is that there are other forces that are bent on keeping the 92-year-old on the throne, and even supporting his candidature for the presidency in 2018; with a prospect where the country will have a 99-year-old executive president at the 2023 election.
Upon reflecting on this view, my initial thoughts were that my friend had indeed somehow become compromised, suffering from some sort of Stockholm syndrome – a moral ambiguity making them have sympathy for ‘a villain’. I could not understand why anyone would have sympathy for someone who inherited and perfected some formidable tools of oppression and had refined those same oppressive tools to make them even more lethal.
My friend’s sympathetic remarks for the President led me to re-think and I started seeing the President’s position as somehow an unfortunate position that he unknowingly thrust himself into, I then started contemplating whether the veteran leader has something in common with the citizens after all, a suffering victim of an unfathomable system rather than a protagonist.
One has to believe that the president is a lame duck politician, more of a puppet who has handlers who give him instructions on what to do and say if one is to entertain and accept the idea that the once strongman is now a victim. As someone who is interested in the Zimbabwe conundrum, I asked myself what if there was some substance in my friend’s unprecedented view.Advertisement

If the president is now indeed a victim of his handlers, are the citizens aware that they are being ruled by unelected people hiding behind the mask of the feared veteran leader? In order to open up to the possibility, I relooked into the events of the last few years for clues that might support the notion that our once revered President has become a lame duck president.
A lame duck literally refers to a duck which is unable to keep up with its flock, making it a target for predators. In politics, a lame duck politician is one whose position in office will soon end and has limited authority because a replacement is a certainty or has already been identified. A lame duck President tends to detach himself from the electorate, shies away from addressing policy issues, focuses on issues where he thinks he has control when his once loyal lieutenants start showing dissent.
It would seem that the president of Zimbabwe has been exhibiting these signs in recent years. Other than doling out some freebies at rallies, the president seems uninterested in addressing issues that improve the electorate’s welfare. The president can no longer be bothered to address policy issues as highlighted by the Chinamasa vs Zhuwao saga and Muchinguri’s quail debacle.
Huge scandals have been exposed in recent months but the president seems indifferent. In fact, when it comes to running the government, the president has become more of a bystander. There are signs of dissent and chaos everywhere in both his party and in government. The president seems to spend all his time on foreign travel and cutting oversized cakes at events held in his honour by the so-called faithful.
I then recalled some rumours that circulated after the 2008 elections to the effect that President Mugabe had conceded defeat to Tsvangirai and had offered to step down but was stopped from doing so by what has been described by social media activists as his minions – the hangers-on political class who have benefited immensely from the president’s patronage.
If the president does indeed have handlers, we must try to answer the questions of who these handlers might be and why they do not have confidence to come out in the open and publicly proclaim their interests. Recent succession fights in the ruling party are a good starting point. A basic analysis of the infighting suggests that all opposing parties swear their loyalty to the president. It would seem that the warring parties in Zanu PF are not fighting for control of the ruling party (as would normally be expected in a political party). That begs the question, if they are not fighting for control of the party, and they are all supporting the same candidate to lead the party, now and until 2023, then what are they fighting for
 It becomes plausible that they are actually fighting for control over the president. War veterans even went as far as lashing out after concluding that they had failed to wrestle the president from his young wife despite their romantic overtures. The warring parties must have concluded that whoever controls the president runs the country as long as he is ‘alive’ and perceived to be on the throne. It is entirely possible that what we describe as ‘la coste’ vs ‘G40’ factional fights for control of the party is actually the battle to be the ventriloquist – president’s handler.
If there is indeed a handler or handlers, it is likely that they are from within Zanu PF. To theorise on who the handlers might be, we look at who has held sway in the past few years. Throughout Zanu PF’s never-ending purges of the last couple of years, the president has consistently sided with his wife, regardless of her unpopularity and outrageous utterances. In some cases, the wife announces things way ahead of the president with the president only endorsing matters at a later stage.
Recently there was meeting/rally where the first lady is known to have gone as far as ordering the president to terminate his speech early and sit down. In an unusual move for the old statesman, the president capitulated and even conceded that he was now taking orders from his much younger wife routinely.
As if she was tackling doubters, the first lady even went on to give the infamous “ndichitotonga” speech where she made it clear that she was already ruling the country, and not aspiring to rule as believed by the masses. The First Lady further shocked the world when she swore to the country that President Mugabe would rule from a wheelbarrow and from the grave regardless of how ridiculous that may sound.
Surely if the first lady cared about her husband or indeed the country she would be the one pushing for him to step down and rest?  The question that begets the conscience then is; why would a once larger than life president allow himself to be used this way? In order to explore this question we have to look at the systems that the president has built around himself to keep remain in power. The system of vested interests that the President unknowingly built around himself may have the potential to deny him an option to step down.
In a bid to preserve his regime, the President built a loyal cohort around himself. What binds the cohort to the president is that they believe that their ill-gotten wealth has been accumulated through Mugabe’s system of patronage. An end to that system of patronage whose face is the president himself would spell an end of privileges.
That cohort has a couple of things in common; they have benefited immensely from Zanu PF’s system of patronage and they have committed crimes that the president has either overlooked or pardoned. We now know (thanks to former vice president Mujuru) that the president keeps files on the ill-gotten benefits and ‘pardoned’ crimes with a view to pull them out when a minion steps out of line.
At its core, President Mugabe is the system’s figurehead – the glue that keeps the system together. His followers believe that he is core to the system and therefore his demise will spell disintegration of the system itself. A lot of the minions do not know how to survive outside of that patronage system; Vice President Mnangagwa’s ‘it’s very cold outside Zanu PF’ remark suggests this.
Up until now, the system has been feeding on grabbing assets and dishing them out to the cohorts to buy their support but there are signs that the country is running out of things to grab. The focus is shifting onto defending those assets that have been dished out. As a result, one gets to see how the president’s pain and the suffering of the country get viewed as prices to pay.
It would seem plausible that the president is being forced to march towards a personal tragedy without an ability to step down. President Mugabe built a system designed to make sure that no one challenges him to the throne; he completely overlooked the fact that the very same system would prohibit him from stepping down from the throne should he ever choose to do so.
The system is built around a personality cult and no other minion can sustain it without the president. So much is rooted in the president’s longevity to the extent that it would not be surprising if and when the president passes that the news is kept a secret for a while.
David Mutori (FCCA MBA MSc) believes that Zimbabweans underestimate their individual responsibilities and potential to determine their future. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on