Africa’s ‘grandest chefs’ fret about the political afterlife


THE greatest favour President Robert Mugabe (89) and Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos (71) could do the world would be to write honest and comprehensive memoirs about just how they did it; precisely how they managed to stay in power so long.


That would be beneficial to us all first of all because they would have to leave office to write their memoirs. And then, because those memoirs, if frank, would provide us with such a fascinating insight into the nature of African authoritarian politics — call it “Grands Chefs 101”. And about the nature and workings of political power anywhere.

Maybe Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo could offer some useful insights too. He is after all the African leader who has been in power longest, having deposed and then executed his even more brutal uncle Francisco Macías Nguema in August 1979.

Dos Santos took power just days later, in September 1979, though more peacefully and legitimately, when the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) appointed him leader of the party and president of the country in September 1979, after the death of Agostinho Neto who had led the MPLA into power four years before.

Mugabe followed the two into State House in even more legitimate fashion in April 1980, having won the country’s first democratic elections. But it has been the process of retaining power rather than getting it that has been so intriguing. Clearly, ruthlessness has been a major factor.

In Obiang’s case, that is probably by far the most important factor as Equatorial Guinea has clearly been and remains the most oppressive of the three countries in question, despite his recent efforts to airbrush his international image.

Mugabe is also quite obviously ruthless where he deems it necessary to hold on to power, whether that has been his own position as the top dog or Zanu PF position as top party. The suspicions about his role in the Gukurahundi massacre of thousands of rival Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) supporters in Matabeleland in the early 1980s attest to that ruthlessness.

And ruthlessness, coupled with a readiness to employ violence wherever “necessary” has characterised his politics ever since, as the killing of and otherwise violent resistance to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) well into the present show.

But cunning has also contributed hugely to Mugabe’s success as we have just seen in the way he saw off the MDC in the July 31 elections by exploiting the expectation of violence to distract his enemies’ attention from a more subtle strategy.

While MDC-T leader outgoing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s and Welshman Ncube’s MDCs beavered away industriously and sincerely at co-governing Zimbabwe with Zanu PF in the unity government, Mugabe and Zanu PF devoted most of their energies to the thing they know best: staying in power. They spent the four years of the unity government registering voters and where they could not mobilise real voters, they evidently mobilised fictitious ones through a voters’ roll that, at the time of writing, had still not been made available to the MDC-T so it could prove the suspected massive vote rigging.

Dos Santos is a more puzzling case. He lacks Mugabe’s credentials, which have been so crucial to his public support, as the one who led the party and the country to liberation. And he also seems marginally less ruthless, though the way the MPLA insisted on hunting down and killing National Union for the Total Independence of Angola leader Jonas Savimbi showed ruthlessness was not lacking.

But the ability to defeat their political enemies is a little more obvious, though no doubt the imaginary memoirs of both Dos Santos and Mugabe would cast some fascinating light on the subject too.

It has been their ability to maintain power within their own parties that is less visible and therefore more intriguing and puzzling. Of course some of those same qualities of ruthlessness and cunning which they have evidently used to good effect against rival parties, have surely stood them in good stead in maintaining control of their own parties.

And patronage has been another important instrument and perhaps more so for Dos Santos. Mugabe has clearly distributed considerable patronage himself, especially to the security chiefs who have remained all along his political — and physical — life insurance of last resort, never wavering in their loyalty and publicly refusing ever to serve anyone else.

Among other goodies, Mugabe also strategically distributed farms seized from white farmers after 2000 to generals, judges and others in key positions of power.

But Dos Santos has presumably distributed far more patronage not least because he has had so much to dispense.

Nevertheless, the mystery is how he has kept his own party quiescent when he has clearly distributed so much more of that patronage to himself and to his immediate family. His daughter Isabel has become perhaps the richest woman in Africa, largely through her father’s patronage and he appointed his son José Filomeno to head Angola’s sovereign wealth fund.
This obscene accumulation of wealth is clearly obnoxious to the MPLA, but it seems helpless to do anything about it. This suggests the ultimate strategy for clinging to power for both Mugabe and Dos Santos which seems to have been après moi le déluge.

That has entailed knocking down any successor who might emerge and playing the divide-and-rule game in their respective ruling parties; that has been designed to create the impression — perhaps the reality — that they are indispensable, that if they go, chaos will ensue.

At the time of writing, Mugabe had still not announced his new Cabinet, nearly six weeks after the election, an obvious sign that he was having difficulty in trying to contain the succession battle within Zanu PF between the Joice Mujuru factions and the Emerson Mnangagwa factions (if not others). The welfare of Zimbabwe cried out for new blood, but real politiek suggested the hardliners led by Mnangagwa would prevail.

In somewhat similar fashion, Dos Santos is facing pressure from within the MPLA to find a successor and move on. But it is clear that power has become so addictive after over 30 years in office that they cannot contemplate life without it. Or even death perhaps.

Who can they trust to protect them from retaliation for their crimes when they no longer have a monopoly on power? And who can protect their wealth in retirement? So maybe both intend to die in office.

But who will then protect the wealth and well-being of their relatives after they are gone?

— Independent Newspapers, South Africa


  1. This story is thought provoking. It was written with such neutrality yet raising significant questions. How have these grandfathers’ of African politics manage to entrench themselves in such a way as to render populations in their countries impotent?

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