Zimbabwe and the lesson for leaders

The military coup and forced resignation (surely to come within days) of Robert Mugabe is great news for Zimbabwe. It’s very unlikely that they could end up with a worse leader than Mugabe.

Hearing this news while listening to the final episode in Mike Walker’s fantastic radio drama Tsar cover Russia post-1989 got me thinking about Mugabe’s final, fatal mistake.

If your government has popular support, you can exercise your will over the army and still sleep safely at night. If your government leads without popular support, as some in the world still do, military backing is the only reason you’re still in power and you absolutely cannot piss them off.

Russia in summer 1991. Soviet leader Gorbachev has popular support for his democratisation of the country. The Duma has become a fully elected chamber and there are elected Mayors in Russian cities. The Soviet army want a return to the stability and order of Communist Party leadership. They attempt a coup, but are faced down by mass popular protests and relent.

2013 Removal of Egyptian President Morsi. After economic failures, the undermining of secular government institutions and popular protest, the army arrest the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi and outlaw his Muslim Brotherhood party. This coup is very complicated and perhaps more directly a case of army action regardless of public will. However, while the public were willing to stand out in the streets and die in order to see Hosni Mubarak fall from power in 2011, two years later Morsi supporters did not continue their resistance in the face of army live fire.

Turkey in summer 2016. A military coup is launched against President Erdoğan but quickly ends after a mass public show of support for the president, including storming buildings occupied by soldiers. The most widely held view is that the coup was to prevent any further erosion of Turkey’s secular constitution and stop Erdogan consolidating any more power away from the legislature and toward himself, but in this case the public support his Islamic authoritarianism.

Zimbabwe in November 2017. President Mugabe sacks his state security chief, Emmerson Mnangagwa, widely thought to be next in line as leader. Attention is drawn to his wife Grace Mugabe, who has been openly expressing her desire for power over the last few years. The army despise her and, seeing their line in the sand crossed, act to force Robert to resign. There is no public response until a few days later, when crowds throng the streets to celebrate Mugabe’s expected imminent departure.

Through this lens we can see how certain apparently deeply undemocratic governments are still able to reorganise, purge and annoy their armies.

Kim Jong-un enjoys almost universal adoration and unfailing popular support in North Korea, thanks to the most comprehensive programme of human indoctrination ever known, which begins practically in the womb. He is under continual threat from military generals who plot to end the Kim dynasty, but he never looks remotely at risk as he has them shot with anti-aircraft guns, poisoned, or burned alive by flamethrower.

Over the last couple of years, Xi Jin Ping has reorganised the  PLA significantly to come under government and his direct command. He has had high ranking generals effectively purged through corruption charges and extreme demotions. Despite lacking true democratic legitimacy, Xi is very popular in China and the army know the people would resist any coup attempt against the Chinese Communist Party.

Dictators of the world, keep the army onside!

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