Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe (for 30 plus years) is dead. No one is really surprised by this, in fact it was expected once he was ‘gently’ removed from his post as President and shuttled off into exile. Once removed from the illegitimate wealth he had access to as president, Mugabe like many African leaders who are forcefully ousted from office, began to deteriorate.
But Mugabe’s life also closely mirrors the lives of many of Africa’s political despots. Rising to political power as revolutionaries or even heralded saviours, most have a good run where they implement policies that are progressive and earn them the respect of the people before they turn, and began to use the machinery that allowed them gain power to oppress the citizens they swore to help. Africa has some of the oldest leaders in the world, many of whom have spent several decades as supreme leaders, running their economies to the ground, oppressing their people, diverting communal wealth to personal projects. No part of Africa has been spared this, not even West Africa.
President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia spent decades running death squads that killed citizens, suppressing free press and sexual assaulting women before he fled the country after losing a general election. Cameroonian president Paul Biya ‘rules’ his country from a hotel in Switzerland, returning only for major events and justifying the genocidal civil war that has targeted Angolophone Cameroonians, murdered in the thousands. At 85 and post 7 elections, his countrymen have resigned themselves to waiting for his death as the only way to remove him from power. Even Nigeria went through its 30 year cycle of despots, none able to hold power as long as their neighbours because of internal rivalries and ethnic prejudice. But the damage was just as thorough and a high profile death was the only jolt that allowed the country pivot towards a democratic era.
It is disheartening that death is our only true fail safe against political dictators and strongmen, not a powerful constitution or a strong opposition. Death might be inevitable, but it takes too long, and too many people suffer. Mugabe has passed, and though he died a villain, there is much that can be learned from his politics, primarily that there is such a thing as a holding on to political power for too long.