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Robert Mugabe exit offers us vital lessons

By Irungu Houghton | Published Sun, November 26th 2017 at 00:00, Updated November 25th 2017 at 19:23 GMT +3
Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. (Photo: Courtesy)

After a series of trips to Zimbabwe, Uganda and Sudan in 2005, I wondered what happens to leaders who fail to effectively manage governance transitions. Last week’s events in Zimbabwe gave me my answer. It also offers a lesson for President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta as he approaches his second and last term.

Political legitimacy is the life-blood of all political systems. No level of economic or military power, smoke or mirrors can keep a government in power if it loses the will of its people. Robert and Grace Mugabe discovered this painful lesson this week. Tiyambi Zeleza argues that by failing to manage the transitions from the liberation struggle to the development state, authoritarian to pluralist politics and an intergenerational leadership transition, Mugabe just torpedoed his 37-year legacy. It would be a stretch to draw too many parallels between Kenya and Zimbabwe. The countries are different, but there are some lessons.

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Violence, ethnic divisions and unfair use of state resources accompanied the 2000, 2005 and 2008 elections in Zimbabwe. Exhausted and frustrated, opposition party Movement for Democratic Change withdrew from the 2008 elections and then joined ZANU-PF in a government of national unity in 2009. The marriage lasted only a honeymoon. Within a year, MDC had withdrawn again but this time the opposition party was in shatters. It never really recovered.

Unchecked by an effective opposition, President Mugabe, VP Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling party presided over impunity and an authoritarian and corrupted state. It remains to see whether Mnangagwa or the “crocodile” as he is sometimes called, will undergo a metamorphosis and transform his legacy.

Turning back to our impending inauguration this Tuesday, what lessons does Zimbabwe offer Uhuru’s last term? Firstly, we may be at the end of the state of permanent election, but it will take real genius to avoid the state of the permanent insurrection. We have a legitimation crisis of a political nature. Legitimation crises are not new.

The Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) gave one to the colonial state in the 1950s. Mwakenya gave another to the Kanu government in the 1980s. Legitimacy crises handled well are the stuff that define statesmen and stateswomen in history. They also created our peaceful political transitions in 1963, 2003 and 2013.

Despite the safety of the Supreme Court ruling, Jubilee Party missed another chance this week to hold dialogue with Nasa before the swearing-in. It seems hardliners still have hold of all four of their principals’ ears. Jubilee advisors seem more preoccupied with the selection of the next Cabinet. Public leaks seem to suggest 30 Cabinet Secretaries and Principal Secretaries may be shown the door this time round.

Leadership transitions like these are vital for regime success. They must be approached with care as often smart people make stupid mistakes as we saw in Zimbabwe. Rewarding political operatives and ethnic balancing without an open recruitment process would be one of these. Jubilee must go beyond introverted “my belly” politics to identifying strategic leadership competencies that can effectively lead the country.

The new cabinet must be comprised of men and (more) women informed and committed to our constitutional values. Patience, wise, agile and optimistic would be some of the qualities they will need to lead this country. The next national administration needs an open, listening culture rooted in transparency, integrity and public accountability. They should be prepared to communicate clearly, consistently and respectfully or be drowned out by the cacophony of voices out there.

Uhuru can learn from the relationship blind and visually impaired people have with their guide dogs. Guide dogs have the intuition to obey their master’s commands but also have the instinct to disobey their commands when they endanger them both. Choosing “yes” men and women this time will be a disaster for Uhuru’s second term.

ALSO READ: A deal that convinced Robert Mugabe to resign

The country is too complex for a control-command approach this time round. Zimbabwe showed us this. The last five years have shown us this. Time to make some new and #Powerfulchoices Mr President-elect.

@irunguhoughton

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