Foreign Policy Blogs

When Mugabe Goes Does The Fantasy Become a Nightmare?

Robert Mugabe Celebrated His 88th Birthday in February

[Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo]

Last week there was a mini Twittersplosion. Rumors began to fly that Robert Mugabe, who had recently traveled to Singapore, was gravely ill. Some asserted that he was on the verge of death.

Te response was not exactly joy — most African observers are much like I am, they would like Mugabe to go; they do not necessarily want to publicly hope for his death. But the response was optimistic, sometimes almost giddy. On 9 April I wrote two Tweets in response (you can follow me @dcatafrica where I often post #FPAAfricaBlog) which read as follows:

Re. rumors that Mugabe is dying: remember, allegedly the Generals have still never saluted Tsvangirai. Does not bode well for near future.

I followed minutes later with the following:

In other words — Mugabe yielding power would be a good thing. His dying with no clear future leadership plans would not be.

My point was, and continues to be, that Mugabe’s departure would be a good thing for Zimbabweans if there is some sense of what happens next. But a vacuum in which Mugabe dies and there is a scramble for who will take a control, a scramble that would almost surely be decided not at the ballot box or through the logic of succession but rather by the men with guns, would likely be devastating and would not portend long-term stability. Morgan Tsvangirai might seem like the rightful leader of the country, but the odds of such a transition happening smoothly are long.

The rumors of Mugabe’s decline were premature. He returned to Harare and his spokesmen declared the wily old despot to be “fit as a fiddle.” Mugabe’s supporters took more than a little bit of pleasure in tweaking those who hoped that the rumors might have something to them. And Mugabe’s threats to live forever seem to many to be more than wishful thinking. But if Mugabe’s death was a myth, the concerns about his succession are not.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid