Zimbabwe: Mugabe’s era of misrule is over

The country needs Mugabe’s formal resignation, followed by free and fair elections

After clinging tenaciously to power for almost four decades – a period of misrule characterised by violence, repression, vote-rigging and economic collapse – the end came swiftly for Robert Mugabe. In the space of a few hours this week, the 93-year-old autocrat was put under house arrest, key members of his entourage were rounded up and the generals took control. He may retain his title for a while, and the military may persist with the pretence that it has not just executed a coup, but it's clear that the long reign of one of Africa's great survivors is all but over.

While Mugabe's revolutionary credentials and his persistent criticism of world powers won him admirers, his miserable record made him a despised figure to many Zimbabweans and a pariah in the West. When he became the first leader of Zimbabwe in 1980, Mugabe and his country were well placed to prosper. Zimbabwe was the bread-basket of its neighbourhood, and Mugabe, the leader of the guerrilla war that ended white rule in the country, had the sort of political capital and international standing that made him an icon to many across Africa and beyond. But the optimism born of that revolutionary fervour would quickly dim. Mugabe was a ruthless tyrant and an inept manager of his country's affairs. He clamped down on dissent and presided over a time of spiralling unemployment, hyperinflation, collapsing services and grinding poverty that pushed many of his compatriots into exile.

What Zimbabwe needs is Mugabe's formal resignation, followed by free and fair elections

His talent was for holding onto power. Ultimately, even that deserted him. Ironically, a man who spent decades outmanoeuvring his opponents has been undone by a tactical error. The spur for the military's move appears to have been Mugabe's recent decision to fire his deputy and presumed successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This was widely interpreted as the first step in a succession plan that would have installed Mugabe's wife, Grace, as vice-president, allowing her to replace her husband should he step down or die in office. Mugabe underestimated hostility towards his wife who senior regime figures regard as an interloper. He also appears to have underestimated Mnangagwa's connections.

Regional powers will tolerate a quick transfer of power to Mnangagwa if it happens peacefully. That explains why so few states have branded this week's events a coup, as that would require the African Union to suspend Zimbabwe as a member. But the idea that Mnangagwa is the answer to Zimbabwe's problems is wishful thinking. Nicknamed "the crocodile", Mnangagwa has been at Mugabe's side since the days of the independence struggle, and is closely associated with the massacres of innocent civilians in the region of Matabeleland in the 1980s. What Zimbabwe needs is Mugabe's formal resignation, followed by free and fair elections.