Despot's rule ends in Zimbabwe

With Robert Mugabe stepping down as president, an era in Zimbabwe's contemporary history has ended. A fortnight ago, few would have thought that removing Mugabe from power would be possible. After all, several attempts to oust him, including powerful opposition-led mass protests, had failed to weaken
his hold. Mugabe has claimed that he stepped down "voluntarily." However, this came only after the military took control in Harare and placed him under house arrest, and after his party politicians put pressure on him to step down, even taking steps to impeach him. Mugabe had an iron grip on power for over 37 years.

In the initial years, his heroism as a freedom fighter made him a popular mass leader. Then the rot set in; bankrolled by western powers, his regime became corrupt and authoritarian. When he lost a referendum in 2000, he incited his supporters to attack and occupy farms owned by the whites. Racism became his tool to hang on to power in a country that was still recovering from the wounds of colonial rule and apartheid. It had a devastating impact on Zimbabwe's fledgeling democracy and a weak economy. For many years now, Zimbabwe has been simmering. It was Mugabe's sacking of vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa early this month to pave the way for his wife, Grace Marufu, to succeed him that brought things to a boil. And that was when the generals stepped in. The military action a week ago triggered jubilation in Zimbabwe. People are understandably celebrating in their homes and on the streets since Mugabe stepped down. The end of his dictatorship is the reason for rejoicing.

But Mugabe's exit does not mean that things will change for the better. Mnangagwa was a close ally of Mugabe till recently, a member of his inner circle. Known as "The Crocodile", Mnangagwa was Mugabe's "enforcer" and is notorious for his ruthlessness. His likely assumption of the presidency is unlikely to bring the Zimbabwean masses any respite. Many Zimbabweans believe that the military stepped in to enforce democracy. It has not. It acted only when its preferred candidate to succeed Mugabe, Mnangagwa, was forced out of the country. It carried out a "smart coup". The military tapped into mass frustration, infighting in the ruling establishment and international sympathy to remove a sitting president. Zimbabweans should not be fooled; their military is no champion of democracy. The military must go back to the barracks now. And the government should hold presidential and parliamentary elections in July as scheduled. Credible elections will help Zimbabwe take a few steps towards democratic rule.

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