Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe
Alec Russell, FT weekend editor and former southern Africa correspondent, looks at the legacy of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe since 1980, the bitter succession struggle that provoked the military takeover and the future of the shattered country.
Produced by Filip Fortuna and Josh de la Mare. Studio filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Rod Fitzgerald. Edited by Filip Fortuna.
The army has taken over power in Zimbabwe and brought Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, into protective custody. Joining me to discuss the fast-moving events in Harare is Alec Russell, our former southern Africa correspondent. Alec, is this the end of Robert Mugabe?
Well, people have been asking that question for a long time. So I've covered Zimbabwe off and on for nearly 25 years, and I remember on my very first trip in 1994 to cover an election, people were saying, well, the old man has been in power for 14 years. It can't go on much longer. It's gone on a lot longer.
The reason I cite the past here is that people have got this wrong many times before and have said, this is it. It's finally over for him. And it hasn't been. This time, however, I really do think this is it for him.
It's been a remarkable 37-year rule, if you like, for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and a period of great hope turning to disappointment and desperation for many Zimbabweans. But he still remains quite popular.
So is this actually a move against him or against-- is this a factional fight within the ruling ZANU-PF, perhaps aimed at his wife, Grace, and the younger cohort of ZANU-PF activists?
Number 1, he still has the lustre of liberation. This was the man who presided over the formation of the new country, Zimbabwe, in 1990-- 1980 rather-- and gave an astonishingly reconciliatory speech. And so he's the father of the nation.
And many Zimbabweans have only known Robert Mugabe. They still do look up to him, in particular in the rural areas, not in the towns.
But he's increasingly alienated people even around him in recent months, and the army just seem to have decided to bring this political turmoil to an end.
The one thing I would add, though, is that it may be the end of Robert Mugabe in all but name, but whether it's the end of Mugabeism is another question altogether, because it's quite possible that the army and people-- civilian politicians working with them-- will continue in the same predatory way that Mugabe has in recent years.
The events of the last few days were triggered by Mugabe sacking his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who we believe is now on his way back to Harare, perhaps to take over power. What do we know about him, and would he bring in new change? Would he actually bring in or trigger a transition to a more democratic and well-governed country?
What do we know about him? He's an extraordinary survivor. It's been very hard to survive in Zimbabwean politics in the last 30 years, because Mugabe's been brilliant at sidelining anyone who's threatened his position.
So the vice president, nicknamed reassuringly "The Crocodile," has been his right-hand man for many of the last 10-plus years. He was, to be clear-- this guy is no great symbol of hope and peace and democracy. This man was behind some of the worst abuses of Mugabe's long period in power.
That said, it is just possible, if you take an optimistic view, that he will come in-- if this is what happens-- it would have new overtures to the outside world and say we have to move Zimbabwe into a new era. I say just possible.
And if we were to be optimistic and see this transition to a more democratic regime and a more prosperous country, what would that mean for the region?
Very important for the region, this. So it's almost 20 years to the day since the Zimbabwe economy just started plunging off the top of the precipice. And this was all provoked by Mugabe having to pay war veterans and the army money that the country couldn't afford, because they were getting restive.
The last 20 years have been a disaster for the Zimbabwean economy. And that's had a huge knock-on effect for the region. It's sent hundreds of thousands of people into South Africa and other neighbouring countries.
And also, this has happened at a time when the rest of the region has been becoming just more successful, more business friendly.
So if Zimbabwe can get its act together, which is possible, then that's very good news for the region. All sorts of businesses will be looking on at Zimbabwe now with hope.