By Anne Fruhauf
Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is a man of many talents: independence hero, accomplished educator, wily political strategist, cunningly cruel autocrat, and lately, a man skilled at cheating death. At his 88th birthday bash back in February, he cheerfully proclaimed to have "beaten Christ" (by being resurrected several times). The Old Man -- as he is usually referred to in Zimbabwe -- has outlived fellow rulers like Gabon's Omar Bongo and Malawi's Bingu wa Mutharika, whose (un)timely death this month will perhaps save Malawi from a deepening economic crisis and popular rebellion.
Cut from tougher cloth, Mugabe has outlasted more than a decade of political and economic crisis, in which the country's economy shrank by almost half, Zimbabwe set new records for hyperinflation (picture shoppers using bundles of 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes), unemployment reached 80 percent, and millions of Zimbabweans fled the country in search of jobs and/or food.
But nearing 90 and suffering from metastatic prostate cancer, even Mugabe will (probably) one day meet his maker. His absences from the country have become more frequent, including at least nine 'medical tourism' trips to Singapore in 2011. In fact, the Old Man will probably leave office feet first (or through some form of incapacitation that is impossible to conceal). A smooth, negotiated retirement seems unlikely given succession squabbles inside his ZANU-PF party.
It is widely believed that Mugabe's departure will be a watershed moment, releasing the country from a tyrant's grip on its political culture and economy. True, without his departure, Zimbabwe's political transition, which began hesitantly with the formation of a unity government in 2009, will stagnate, as will progress on the economic front. In this scenario, the long-suffering opposition MDC, now ZANU's unlikely bedfellow in the unity government, will win free and fair elections (technically due in 2013) and preside over political and economic reforms. That's assuming they prove themselves true reformers, of course.
But Mugabe's critics shouldn't be too hopeful just yet. ZANU-PF and especially its generals -- few of whom are democrats or reformers -- are planning for a post-Mugabe future. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country's fearsome defense minister, seems to be positioning himself for takeover against party rivals such as Vice-President Joyce Mujuru.
ZANU-PF knows that it faces potential implosion, and that its success at the next elections is not assured unless it builds its war chest and relies on coercion. That is why the country is now enduring an extended scramble for resources -- the indigenization drive against international mining companies, the controversial exploitation of the Marange diamond deposits and more recently a gold rush around Kwekwe, the country's mining heartland.
Zimbabweans have long lived by the motto that things can only get better. But life may yet get a little harder still.
Anne Fruhauf is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Africa practice.
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