One of the enigmas of the human condition is how it happens. How it happens that the worst type of leader can cling to power year after year after year after year.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe – who finally, yesterday, at the age of 93, was compelled to resign – is just the latest case in point. He began his career as a public official a hero, an anti-colonialist, a nationalist and activist who played a role in the transition from British-ruled Rhodesia to the sovereign state of Zimbabwe. But he presided for decades over Zimbabwe’s evolution from a country with a large reserve of human capital and a well-diversified economy, to being sub-Saharan Africa’s basket case. Early this century land reform accelerated what already had been a steep decline: GDP plunged 45 percent in a decade, and farm production collapsed to two thirds of what it was ten years earlier.
Mugabe was, moreover, a tyrant, a despot, a totalitarian dictator known for nothing so much as demoralizing and even terrorizing his people, while aggrandizing himself and enriching his coffers. For at least a quarter century this man’s leadership had nothing whatsoever to recommend it. Quite the contrary – it was so bad it was evil.
Still, it took decrepitude to get him out. It took being a nonagenarian for his grip on power to be weakened to the point where others mustered the courage finally to force him to quit.
Predictably, when Mugabe’s resignation finally came there was “wild jubilation in parliament,” followed almost immediately by celebratory crowds jamming the streets of major cities. The Guardian reported “Zimbabweans raced up and down the wide boulevards of the capital as the sun set, honking car horns, waving flags, singing, dancing, cheering.”
Which is where mystery manifests itself. Why do followers put up with leaders who obviously are atrocious and who manifestly they detest? Year after year after year after year? I get that these leaders control the levers of power – which is how they strike fear in their followers. Which, in turn, is exactly why it’s up to us to assure we never allow democracy to morph into autocracy, which has a proclivity to morph into tyranny.