Will Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai be Africa's next fallen hero?

The 'heroic' leaders who follow notorious African dictators to power frequently fall from grace themselves. If Morgan Tsvangirai replaces Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe, will he be next? 

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai addresses supporters in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe in this 2008 file photo.

•A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.

Friends of Africa often anoint selected leaders from that continent as heroes “for the moment." 

Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Congo’s Mobutu Sese-Seko, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have all enjoyed that status at one time or another. Often the “hero” immediately follows a tyrant–or chaos. 

Mr. Obasanjo followed a generation of military rulers, and his immediate predecessor was the “tyrant” Sani Abacha who resorted to judicial murder; Mr. Mobutu emerged from Congo’s domestic chaos and civil war and promised inoculation against the Communists; Mr. Mugabe followed the racist regime of Ian Smith and promised racial reconciliation; and Mr. Kagame “ended” the genocide in Rwanda.

The pattern is that these “heroes” fall from grace as they wrestle with monumental problems of governance or with their personal devils – or both. Hence, Obasanjo tried for an unconstitutional presidential third term with the suspicion that he intended to become president for life, Mobutu established a kleptocracy, Mugabe resorted to racism and destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy for a time, and Kagame has been implicated in the Rwandan looting of the eastern Congo.

Reluctance to relinquish power is a widespread problem among African chiefs of state. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for an African chief of state who pursues good governance and voluntarily steps down from office when his term ends has not been awarded for the past three years because of the lack of a credible candidate.

Nelson Mandela is an exception to this pattern. Anointed a “hero,” his policies of reconciliation, political skills, and genuine devotion to democracy and human rights precluded a fall from international grace. History shows that genuine heroes are few, and there is often ambiguity. In our own history, George Washington was a land speculator, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, and Abraham Lincoln was slow to embrace abolition.

As for Africa, too often, exaggerated international hopes and expectations for the African “man of the hour” are disappointed and the “hero” evolves into a “big man” in the eyes of Africa’s foreign friends.

Simukai Tinhu, in a thoughtful article, argues that this process of heroic designation followed almost inevitably by disappointment, is at present underway with respect to Morgan Tsvangirai, the major opposition leader to the fallen hero Robert Mugabe. Mr. Tinhu posits that Mr. Tsvangirai is likely to be the next president of Zimbabwe if the elections later this year are genuinely free and fair.

But Tinhu discusses episodes in Tsvangirai’s past that cloud his democratic and human rights protestations. Tinhu sees the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under Tsvangirai’s leadership as increasingly intolerant of criticism and not democratic in its inner workings. And his private life has been marred by scandals that raise questions about his personal judgment. In short, Tsvangirai is no Nelson Mandela.

As Tinhu observers, Zimbabwe under Tsvangirai might not be so different from Mugabe’s rule. Tsvangirai’s election does not guarantee a fundamental change in Zimbabwe’s political system. Outsiders, especially, underestimate Mugabe’s popularity with the poor and hitherto landless.

Mugabe might well win a genuinely free and fair election. However, he is unlikely to take any risks.

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