When Comrade Robert Gabriel [also known as President Mugabe to the rest of the world] took power in Zimbabwe in April 1980, Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi was just settling into his presidency after having succeeded Jomo Kenyatta on his death in August 1978 and won the uncontested election of November 1979.
The two agemates (Moi is younger than Mugabe by about six months) couldn’t have seemed more different. Moi was openly pro-Western and anti-Marxist, while Mugabe had been labelled a “marxist terrorist” by the West and didn’t have much time for conservative fellow African leaders such as Moi — even to the point of granting asylum to Kenyan dissidents who fled Moi’s repression of the left.
Somewhere along the way, however, Mugabe and Moi’s paths came together, and after years of at best cool relations between the two presidents, things changed and the two became more like each other, with their shared autocratic goal of hanging on to power at all costs.
That said, where Moi was different — even though it was not necessarily his first choice — was that he knew when it was time to leave the stage. He planned for a chosen successor to succeed him and even though initially that plan failed, he hung on until his dream of Uhuru Kenyatta succeeding him came to pass in 2013.
Mugabe, meanwhile cannot decide on a successor, and that would seem to be part of his problem. That said, the situation in Zimbabwe is so fluid, that by the time you read this, it might have all changed.
Meanwhile, when Uhuru had breakfast last week with his political mentor, Moi, it appeared to me as though he had gone to consult the so-called “professor of politics” on the way forward.
Moi was never big on the opposition or justice, but he knew how to play political games, such as when to appear as though he was on the ropes — such as in 1991 and the run up to the 1992 election — when in fact he was just regrouping. Moi’s way was to bide his time while giving the opposition space and enough rope to hang themselves. That’s how he squeaked back into office with 36.4 per cent of the vote in 1992.
The opposition had squandered their chance to get rid of him when they splintered into several parties and split the vote, and Moi spent the next decade successfully working on keeping them divided until 2002, when he finally left office. At that point, with finally the lessons of disunity learned, they came together against Moi’s anointed successor, Uhuru Kenyatta and won.
Splits and infighting were also a feature of the Zimbabwean opposition, and perhaps if Mugabe had done a Moi and picked a successor, he might have been able to stave off the situation he now finds himself in.
Of course the problem then would be that, like in Kenya, not much would actually change for the masses, as it would be the same pile of garbage attracting ever so slightly different flies.