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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Mugabe is finished but the wounds remain

Building a just and fair society in Zimbabwe is much harder than just changing leaders

Zimbabwe's ruling party sacked Robert Mugabe as leader.
Zimbabwe's ruling party sacked Robert Mugabe as leader.

After 37 years of repression and corruption, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was finally removed last night as his party’s leader, to scenes of great jubilation. The world’s oldest living head of state was brought down by last week’s military intervention and stripped of his title yesterday before his sacked vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa was named party leader in his place. Mr Mugabe’s wife Grace, who held high hopes of continuing her 93-year-old husband’s legacy, was expelled from the ruling Zanu-PF party.

But celebrations could be too early to call. As the uprisings in the Arab region have taught us, a change of personnel at the very top is not a guarantor of progress, nor is removing a despot always the hardest challenge. Libya descended into carnage after Muammar Qaddafi’s fall. Tunisia struggled to rebuild institutions desecrated by the Ben Ali years. Egypt managed to transition to stability following the Mubarak era only after the military intervened to remove Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government.

And let us not forget that with Mr Mnangagwa, there is, as yet, no promise of a change in leadership or policy. One of Mr Mugabe’s chief henchmen until his sacking, he was known to be just as ruthless.

Mr Mugabe once told his people: “When my time comes, I will tell you.” In the end, the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe who made their voices heard and the army that finally listened. This week Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, has resounded with the cries of protesters who have massed in their tens of thousands, calling for the swift defenestration of the dictator.

Mr Mugabe’s downfall is of his own making. His nearly four-decades-long reign ransacked and pillaged one of southern Africa’s most prosperous nations but his grip on power went unchallenged because the country’s tiny governing elite, fattening themselves at the expense of their compatriots, stood by him. Corruption combined with anti-colonial rhetoric to justify an offensive on white farmers destroyed the countryside without delivering any prosperity for its population.

It will take years to undo the damage of years of repression and we have yet to discover if Mr Mnangagwa is the man for the job. It would serve Zimbabweans well to celebrate today and prepare for tomorrow. Regime change is only the first step on a long road to recovery. Building a fair and just society is the much harder part of the journey.