The collapse of Africa’s colonial order set in motion the almost Shakespearean trajectory of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe: from fiery liberation hero to avaricious dictator to seeming victim, in frail old age, of his own misrule.
Now, as his 37-year stint in power appears to be drawing to a close, his downfall holds portents for leaders across Africa.
At 93, Mugabe is the last of his generation of African heads of state. He spent a decade in jail during the colonial era, when the country was known as Southern Rhodesia, and took power at independence in 1980 after a long bush war.
He became a template for the continent’s so-called Big Men, who often behaved no better than their colonial predecessors, ruling as authoritarians and amassing vast riches at the expense of their citizens.
The next generation of leaders has often seemed little better than the old guard. In many instances, they are savvy enough to feign adherence to democratic norms, but keep any dissent in tight check, sometimes through brutal means, while enriching themselves and their cronies.
The Human Rights Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks closed societies, says countries in Africa that it considers democratic — 14 in all — are outnumbered by 19 full dictatorships and another 19 it calls “competitive authoritarian regimes,” in which autocrats allow elections to be held while engaging in serious anti-democratic abuses.
For other African leaders who wield Mugabe’s longtime brand of power, marked by ruthless campaigns against domestic enemies and scornful dismissal of scolding by successive U.S. administrations, the Zimbabwean president’s fall is a cautionary tale.
This week, the military seized state television, placed Mugabe under house arrest, and assumed control of the country to end a protracted succession crisis.
“People who have been in power for a very long time, I would have thought they might start looking over their shoulders,” because their own ouster might suddenly seem possible, said John Campbell, Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Reviled in the West for brutal repression and for driving into ruin what had been his country’s promising future, Mugabe nonetheless maintained the respect and loyalty of some compatriots, together with a powerful military clique that turned against him in the end, when he tried to set up his wife, Grace, as successor.
“It is indeed the end of an era,” Campbell said.
He said he expected Mugabe to retain some ceremonial role, but “his power — and the power of his wife — is gone.”
The spectacular corruption that typified many liberation-warriors-turned-authoritarians of Mugabe’s generation was perhaps best exemplified by Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he renamed Zaire. He was believed to have embezzled billions of dollars in national funds. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe and his family were notorious for enriching themselves even as the country tumbled toward destitution.
Similar behavior characterized the rule of Omar Bongo, who was not Gabon’s first leader, but headed his country for 42 years until his death in 2009. While amassing a personal fortune, he reportedly built only three miles of freeway a year in a country in dire need of paved roadways, and his nation had one of the world's highest infant mortality rates, according to news reports.
Another longtime leader — also implicated in corruption and abuse of power — is at the helm in Equatorial Guinea. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled since 1979, when he toppled his own uncle.
During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union propped up many of these leaders with foreign aid while ignoring their abuses. Keeping them as allies was considered paramount in the battle between the superpowers.
The fall of communism brought the promise of a new era in Africa, one in which Western powers could push leaders toward democracy and respect for human rights.
But those hopes are unrealized in many cases.
Some of the new generation of leaders seemed well-intentioned at first, but then strayed down the authoritarian path, set on becoming leaders for life. Fledgling democracies backslid and militaries grew powerful.
Paul Biya of Cameroon and Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti are among several African leaders who have succeeded in abolishing presidential term limits in order to extend their time in office. Others have simply rejected the outcome of elections; still others have sought constitutional changes to allow them to stay in office.
Mugabe lost the first round of presidential elections in Zimbabwe in 2008. His response was to launch a campaign of violence that cost scores of lives and ultimately forced the opposition leader to withdraw from the second round of voting.
Similar maneuvers were enough to sink some other regimes. In 2010, Ivory Coast’s strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, rejected his defeat at the polls, and the political upheaval that followed led to a six-month civil war. Gbagbo was ultimately arrested and extradited to the International Criminal Court.
Undemocratic practices persist today, sometimes under a thin guise of adherence to norms. In the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso engineered a referendum in 2015 to allow him to serve a third term as president. In Namibia, Sam Nujoma wangled a third term in office by amending his country’s constitution in 1999. He finally relinquished power in 2005.
In the country that Mobutu once led, which is again known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila assumed power 10 days after his father was assassinated in 2001. His term was due to expire in December 2016, but elections have since been pushed to next year.
In Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade was elected to his second term in 2007. Although a constitution approved by voters in 2001 limited presidents to two terms, Wade persuaded a court to allow him to seek a third because his first term began before the constitution was adopted. The move backfired, and in 2012 Wade lost reelection in a landslide.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who came to power through a rebellion in 1986, was once commended for writing that “the problem of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power,” according to news reports.
Today, Museveni has become one of those leaders. In 2005, he secured a change to the constitution and is now serving a fifth presidential term.
Once considered a progressive leader who helped nurture economic prosperity in Rwanda, Paul Kagame, the country’s president since 2000, has also become more tyrannical. A referendum has cleared the way for him to stay in power until 2034.
In neighboring Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza triggered a coup attempt in 2015 after he announced he would seek a third term, in defiance of the constitution. He crushed the rebellion and won reelection after a court ruled that his first term didn’t count because he was elected by parliament, not popular vote.
Campbell sees numerous similarities between Africa’s old leaders and the next crop.
“It does seem to me that there is some kind of pattern there, and that in this particular area, change is more apparent than real,” he said.
Not all African countries are on a path away from democracy. South Africa, which admittedly has a different colonial history than the rest of the continent, has been able to avoid leadership by a strongman, though political shenanigans by President Jacob Zuma have caused some concern.
“The country’s institutions are showing that they can carry South Africa over a period of bad governance — an independent judiciary, active parliamentary opposition, strong civil society, absolute freedom of the press, and one judicial decision after another that thwarts what Zuma wants to do,” Campbell said. “So South Africa is clearly a democracy.”
Nigeria is on a democratic trajectory. The opposition swept to power in 2015, and the outgoing president was commended for ceding the election. Liberia has held democratic elections since 2005, including this year. However, a runoff vote scheduled this month was postponed because of alleged irregularities in October’s first round.
The fate of Zimbabwe hangs in the balance as the country awaits its next leader. That is widely expected to be Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president whom Mugabe recently dismissed and accused of treason.
“I think he’s more practical than Robert Mugabe … but he is also authoritarian,” said Tom McDonald, a former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe who leads the International Government Policy team at the BakerHostetler law firm in Washington. “He has a very checkered record. He has blood on his hands from the 1980s,” in which thousands of people were massacred in a stronghold of a Mugabe political rival.
Mnangagwa, who was then the country’s security minister, has denied that he played a role in the slaughter.
Some Zimbabweans were restrained in their view of a prospective rule by Mnangagwa.
“He is cut from the same cloth as Mugabe,” said Harry Davies, managing editor of the Harare News, an independent newspaper he founded in 2013. “I think he is going to have a sense of double entitlement. Not only did he overthrow the Rhodesian government, he overthrew Mugabe, the cruel dictator.”
Some observers believe the Zimbabwe developments signal changing attitudes across the continent.
J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center said the way in which the move against Mugabe had been orchestrated pointed to the “slow spread of constitutional order and the norms of legality” in Africa.