The writing's on the wall, ComradeMugabe

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Robert Gabriel Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, just doesn't get it.Where the trend in much of the world is to pluralise and devolvepresidential powers, he comes along with a draft constitution thatseeks, perversely, to widen his already sweeping powers so as toperpetuate his never-ending rule.

Thestinging rejection of this constitution in a plebiscite last week wasan unaccustomed slap in the face for this proud and increasinglyneurotic leader. Whether it opens his ageing eyes, at last, to whatZimbabweans have come to think of him is the issue now. Let him notdelude himself that the vote was all about some draft document. Thereferendum was implicitly a statement on his extended, 20-yearrule.

Twenty years ago, Mugabe was a genuine African hero, the guerrillaidol who had vanquished Ian Smith and his white supremacist regime.Over time, he has turned into a paranoid, peevish autocrat whosestandard answer to all those who can see he has lost his touch is totell them to get lost.

The man has become quite grumpy lately &endash; even by his owncheerless standards. "I don't see any other party or government inthis country for a long, long time," he announced to his countrymenlast December in that matter-of-fact, take-it-or-leave-it tone thatso infuriates his opponents. In the same month, as his country'seconomic woes worsened, he told the IMF to "shut up" and added thathe saw no reason "why there should be a limit to governmentdebt".

Give credit where its due: He does have a way with words, evenwhen they grate. Indeed, his insults can be gems. Not too long ago hedenounced foreign-owned banks &endash; Standard Chartered, Barclaysand Stanbic &endash; as "the devil incarnate". A provincial partyofficial who had offered that perhaps it was time the old man calledit a day was sacked and accused of being a witch.

Britain, with which Mugabe has had many a run-in, has beendismissed by him as a "sheepish little power" while Tony Blair is "asmall man". The put-down on Blair arose after British authoritiesignored a scuffle the Zimbabwean leader got into with a number ofnoisyhomosexuals while on a London visit last year.

Mugabe's hatred for gays is deep and undisguised. But sometimesuncompromising positions can come up against implacable ironies. Afew years ago, Canaan Banana, Zimbabwe's first (non-executive)president, whom Mugabe had propped up, was exposed as a predatoryhomosexual, to the latter's acute embarrassment.

To be sure, Mugabe is not your conventional despot. He is notparticularly bloodthirsty, though the atrocities committed by hisNorth Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the early 1980sleft a permanent blot on his legacy. Neither is he your typicalpeasant-made-good who once too often betrays just how far he hascome.And he is certainly nobody's idiot.

His problem, however, is no less disquieting. He is intolerant andvain. He thinks he knows it all. Those who disgaree with him aretargeted with abuse and ridicule. He imagines he is God's very owngift to Zimbabwe probably to Africa as well. And he believes it ishis destiny to rule Zimbabwe forever. That is what makes himunpleasant.

There is another unfortunate habit of the Zimbabwean leader: Hetravels far too much. There are very few places on this globe that hehas not visited during his two decades in power. Last year alone, heflew to some 30 different countries, prompting many people to wonderwhether good old Robert would rather be employed by Zimbabwe as itsforeign minister or roving ambassador.

Some suspect all the globe-trotting is a reaction to the longyears of confinement he spent in Ian Smith's jails. Whatever it is,this excessively nomadic instinct has provoked his countrymen tonickname him Vasco da Gama, after the itinerant 15th centuryPortuguese seafarer.

A few years ago, Mugabe married his ex-secretary, the striking andfashion-loving Grace Marufu, following the death of his long-timeGhanaian-born wife, Sally, a formidable freedom fighter in her ownright who unfortunately was unable to bear him a child. The nuptialswith Marufu were barely over before the couple embarked on anexpansive foreign tour, prompting one of the President's critics toquip that a besotted Mugabe had gazed lovingly into his young bride'seyes and panted: "Come, let me show you Rome."

One can sympathise with Mugabe's frustration with the freaksituation where 40 per cent of Zimbabwe's arable farmland iscontrolled by the country's tiny but rich white minority, which formsless than one per cent of the country's 12 million people. He isquite right to be vexed by the huge and uncomfortable disparities inwealth, which happen to be neatly delineated by race.

But the way he has taken to railing at whites on everything underthe sun hardly helps matters. It even hurts his own case, especiallywith Zimbabwe's donors. Worse, by personalising matters so much withthe white minority, he keeps reminding some of us of the twistedvitriol that we continually hear in Kenya against such-and-such aperodically unwanted community.

He has insisted on prosecuting an unpopular war in the Congo insupport of, of all people, the buffoonish Laurent Kabila. It isrumoured that there is a diamond deal in it for him, but no less animpulse behind this expensive adventure is an over-developed ego.

Mugabe has certainly come a long way from the ascetic,Marxist-Leninist devotee of the liberation struggle, a man who usedhis time in Smith's jails to acquire a long list of degrees, andwhose only surprising indulgence was that he was an avid fan of ElvisPresley. The transformation has brought forth a run-of-the-millAfrican potentate who has an embarrassing weakness for luxury, thegood life and endless jet travel.

The problem with Mugabe is that he has yet to wake up to therealisation that it is time for him to go. That is the message whichZimbabweans were giving him last week with their "No" vote. They aresimply heartily tired of him. It would be a great pity that somebodywho started off so well could end up looking like those pettydictators who have simply refused to grasp that their time is up.

Last week's misfortune for Mugabe should also offer us Kenyansanother lesson: Don't cobble together some document in non-inclusive,closed-door committees, call it a constitution and imagine Kenyansare going to embrace it, much less its author(s).
This commentary appeared as the editorial position of the DailyNation of Kenya on Sunday, February 20, 2000.

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