President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe will be 93 tomorrow. Living till 100 and ruling for life are his open prayers. You would hiss and say, so what? How does that give you what you lack? How would that reduce the price of palm oil and pepper in the Nigerian market? Would that bring the naira to be at par with the dollar? Or would that soften the granite hearts of governors to pity their hungry workers and pay them their right wages? You, a millennial, would dismiss Mugabe as the last of the relics of Africa’s past. Apart from the dubious “wise words” that regularly ooze out of his well, what are your supposed gains from a discussion of a Zimbabwean tyrant? When you remember that every tyrant has a positive beginning, you would sit back and think about the road that took Nigeria to the mendicancy of the present. When you know that every satan started out as an angel holding the torch of liberty, you would know why you must interrogate every action of a messiah in power.
The man who will be 93 tomorrow was a hero. He was celebrated and venerated. He was selfless and was a real patriot. He did well in the beginning. He was his people’s own Mandela until he sold his soul to the gods of greed. Out of his 93 years, he spent eleven in jail, fighting for his people. Of the remaining 82 years, he has been in power for 37 years. He is contesting next year’s election and will contest the next and the next elections. And if he dies before next year’s election, his wife announced just four days ago that his corpse would contest and win! What have we not seen? Every messiah has turned out as a more sinister clone of the devil displaced. Heidi Holland, a journalist, met and gave Mugabe a dinner when he was released from prison in 1975. She saw a shy, tense, fiery freedom fighter with audacious ideas. Thirty years after, she met him again and came up with a sad, scary close-up picture of a “freedom fighter who became a tyrant.” She came up too with a conscience burdened by the fact that she, like other journalists in the country, helped nurture the monster that wrecked her country.
What really happened? That is the question we do not ask in Africa, in Nigeria. We simply get shocked by evil spirits as they seize the soul of our messiahs. We get awed and shocked and we vow to remove the potentates. But power shifts to nowhere. What shifts is the hand that holds the axe of power. You saw Donald Trump who promised to sack the billionaires of Washington. He ended up making a government of the super rich. In your Nigeria, we always manage to deceive ourselves, walking into the ambush of power. We celebrate the sack of our lucifers and end up handing over to their proxies. The power elite are the owners of the country. They help us to deodorize and bring back the afflictions of the past. They are eternal in our power house, helping us to mock ourselves. Mugabe’s wife just told us African presidents don’t die. A corrupt or corrupted populace frames their effigies and sits them on the throne. Dynasties of misfortune inhabit palaces of power to the black man’s eternal damnation. In the case of Zimbabwe, it would appear only one hand holds power in perpetuity. Mugabe has been in power since 1980. He may be the oldest around power, but he has backers, frames holding the rafters of his aged structures. At 93, there is nothing suggesting he is tired of sitting on the throne. He is an African. Africans don’t climb down from a horse – any horse – even after the deed is done or the road is closed. In Africa, it is a misfortune to become yesterday’s horseman. Even when death yanks the African off the saddle, he climbs back like a Kabila did after a Kabila left in the Congo.
Women know how to make their husband’s dying horse to drink. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, once promised to put him on a wheelchair and push him around the corridors of power forever. On Friday she adjusted her position boasting that if the man died before next year’s election, he would contest and win from the grave: “If God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse,” she said in the local Shona language while thousands of her husband’s victims cheered at a campaign rally. She also had a word for Mugabe’s ex-comrades who now fight him: “Anyone who was with Mugabe in 1980 has no right to tell him he is old. If you want Mugabe to go, then you leave together. You also have to leave. Then we take over because we were not there in 1980.” She was reported as saying this and pointing to herself as the ‘we’ that would take over if her husband goes. Indeed, she might be playing straight. Some people suggested Turai when Yar’Adua left in 2010.
Mugabe is Africa, a consummate contradiction. An immensely gifted, well read man with seven genuine university degrees, Mugabe has come a long way just like the story of the black man. He represents promise and disappointment; hope and hopelessness; hero and anti-hero. He has seen good and bad times. He has been in and out of jail. He now flings his ‘haters’ into and out of jail. Power is sweet, especially if you live all your life wielding its sword. Mugabe represents the very affliction that has wrecked Africa. He has seen poverty and riches. He has been a good man, a darling of the people. And now, because he refused to say goodnight even at midnight, the world has moved past him. In the days of war against the white man, his words were the anvil forging swift swords of battle. He moved soldiers to war and defeated the white man for his people. Today, the Mugabe the people see is the very white man he defeated. His people see in him that detested Ian Smith who held sway before he (Mugabe), the messiah, came. But he is powerful. He is in power and he no longer feels the hunger of his powerless people. But the powerless can have power too. They may not confront the raw force of the state, but they can fight the war of words. They have dragged their ex-idol to the street, setting him up as an object of laughter. They put in his mouth words of derision and scorn. Mugabe’s name is in use in all seasons – including for festivals of love and hate. His name continues to release words that give his enemies and friends comic relief. Does he enjoy all manner of quotes credited to him everywhere on the continent? From Kenya through Nigeria to his native homeland, dedicated websites salute words manufactured for the veteran’s mouth. Sometimes deep, sometimes sublime, sometimes downright lewd and raw. The words are the kinds of stuff radio/television journalists would slam with NTBB. The sayings are for all seasons, almost scriptural. The words tell tales of a life lived from the serious to the banal. The words could not all be from this old man. They may, in fact, all be brilliant fabrications. And they may not all be fabrications. But they signpost his climbdown from a cult figure to a comic character.
At very low points, you want to ask whether Nigeria shouldn’t have its own Mugabe. Someone to make us laugh and forget the sorrows of our political misadventures. The real and the unreal Mugabe could put smiles on the faces of the recessed. He could give interesting interludes. Are you wondering why Nigerians feel no pains or why persons ruling Nigeria do not know that the people are in pains? This ‘Mugabe’ quote guesses an answer: “Check your girlfriend’s body, if she has more tattoos or piercings, you can cheat on her. She is already used to pain.” The owners of Nigeria have seen we do not know what we need, that we do not know what good means. That is why they routinely cheat on the nation and the people. They know there won’t ever be consequences. The people don’t feel the pains of misrule or no rule at all. They love life and living. They have tattooed their souls in honour of false gods. They dance away sorrows every second everywhere, giving excuses for their leaders’ failings. Nothing shocks them. They are used to pains. To them, pain is painless. It is medicine for all pains. Mugabe saw these tattoos and piercings long ago in his people. He followed up with hot iron lacerations on his “haters.” And while he is busy fighting those who detest his greed, the people are dying. Zimbabwe under Mugabe has seen golden days when it proudly saluted itself as the breadbasket of Africa. Today, it imports every food item and advertises extreme poverty as democracy dividends. You bellowed last week when the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that inflation rate in Nigeria had climbed up to over 18 percent. But because Zimbabwe had and nurtured a messiah who was always right, Aljazeera says its economy collapsed in year 2008 recording hyper-inflation at ‘250 million percent’: “Unemployment hit 90 percent while more than 80 percent of the population was living on just $2 per day. Conditions translated to long breadlines where supply was scarce. Supermarket shelves were empty, and the population was desperate for the basics.” The situation is as bad today and Mugabe is not in a hurry to go.
It is not only in Nigeria that presidents are rumoured dead repeatedly. Nigerians are not the only ones killing their president before his death. Mugabe has “died” very many times. In a 2012 piece, R.W. R. Miller, an analyst on African affairs from Adelaide, South Australia, wrote that predicting Mugabe’s death is “a fool’s game.” Mugabe, he noted, “is always said to be dying. Sometimes it is said more fervently, as if wishing it will make it so. Whenever Mugabe is seen visiting his ‘dentist’ in Singapore, his ‘daughter’ in China, or ‘having a holiday’ in Malaysia he must be dying.” That sounds very Nigerian. But maybe presidents enjoy death rumours as probably Mugabe does the lewd sayings daily donated to him. The more they die, the more they are alive. Miller said as much: “Each time that the rumour mill has cried wolf, each time that the whispering becomes fantasising, the event has meant less, and Mugabe has become less real, less human, less mortal.” Mugabe is not in a hurry to die. He derives his strength from the mysticism of his person and the uncommon cadence in the words – real and unreal. When he lost the warmth of some world power somewhere, it gave him a 2013 date. He would surrender to prostate cancer, they said. But this is 2017. Mugabe is still around, dishing out orders, hammering the vermin. He will be 93 tomorrow. His victims will roll out the drums, celebrating the messiah. He is not dying now. Even if he dies, he would contest and win the 2018 presidential election, his wife has vowed. And what did the people say? They hailed her and her great words. In Nigeria, that is what we do too. We hail our power lords and their spouses, whatever they do or refuse to do. And we wreck them, wreck ourselves and sink our ship.