David Waywell provides an alternative take on one of the week’s lesser-reported stories.
Great news this week if you’re a fan of souped-up African dictatorships with go-faster stripes.
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s family have let the world know that the President is still very much in charge and intends to remain so for the foreseeable future. Dr Grace Mugabe (50) says that Bob (94) will be around for quite a few more years. ‘We are going to create a special wheelchair for President Mugabe until he rules to 100 years, because that is what we want,’ she said. No doubt they’ve pencilled in ‘100’ as the bare minimum they expect from the new pimped-up President. With the proper batteries and a good set of slick Dunlops, there’s no reason why they couldn’t get another century out of the Father of African Democratic Totalitarianism. And for some of that time, he might even be breathing.
There is, of course, a fine history of keeping dictators around long past their expiry dates. Lenin’s body still lies beneath the Kremlin or, at least, the whiskery bits do. The flesh has been gradually replaced by plastics and other secret Pollyfillas used by the embalmers who have only tried to keep the original hair. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, the chilled remains of Ho Chi Minh are watched over by an honour guard in case his condition shows any signs of improvement. Not to be outdone in humanitarianism, North Korea has put their last Kim on ice. In 2012, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was reopened so that the public can go visit the remains of Kim Jong-il and, frankly, who wouldn’t want to enjoy what is a perfect day out for the entire family?
You might have noticed that democratically elected politicians tend not to get the embalming treatment, with the exception of Boris Yeltsin who was technically pickled long before he left office. Rather, the habit of democracies tends to be that of hurrying a leader out the door once they’ve outlived their usefulness. In the case of King George V, it is said that he was euthanized with an injection of morphine and cocaine, so that his death could be announced in the morning papers rather than the evening editions.
In the case of dictators, their families have every reason to keep them around. Notice that Dr. Mugabe said ‘that is what we want’ rather than ‘what Bob wants’. And that’s because the physical being of any dictator is imbued with certain power. It takes a special kind of man or woman (but usually man) to dominate a nation’s politics for generations at a time. To keep a lid on democracy is a rare talent that blesses only a few but, then, to have that merciless determination to impose your will on millions requires a most unusual conjunction of ambition, ego, as well as a few sociopathic tendencies to help ease that tiniest of consciences. It shouldn’t surprise us that in a world of billions, there are only a handful able to assume the role of dictator.
To control the dictator, if only in body, is to hold a spell over a nation. After the Second World War the Russians rushed to claim possession of Hitler’s remains. Parts of his skull and jawbone have been in their state archive for decades, but their existence has only recently come to light. For a time, Soviet authorities used doubts about Hitler’s death as a means of sewing confusion in the West.
In Mugabe’s case, controlling the body of the tyrant is to show continuity. Since 1987 he has overseen Zimbabwe’s rapid rise to become second least corrupt nations on the planet. That is, so long as we limit ourselves to counting only those nations that begin with the letter ‘z’. Zambia is currently positioned seventy one places above it. To Zimbabwe’s credit, it is currently less corrupt than Burundi, Syria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Venezuela, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Sudan, North Korea, and Somali.
It’s hard to imagine any of this changing with the Mugabe family already managing his legacy. His wife is a highly educated academic, who gained her PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe after two long months of study in 2014 (a PhD normally takes between four and seven years). Thankfully, she could still see lots of Bob at the time since he was the university’s chancellor who presented her with her doctorate. With her new plan to put wheels on Bob, it’s clear that she’s used that keen academic training to think this through. Once he gets his new wheels, Mugable will be to democracy what Lewis Hamilton is to understatement.
Bob Mugabe will celebrate his double centenary as President of Zimbabwe on 22 December 2187. Watch out of more details on The What and The Why closer to the event.