By Ochereome Nnanna
ON 17th November 1993, General Sani Abacha, the Secretary for Defence in Chief Ernest Shonekan’s Interim National Government, had a golden opportunity to do what General Constantino Chiwenga of Zimbabwe has just accomplished to the applause of his countrymen and the rest of an admiring international community.
Abacha had calmly told Shonekan that his regime, which had been declared illegitimate by a court, had ended. He gave Shonekan a speech to read to the nation, and after that, gave him a military escort to accompany him by road from Abuja to Lagos that night. Some naïve supporters of Alhaji Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 12 1993 presidential election which Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida had annulled on June 23 1993, eagerly awaited Abacha to invite Abiola to take the reins of power, having discharged his “patriotic” duty of removing Babangida’s contraption. If their expectation had come true, what happened recently in Zimbabwe would have been a mere mimicry of a good example earlier set in Nigeria.
But, or course, Nigeria was no Zimbabwe, and Abacha was no Chiwenga. Abacha later quipped: “how can I risk my life and stage a coup only to hand it over to another person”?
Abacha had merely taken upon himself the task of further sealing the coffin of June 12, which was a regional plot of which he was the main proponent. Removing Shonekan was the completion of a power pact between him and his friend and boss, Babangida. One would, after enjoying the spoils of coup plotting, hand it over to the other. After all, they (Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Muhammad, Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida, Abacha and later on, Abdulsalami Abubakar, all full Army Generals) were determined to treat themselves to the buffet of ruling Nigeria after defeating Biafra during the civil war.
The difference between officers of the Nigerian Army and those of Zimbabwe as exemplified by Generals Abacha and Chiwenga, is that one came to serve regional interests and stupendously enriched himself (each of these Nigerian Generals became billionaires in any currency), while their Zimbabwean counterparts came to save their country from utter ruin at the hands of a sit-tight dictator, Robert Mugabe.
The outlines of the Zimbabwe military intervention were unique in many ways. By the way, I do not classify what happened as a coup. The government and the constitutional order were not changed, and the military did not assume power. It was merely a purge of undesirable elements, especially President Mugabe and his wife, Grace, from the corridor of power.
Mugabe, who had dominated the political landscape of Zimbabwe for 37 years was moving dangerously from the ridiculous to the preposterous when he sacked his Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, preparatory to appointing his wife as his successor as the Leader of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, ZANU-PF. If he had succeeded, only goodness knows what feisty Grace Mugabe could have turned that embattled country into.
General Constantino Chiwenga had every reason and opportunity to not only remove Mugabe with ignominy but also even kill him. He also had every opportunity to assume power, even for a brief number of years ostensibly to organise a transition to a new democratic order. The world would have kicked. But then, the world kicked at Abacha and he ignored them for five whole years until “angels of death”, Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and American diplomats, Susan Rice and Thomas Pickering, paid their mystery visits to Nigeria, and ended the Abiola versus Abacha fight for power.
Chiwenga, instead, chose to negotiate with Mugabe without compromising on the need to send Grace Mugabe away from the country and cause the President to quit. Compared to what happened to other ousted dictators, Mugabe virtually inherited “paradise” from General Chiwenga. He is to get a $10 million severance pay, plus salary for life. When he dies, his wife will continue to collect half his salary, also for life. They are both immunised from prosecution. What is more, a national holiday will be observed every 21st February, which is Mugabe’s birthday. Mugabe has been happily retired, and he will live off the public treasury till he goes.
Some people are angry, even livid, that Mugabe has been rewarded for his “crimes” as one of Africa’s most notorious dictators. This is the cleanest gate-away any deposed dictator in Africa has achieved. But for me, this is the most artful way of removing a rampaging bull from the china shop. The bull left the shop without breaking a thing. The Zimbabwe revolution did not cause a drop of anyone’s blood, yet it proceeded as the Army had patiently but firmly manoeuvred it. Zimbabweans are hugging their military boys and girls on the streets. Wow!
Chiwenga must have learned from the experiences of other countries held in thrall for decades by autocrats. In most cases, when such people are dethroned, they are killed, sent to jail, impoverished or exiled. The country, often, is plunged into intractable, ethnic or religious wars. Mugabe had probably held on to power because of what happened to other dictators after office. To solve that anxiety, Chiwenga retired him nicely. Having done that, the General brought back Mnangagwa to complete Mugabe’s tenure of which he is a part. The country can now move on with its life.
How much is too much to pay for peace? Any rash deposing of Mugabe could easily have plunged the country into chaos and wars, like Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. I am very happy for Zimbabweans, and I applaud all of them, particularly Chiwenga. But I hope Chiwenga does not push matters by unduly breathing down the neck of Mnangagwa. Also, I hope Mnangagwa, who does not have the rosiest of records, will respect the spirit of the revolution the constitution and govern well, democratically.