Is Zimbabwe taking respect for old age a bit too far?

Robert Mugabe is about to open the last parliamentary session before the Zimbabwe general elections, which are due in March next year. He is expected to propose the nationalisation of foreign-owned banks and mining companies, along with other unpopular measures. Once the main food supplier of the region, Zimbabwe is suffering severe food shortages and inflation is now approaching 5,000 per cent. Shops lack basic commodities and economic refugees are streaming into neighbouring states, mainly South Africa, at around 3,000 a day.

Mugabe is over 80 years old, and has been ruling the country for almost 30 years. At the recent African union summit in Accra, Ghana, he was one of the leaders, led by Libya’s Gaddafi, who lobbied most for a United States of Africa. This would enable Africa to speak with one voice on the world scene. Yet Mugabe seems unable to run his own country. Why have Zimbabweans put up with him for so long?

To answer that, you must take into account attitudes towards age in Africa. Mugabe is hardly an exception here. Of the 53 heads of state in Africa, sixteen are over 70. These include Abdou Diouf of Senegal, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, and Paul Biya of Cameroun. Thirteen have ruled for more than 20 years, including Diouf and Biya, as well as al-Bashir of Sudan, Gaddafi (almost 40 years), and Zenawi of Ethiopia.

Africans have great respect for the wisdom of old age, even if their elders have little Western-style education. Nor do people feel that leaders should retire due to age, if they are strong enough and doing a good job. Retirement is an alien concept in Africa, and was only introduced by colonial rule. African civil servants retire at the age of 50 or 55, because that is what the Civil Service code of regulations states – the same one used by the colonial service. The more sensible ones go off with their golden handshake to open a business or develop their land until the day they die.

In many parts of the continent, too, leaders are basically elected monarchs. A monarch is expected to rule for long. This brings continuity of style and policy and facilitates development. A monarch symbolises national unity and stands above warring parties and ambitions.

But even in Africa, monarchs are supposed to deliver the goods -- and their country's tragic chaos is the reason why so many Zimbabweans clamour to see the back of their President.

And the reason why he and other aged African leaders refuse is that they fear what will happen to them once they leave power. They have compromised themselves, crossed swords with many, and become inordinately rich. African rulers have seen too many bloody coups and fellow-leaders toppled, trussed up and tortured. Even the untouchable Emperor Haile Selassie, regarded many Ethiopians as almost a deity, died an ignominious death.

There are honourable exceptions. Nelson Mandela, of South Africa, and Julius Nyerere, of Tanzania, had nothing to fear, and bowed out to the admiration and respect of almost everyone. Daniel Arap Moi, of Kenya, also retired, perhaps realising that 24 years in power was a good innings. Since his very active retirement, at over 80, he is still very much a public figure and widely respected despite the shadows left during his regime.

A new wind of change is bringing Western-style democratic rule and procedures. The first of these is free and fair multi-party elections, even in such difficult countries as Nigeria and DRC Congo. But it also brings fixed terms of office, even if some rulers are getting round this by means of constitutional amendments, or referendums.

In this too Africa is saying: Let us do things our way, learn our own mistakes and create our own style. If we prefer our rulers to come from the generation of our grandparents, that is our choice; and if we choose to keep them in power, that is our choice too. And if we want to dismiss them, leave us free to do so.

It's just a great pity that the other wise old monarchs of Africa did not whisper a few words in the ear of the aged colleague in Zimbabwe while they were in Accra. That may have little to do with their ancient traditions and a lot to do with the fully contemporary vice of political correctness.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.


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