Zimbabwe reminds us it is time to abandon the culture of celebrity leadership and promote democratic values, says Michael McGowan
Recent celebrations held in Zimbabwe to mark the 92nd birthday of President Robert Mugabe have highlighted the dangerous global trend towards a culture of leadership by so-called ‘charismatic’ individuals bent on increasing their individual power at the expense of collective action, often obstructing desperately needed reforms, and egged on by cheerleaders, fan clubs and hero worshipers.
Robert Mugabe has dominated the political scene since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980. It is tragic that this southern African country, which was once the bread basket of the region, has declined in its economy and democracy, and that its once inspirational liberation leader has become a burden on his own country and a threat to democracy.
Born in 1924 in the village of Kutama, southwest of the capital Harare, Mugabe was educated by Jesuits and went on to become a teacher before joining the liberation struggle against British rule. He became a key figure in the fight for independence from white-minority rule as leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union, and spent 11 years in prison before becoming Zimbabwe’s first post-independence prime minister in 1980.
In December 2015, he was endorsed once more as the ruling party candidate for the 2018 presidential election, although the media continue to speculate about his wife Grace as a possible successor as president.
At the lavish celebration of his 92nd birthday, Mugabe declared he intends to live till he is 100 years old and remain president until the day he dies, despite the poverty and insecurity of his people and the desperate need for change.
Land reform had been a big issue since independence in 1980, when the Zimbabwe government embarked on a national programme to correct historic racial imbalance in the country’s land ownership. Things came to a head in 1999 when the programme was characterised by regressive land occupation by government supporters, which resulted in a great deal of violence, and was claimed by Zimbabwe’s state-run newspaper The Herald to have benefitted some 300,000 families directly, although this has been widely disputed.
But Zimbabwe is not the only country in the world to honour such elderly leaders clinging to power. In fact, the country’s former colonial power, the United Kingdom, is on the eve of celebrating the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II in April.
This while the people of the UK face cruel cuts in public services and welfare benefits, many relying on food banks, and some of the poorest are being driven from their social housing because of a punitive ‘bedroom tax’ as the Queen resides in some of the most prestigious and spacious property in the land, tax free.
Africa remains under the influence of a number of long-serving political leaders who are reluctant to let go of their positions, with Burundi being one of the latest examples where the president has ignored the constitution and democracy in order to cling on to power, resulting in violence and racial strife.
Celebrity culture has become the order of the day in United States presidential elections, too, where outlandish personas along the lines of Donald Trump are more influential in voters minds than sound democracy. The UK previously had Tony Blair as Prime Minister, a man who promoted himself and a celebrity culture to a point where it was ultimately damaging to democratic politics and public life.
Ireland has both an opportunity and responsibility to help counter this culture of celebrity leaders and elites through its work in the EU and the UN. Specifically in Zimbabwe, Ireland’s development aid includes the programmes of Trócaire and Irish Aid, important contributions not only in tackling poverty and violence and but in helping to promote collective and democratic values.
Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament