Parallels with Mugabe's Zimbabwe illustrate the dangers of a Trump presidency

If Zimbabwe serves as an example of the way the US will go, Americans should be very afraid.


Much has been made of the warm reception that United States president-elect Donald Trump has received from many African leaders.

  An enthusiastic pro-Trump editorial in Zimbabwe’s state newspaper, The Herald, was perhaps the most illuminating among the litany of diplomatic messages of goodwill from Africa to a candidate who received the endorsement of the most notorious white supremacist group in the US, the Ku Klux Klan.

The paper congratulated Trump, wishing “him all the best as he takes the reins at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”.

Since the launch of an accelerated land reform programme in 2000, which primarily targeted white farmers and was followed by a renewed emphasis on indigenisation legislation, Zimbabwe has aggressively sought to project an image of a bold, black state.

Like the US, Zimbabwe has a sordid history of racial discrimination. After an initial period of reconciliation following independence in 1980, Zimbabwe is now highly divided along racial, ethnic, political and economic lines. Despite a devastating economic collapse, it may also be one of the few African nations in which the Trump family has on-the-ground experience – his two older sons have hunted for big game there. His youngest daughter, Tiffany, has been to Malawi.

Although the racial tropes of Trump and Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, are polar opposites, each draws from the same playbook. Several of the core tenets of Trump’s abrasive election campaign are reflected in the policies and actions of Zanu-PF. Trump won the Republican primary by viciously attacking his opponents and party stalwarts such as John McCain. As president, Mugabe has disposed of his acolytes at will, most notably firing vice-president Joice Mujuru after 34 years of service in his Cabinet.

Team Trump shot its way to the top of a crowded primary campaign with the help of a controversial slogan, “Make America great again”, and promises to build a wall on the Mexican border, rhetoric geared to appeal to white US citizens threatened by changing demographics.

Similarly, Mugabe frequently exclaims that Zimbabwe will never again be a colony. Zanu-PF’s political longevity is built on a strategy that promotes it as the sole custodian of revolutionary leadership following the turbulent struggle against white supremacy.

Mugabe plays to his base with announcements that white Zimbabweans should “go back to England” and that “we say no to whites owning our land and they should go”. Homosexuals have been viciously derided as “worse than dogs and pigs”. But, like Trump, he manipulates language for his own purpose.

  Several of Mugabe’s backers have been white businesspeople, some of whom were subject to US and European Union-targeted sanctions for their support of Zanu-PF. Mugabe has used the presidency to establish a business conglomerate, Gushungo Holdings, a worrying sign for those hoping that Trump will put his businesses in a blind trust, thereby reducing conflicts of interest.

Amid reports that Trump’s son-in-law is angling for a position in the incoming administration, Zimbabweans will be reminded that Mugabe’s son-in-law was recently named chief operating officer of the national airline.

Zanu-PF rhetoric mirrors the fault lines that Republicans see – but which pre-Trump were only articulated in private. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign suffered a massive setback in 2012 when a leaked recording of him saying that 47% of the US population would not vote for him and that “[his] job was not to worry about those people” surfaced.

Zimbabwean ruling party elites also express disdain for those with different worldviews. In 2002, several months after Zimbabwe’s most closely contested presidential election since independence, Didymus Mutasa, then Zanu-PF secretary for administration, announced: “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own [ruling party] people who supported the liberation struggle. We don’t want all these extra people.” Zimbabwe’s population at the time was roughly twice that size.

Although Trump may ultimately be unable to get Mexico to pay for the wall, Zanu-PF has successfully translated similarly confrontational rhetoric into electoral (and policy) success. The government has nationalised large tracts of private land and, in a 2005 operation, Operation Murambatsvina (Clear the Filth), thousands of residential structures were destroyed, causing as many as 700 000 urban residents, the primary supporters of the opposition, to lose their homes and sources of livelihood.

  Trump galvanised his supporters with threats of a rigged election, urging his followers to conduct partisan exit polling and poll monitoring, actions perceived as a way to intimidate supporters of Hillary Clinton. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump encouraged his followers to “watch your polling booths … [and] then go check out areas”.

  Likewise, Zanu-PF has honed the art of rigging elections through a combination of violence and manipulation. The opposition and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have routinely accused the government of deploying war veterans and a youth militia, commonly known as the Green Bombers, to intimidate voters into supporting Zanu-PF. Trump’s recourse to violence has been less overt, although he has made comments that Democrats interpreted as an assassination threat against Clinton.

  Zanu-PF mobilises its base with rhetoric decrying the imposition of sanctions by the West and the meddlesome role of NGOs as a way to achieve regime change, a tactic similar to Trump’s criticism of the media, which he accused of trying to “poison the minds of the voters”.

  During presidential elections in 2008, political violence resulted in hundreds of deaths and the playing field was further stacked in Zanu-PF’s favour when the electoral roll was not released until the day before the election. An analysis by the nonpartisan Zimbabwe Election Support Network subsequently revealed the roll probably contained about one million invalid voters and excluded a million valid ones.

Republicans have followed a similar strategy to suppress votes, emboldened by a 2013 Supreme Court judgment that struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act. These efforts increasingly resemble Zanu-PF tactics, albeit under the guise of reducing voter fraud.

Both Trump and Mugabe appreciate a good insult. The former notoriously called Clinton a “nasty woman”, whereas Mugabe told the opposition to “go hang” following a violent election campaign.

Notably, Zanu-PF differs greatly from team Trump in its sophistication and intellectual composition. Mugabe, who holds seven tertiary degrees, once remarked that “cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen”. He has few personality traits in common with Trump aside from a much younger trophy wife and a more pronounced propensity to campaign in political regalia.

But Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s higher education minister, is a downright Trumpian figure. Both enjoy recourse to litigation, actively court controversy and masterfully manipulate the media. Moyo has been accused of embezzling funds from the Ford Foundation in Kenya, the University of the Witwatersrand and, most recently, the Zimbabwe Manpower Development Fund, prompting his arrest.

Trump has found himself in a similar predicament with several of his business schemes. He recently settled a fraud case to the tune of $25-million against his now defunct Trump University venture.

  Moyo has nearly 100 000 followers on Twitter, where, like Trump, he frequently engages in spats with his opponents. A primary recipient of his invective is David Coltart, a white former opposition minister whom Moyo revels in calling a racist idiot.

Both Trump and Zanu-PF regularly seek a legal mandate for their questionable actions, but they cry foul when they worry the law may not work in their favour.

Trump stated that the US-born judge presiding over a fraud case against him could not conduct an impartial hearing because he was of Mexican descent. Meanwhile, following a judgment by a regional tribunal in favour of white farmers, Mugabe responded that the court’s decision was “nonsense” and “of no consequence”.

  Zanu-PF’s domestic interference in the judiciary has been significant. In 2001, Zimbabwe’s chief justice was forced to retire under the threat of violence.

But when it comes to reconciliation, Zanu-PF shows its most troubling colours. Originally acclaimed for its reconciliation efforts following the armed struggle for independence, the party has now drawn the same conclusion as Trump has with blacks, Latinos and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community – minorities can be a useful punching bag.

  In Zimbabwe, this rhetoric has been a matter of life or death. It’s estimated that massacres of the minority Ndebele in the 1980s, an ethnic group known for its opposition to Zanu-PF, may have resulted in as many as 30 000 fatalities.

Despite a unity accord with the opposition in 1987, no one has been held to account for it. Mugabe vaguely described the events as “a moment of madness”. Trump similarly struggles to be contrite. He has refused to apologise for his unsubstantiated claims that US President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and refuted allegations of sexual harassment after he was recorded boasting of that kind of behaviour.

  It is no surprise that Zanu-PF is no fan of Clinton. As a senator, she co-sponsored the Act that led to sanctions against Mugabe and other prominent party officials. As a former secretary of state, her hawkish policies contributed to the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, a strong Zimbabwean ally. Mugabe’s spokesperson and secretary in the ministry of information George Charamba’s claim that a “Clinton presidency would have been terrible for Zimbabwe” is quite reasonable from the perspective of the ruling party. Attacks on Tendai Biti, a prominent opposition figure, for his support of Clinton, also fit with the Zanu-PF modus operandi.

  But The Herald’s strongly worded op-ed represents a very generous olive branch to Trump, yet undermines the image Zanu-PF seeks to portray of itself as an uncompromising voice for those oppressed by the West.

Mugabe routinely savaged presidents George Bush and Obama but, according to US senator Chris Coons, the Zimbabwean leader was enthusiastic about a Trump presidency from as early as February 2015.

Zanu-PF’s zest for a Trump presidency is driven by a recognition that the new US leader exercises a version of realpolitik very similar to its own. In Zimbabwe, this has resulted in an unprecedented economic breakdown and high levels of political violence, with the ruling party demonstrating resilient political longevity.

It is a startling portent of what may be in store for the US, even if Trump begins, like Mugabe, by sounding the right notes.

Brooks Marmon is an American PhD student at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. His Twitter handle is @AfricaInDC

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