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Opinion | Scott Gilmore

Zimbabwe and the sunset of African dictators

Protests in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Aug. 28, 2016. EPA

Not long ago a large international multilateral agency invited me to Zimbabwe. The country’s economy was (and continues to be) falling apart, and there was some hope I would be able to provide some insight on one very small part of the sprawling mess. I said yes, they said great, we agreed on a date, and then my hosts added: “Bring golf clubs, you’ll have to pretend you’re on a golfing holiday.”

This preposterous travel detail, it was explained, was necessary otherwise customs officials would never allow me in. The farcical ruse made perfect sense in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. After thirty-six years of power, he has reduced the country into a clichéd banana republic, blaming foreigners for all ills, suspicious of all offers to help, and seeing threats everywhere.


Robert Mugabe is the living embodiment of the stereotypical African dictator. A former freedom fighter, he came to power promising democracy and prosperity, but then actively worked to prevent either. He expropriated farms, jailed the opposition, enriched himself, and elevated his shopaholic wife into positions of political power.

He has ruthlessly quelled dissent and continually reinforced his position. Every attempt by the opposition or civil society to carve out some democratic space has been swiftly and often violently squashed. Which is why it is so surprising that this week Zimbabwe is alight with protests calling for his downfall. Members of his party are defecting, opposition leaders are leading marches, and rioters in the capital of Harare are demanding an end to the corruption, poverty and repression.

For casual observers, this sort of unrest in an African dictatorship is exactly what you would expect. The African myth, especially persistent in the United States, is that the continent is continually wracked by violence, ruled by ruthless tyrants, and condemned to poverty and famine.


And, there is an element of truth in this. The independent watchdog Freedom House judges only 9 of Africa’s 54 countries can be called a democracy. The Economist magazine argues only one nation (South Africa) truly meets the definition. The World Bank estimates that 48 percent of the population, around 400 million people, still live in extreme poverty.

But these numbers, stark as they are, disguise a far more optimistic story. For most of the 20th century, Africa suffered approximately 20 successful coups per decade. This number has now dropped in half. And, not coincidentally, the number of countries that Freedom House defines as “free” or “partly free”, has increased from about a dozen in the 1970s, to almost 30 now. This was illustrated last year when Nigeria, with a population of Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain combined, successfully navigated its first democratic change of power, a milestone barely noticed on this side of the Atlantic.

The most dramatic change, though, has been social and economic. In the same time period, the GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa has more than tripled. More importantly, both the proportion and total number of people who are living in extreme poverty has fallen. This new prosperity is creating a large middle class, which, due to demographic trends, may eventually rival China’s in size and buying power.

Africa in 2016 is far more prosperous and far more democratic than the Africa of starving babies and bloodthirsty warlords that, unfortunately, still dominates our collective imagination. Nonetheless, this progress has not been relentless, and has stumbled in the last few years.


Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese entrepreneur and philanthropist gives an annual prize of $5 million (plus $200,000 for life) to any democratically elected African head of state who voluntarily leaves office at the end of their mandated term. It has only been awarded twice in the last seven years. There are still twenty African leaders who have been in office for more than a decade, and ten who have held on to power for two decades.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is one of those. Even at the age of 92, he energetically rejects the notion that he should step down, or even allow a free and fair election. But the citizens now burning him in effigy know he can’t continue much longer to hold back the tide of change that is gradually but inexorably making Africa more democratic and more prosperous.

Scott Gilmore is a writer and social entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @scott_gilmore