Mugabe’s lessons in light-touch tyranny

The Big Man was taking no chances this week. Loyalists were ferried through the run-down capital singing revolutionary songs and banging the side of their trucks. State television pumped out propaganda. Dozens of activists were in court on treason charges after being arrested for watching a video of Egypt’s democracy protests.\r\n

It was a bravura display of light-touch tyranny. The climax was a sulphurous address. The father of the nation lambasted the “imperialists” of the perfidious west. Then he flew to Singapore on the state airline, clearly utterly confident in his hold on power.

Libya’s revolutionaries can sadly as yet only dream of Muammer Gaddafi flying out of Tripoli. The orator was not the exotically clad colonel vowing to fight to the last man and the last woman. Rather it was his fellow African autocrat Robert Mugabe. In a dapper suit with matching hanky and tie, the 87-year-old Zimbabwean this week delivered a master-class in the exercise of power. Would-be revolutionaries and tyrants alike should take note.

While no two are the same, there are enduring features of tyrannies – and how to topple them. These two leaders certainly have much in common: both imposed economically disastrous “indigenous” revolutions; both rail at the west while craving its respect; both see themselves as the embodiment of their states.

In the old days there were two basics to a despot’s longevity – state television and the army. The former may have waned in the age of the web, but the latter remains pivotal. Col Gaddafi has not been as adept as Mr Mugabe at keeping his army on side. It is a mistake he may rue. While Libya’s dictator may have proved more resilient – or rather ruthless – than Egypt’s or Tunisia’s, in the eyes of a master of his craft such as Mr Mugabe he should never have reached this sorry pass where regiments have changed sides.

The unseating of tyrants is an inexact science. A mere accident or misstep can tip the harshest regime. The persecution of László Tokés, a Calvinist priest in the Romanian town of Timisoara, was a run-of-the-mill spot of secret policing for Nicolae Ceausescu’s Securitate in late 1989. Yet his arrest was the equivalent of the suicide of the fruit seller that precipitated the downfall of Tunisia’s regime, provoking a protest that was to uproot the Ceausescus’ rule. Two weeks later Ceausescu looked out from the Central Committee building with disbelief as the shout “Timisoara” rippled through the very masses bused in to cheer him. Four days later he and his wife were shot dead.

There is, however, also logic to the survival of autocrats. Mr Mugabe understands perfectly well the need to counterbalance despotism, and avoid elementary errors. It is often said that Ceausescu’s mistake was to go to Iran as the Timisoara protests erupted. There is no way Mr Mugabe would have gone to Singapore if there was trouble at home.

When Zambians decided in 1991 that after nearly 30 years they had had enough of their president-for-life, Kenneth Kaunda, he is said to have telephoned Kenya’s leader Daniel arap Moi in a panic. Moi’s response was tart, a confidant told me. “Didn’t I tell you always to keep your people in your capital, well-fed.”

That was a basic slip, but the amiable KK was frankly not tough enough to be a president-for-life. This could never be said of Mr Mugabe. Since the emergence of a viable opposition he has had no qualms over unleashing appalling violence ahead of elections to intimidate the poor into staying in line.

Yet he is clinically scientific in his use of violence. To pre-empt any threat from a rival, early in his rule he presided over the massacre of thousands of members of the minority Ndebele tribe. Since then, outside election seasons the boot boys have been kept on a leash. (Speculation of a snap summer election is thought to be behind a recent surge in violence.)

He has, indeed, ravaged the economy to stay in power. Foreign companies are the next in his sights. But he is, in truth, a subtler figure than the cartoon tyrant depicted in the British press. There are plenty of worse tyrannies that get a fraction of his coverage. Rackety the regime is but it is not a totalitarian state. He is too canny for that.

Col Gaddafi, however, appears to have allowed things to slip too far. There are fears that a civil war may loom. But the most apparently impregnable regimes can implode overnight. What we are waiting for is someone in the army to move – and if, or as, the revolutionaries move closer so that likelihood will grow.

We should remember Zaire. One steamy May day in 1997, the playboy son of the kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko was treating the capital as his fief. The next he was firing a grenade at the national bank before fleeing for his life. (Is there a moral here for Col Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam?) It was not just that the rebels were at the gates. The army’s commander had thrown in the towel.

We should also remember Romania, where the joyous shout “armata e cu noi” [the army is with us] signalled the end of the regime.

No two topplings are the same. Zimbabwe’s opposition prime minister explained Mr Mugabe’s survival to me by saying that after its independence war Zimbabwe was wearied of fighting. He also hailed its coalition government – yet he added we could wake tomorrow and find a spontaneous revolt.

But if I had to bet on it, Mr Mugabe will die in office and Col Gaddafi will not see out the year or even the month.

 The writer is the FT’s comment and analysis editor