Today, we will all be Zimbabwe
“You don’t know my country,” she said to me, evidently pitying me with my irrational optimism. “Nothing can ever change in Zimbabwe, until Mugabe dies.”
I had just finished reading from my new book at the Ohio State University, as part of my book tour in November of 2017, and as usual, a good number of the attendees were young Africans studying abroad. The discussion, and questions often would lead to how change will come to the continent’s many poorly governed nations, and even more often it would devolve into firm disagreement — citizen of one country letting me know that change would be impossible, and I, pushing the basic message of the book, insisting that it could.
In this particular case, I had a rare win for my argument — only that it came after the book tour had ended. Because barely a week after, on 14 November, the world heard the news from Zimbabwe — it’s 30-year prime minister, Robert Mugabe, had been removed from office in disgrace, by what may or may not be described as a military coup, depending on your definition of what ‘is’ is.
It almost seems too good to be true, even as I type it. Because even as I made that logical argument, borne out by the history of democratic advancement across the continent in the past decade, and validated by the moral arc of history everywhere from South Africa to the Soviet Union, my heart was with her. Because, when it comes to the subject of good government, of peace and security, and of visionary leadership in much of Africa, hope can become a burden too heavy to bear.
But it was indeed, from the very depths of hopelessness, that light shone right out of the streets of Zimbabwe. And it wasn’t just a solitary light.
2017 was, after all the same year that Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh was disgraced out of office after boasting that he would be president for life. It was the same year that the Supreme Court in Kenya served notice on its wobbly president that the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the ballot box mattered. It was the same year that Liberia consolidated on a decade of peace, if not prosperity, and prepared for its first democratic transition in 73 years — a democratic transition that still makes us proud. And it was the same year that conflict-torn Somalia, tumbled and fumbled, wavered and waffled, but yet made its way to a successful presidential election, shocking the world by the peaceful concession of defeat by its president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Mugabe’s glorious disgrace, greeted by jubilation on the streets of Zimbabwe, and across the world as Africa suddenly became a country bound together by hope and possibilities, was the fitting cherry on this marvelous cake. The cake is called hope.
At this time last year, as this shameful strongman, who has almost destroyed his country while whipping up anti-West sentiment as a cover for failure, plotted to hand over his country to his wife as if it were an inheritance, no one could have believed that Zimbabwe would be holding an election this year, or that if it were, a person named Mugabe would not be on the ballot, coasting to another sure victory.
But yet here we are. The triumph of the human spirit and the power of a citizenry that refuses to give up have brought us right here — a place called hope.
The choices are imperfect, the future is uncertain, and the change still goes by its former name, headlined by the same old faces, including 75-year old Emmerson Mnangagwa, but it is movement forward still, and compared to what might have been, what is today is a gift to be treasured.
When Zimbabwe goes to vote on Monday, 30 July, it will be clear that it is far from all that it can yet become, but it will be as clear that it has taken a powerful step into a better future.
And all of us, in the rest of the continent, will be standing in the sidelines, cheering them on, clinging on to this precious flicker of hope, because, when all is said and done, we are all in this together.