Robert Mugabe: Power and allure of the libidinal economy

In these last days of Robert Mugabe, to think of the Zimbabwean polity and economy is to confront crises, disasters and calamities. What is visible to even the uncircumcised is the crushing cash crunch, increasing poverty of the masses, infrastructural disrepair and the scarcity of life itself.

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These obvious disasters and calamities have arrested our collective attention the way the undulating colours of the python captivate a doomed animal that is about to be squeezed and swallowed whole by the monstrous predator. In the ruling party and the political opposition, the past weeks have seen a spectacular display of numbers and crowds that support the organisations. In apparent wisdom, at long last, some political entities have even been forging coalitions.

Parties and politicians have been keen to show some muscle, fire some warning shots in preparation for 2018 elections that in my view will never come because for now the future of Zimbabwe is in the past. Behind the economic and political chaos and the spectacular crowds that the parties and politicians have been flaunting in the streets is concealed a looming civil war.

From where I stand, some of the signs of our present and coming times have been small but significant events that passed much unanalyzed and undebated as mundane and insignificant in the light of the weighty matters of the day such as the shortage of food and the scarcity of cash. Robert Mugabe’s beating heart and the pumping lungs are presently the fragile string that is keeping the silence that we mistake for peace and stability in the country that is about to explode into Africa’s most volatile trouble spot. All the economic and political ingredients of a bloody civil war are present in current Zimbabwe whose explosion is, this time, likely to destabilise Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia as immediate neighbhours.

The Head of State and the State of his Head

Many were shocked but not entirely surprised, when recently at Independence Day celebrations, the 92 year old ruler bowed down in worship and veneration to his own picture. For Robert Mugabe, the country and its history together with its destiny and future are summarised in him, the country is himself and he is the country. Increasingly, he sees himself in ecclesiastic terms as the ultimate sacrament and living symbol of the country.

In Robert Mugabe’s troubling mental universe, every Zimbabwean owes him not support or gratitude to a leader but patriotism, because he is the Motherland and Fatherland combined and personified. Africa, because Mugabe used to be a Pan-Africanist, Zimbabwe as Mugabe used to be a nationalist and ZANU-PF as Mugabe was once a party leader have all come to an end, his mental and psychological world has collapsed and narrowed to himself and his very small but powerful family. Mugabeism as a political system and organizing ideology has replaced all passions and drives that once occupied the life and the times of Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

In bowing to worship his own portrait Robert Mugabe was not simply being the decorated narcissist that he has always been but he was wishfully demonstrating what he wants every wise Zimbabwean to do, worship the leader. In a way, the Mugabe of flesh was personally passing on the power to the Mugabe the symbol and object as an idol of worship. In the symbolic universe, the portrait as a sign succeeds and replaces Robert Mugabe the person and a personalized religious cult of the person is inaugurated.

The big continent of Africa, the nation of Zimbabwe, the party, and the tribe that all used to be important to Robert Mugabe have at last given way to a religious and political personalism centred in the Man and his family. For himself and his family, the Man is ready to set alight the party, the tribe, the country and even the continent.

Most of us saw but did not really read the photograph of an ancestral looking Robert Mugabe seated down with Bona’s bouncing baby in his arms. Present in the picture, smilling and looking over are Bona herself and Grace Mugabe. Absent in the picture is the father of the baby.

In Robert Mugabe’s life, fathers have always been absent presences. Robert Mugabe has been a big Mama’s baby all his life. In his slender but important psychoanalytical narrative, Christopher Hope dared to describe Robert Mugabe as a big woman inside a very small man. The baby, in the ancestor’s arms looked like many things including a little angel that in its innocence taunts and accuses an old and dying devil, a future taunting a defeated past. The baby also looked like a small but meaningful accusation to the hands that carried it, the hands that have had many babies of other mothers smashed against rocks for being children of dissidents. Innocence looks drowning in fresh and old blood in those hands. That baby also looks powerful and overcoming. In its tiny frame it exudes power and spirit.

The reason why the Robert Mugabe who openly boasted of degrees in violence, and that the X of the vote cannot argue with the bullet of the gun is recently demanding that the politics must come before the gun, is exactly that, baby power. In carrying that baby, Robert Mugabe was carrying himself once again as a baby who has learnt many bloody lessons. The old crocodile, from another angle, looks ready to swallow the baby but it can’t swallow itself, it can only look and die inside. The baby is the only successor that Robert Mugabe, no matter how dangerous cannot harm.

The powerful mothers, Robert Mugabe’s own mother Bona, and Bona’s own mother Grace are looking over. The past belongs to Robert, the future to babies and the mothers. In a strong way he looks perfectly unwanted in that picture whose ceremonial effect is both a welcome and a goodbye. In Robert Mugabe’s present absence, what should Zimbabweans do?

The Power of the Libidinal Economy

Frantz Fanon and Sigmund Freud as psychoanalysts and social scientists are importantly usable in reading the long political journey and present tragic condition of Robert Mugabe. In his life Robert Mugabe has managed to prevent his party’s factions from engaging in open violent civil war by keeping himself firm as the leader of all the factions and playing the gladiators against each other while carefully eliminating all dangers to himself. As life inevitably leaves him or as he inevitably leaves life, open and violent warfare will be inevitable, soon. Sigmund Freud’s powerful concept of the pulls of the libidinal economy is amplified and enhanced in the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard who in 1974 explained the interface between economics, micro-politics of desire and power.




In that exposition, “libidinal investments” and or investments of the libido, one’s family and organisation, products of the libido become the most powerful drive and passion in life. At the end of the long day of one’s troubled life where the world, the nation and pleasure have been important, the self and the family are the last temple. The family becomes one’s “object of libido” while the self becomes narcissistically the “ego-libido.” That sorry and very sad picture of Robert Mugabe at long last hugging onto his baby grandson while his daughter and wife look on becomes an important and powerful simulacrum that represents how he has become a powerless prisoner of the libidinal economy.

At 92, Robert Mugabe is psychologically back at the lap of the mother. He risks being swallowed back by the power of motherhood. At the point of death, he is closest once again to the point and site of birth, and at that point Robert Mugabe has become even more dangerous than he has ever been. Picture a baby who commands an army and must urgently protect his mother from everything in the world that could harm her.

Using the Ivory Coast and greater African continent as case study, Frantz Fanon described the “pitfalls of national consciousness.” Because of the “intellectual laziness” of the African political elite and economic middleclass, nationalism as a unifying ideology collapses into being a divisive and toxic force. The Dear Leader of the people comes into power talking about African unity and the vision of Pan-Africanism in the entire continent. Soon enough the leader forgets about Africa except in occasional slogans and begins to talk about the country, his country. Soon enough, he begins to talk not about the country but the party, his party.

Before anyone notices, Fanon demonstrates, the Dear Leader has turned his tribe into the nation and the party, all other tribes and parties are declared enemies and sell outs as the leader becomes more chauvinistic and genocidal. He becomes a tribalist, a xenophobe and a racist of proportions. Finally, in the tragic cycle of degeneration, the last thing that the Dear Leader does, Frantz Fanon explains, is to abandon the tribe, the party, the nation and the continent, and think only of ” his small little family.”

The family and its fortunes become the country and the continent. The Dear Leader himself becomes the party and the tribe combined and he demands, violently, all the patriotism that the population can give. What can be added to Frantz Fanon’s erudite exposition is that the Dear Leader stops being a person and becomes a symbol and a system, an idol that worships itself and demands to be worshiped. The leader becomes what, in the observation of Jean Baudrillard, the French semiotician, is described as “a photocopy without an original” a fake object that is more powerful than the original object, and worships its own power as a personal private religion.

In all the ways, Robert Mugabe has personified the tragic Fanonian nationalist who degenerates from a Pan-Africanist to a nationalist, from nationalist to a genocidal partisan tribalist, and finally becomes a pathetic family man who thinks his family is the world. What Zimbabweans in the ruling party and the political opposition are faced with right now is a prisoner of the libidinal economy and a dangerous fallen nationalist who is prepared to destroy the whole world in the interest of his family and its fortunes.

The Civil War in Zimbabwe

Already, a civil war is raging in Zimbabwe, only that it is still contained in angry words and secret stratagems and plots in the dark cold nights of Harare and the world’s capitals. Three powerful groupings, all with access to arms and money and all backed by different international players are jostling. The warring factions are led, one by Robert Mugabe himself but fronted by his energetic and scared wife. The other group is led by Joice Mujuru but fronted by the name and symbol of the late Solomon Mujuru whose boys in the army, police and the intelligence are bleeding and angry at the elimination of the General.

The so called Lacoste group is led by Emmerson Mnangagwa and fronted by a multitude of old and angry war veterans. All these three groups are dangerous and control many armed men and women in the army, the police and the intelligence. With only a spark, these three groups will split the national security forces into three warring armies and the whole country will be on fire from Mutare to Plumtree and from Binga to Beitbridge. What looks from the outside like peace and discipline in the security forces is only silence that is occasioned by Robert Mugabe’s beating heart and pumping lungs, his symbolism and the personality religion that he has inaugurated. Minus that, these powerful groups that are each richer than the country in billions of United States Dollars will go for each other and throw the whole Southern African region into turmoil any day now.

These groups will not only fight to secure political power and to save their personal skins but also to secure their massive ill-gotten fortunes. This is a ticking African time bomb. Never mind the crowds that are flaunted in the streets by different political parties, the civil war in Zimbabwe will be sparked by a minority of angry and powerful people who operate in the dark not in rallies. A mixture of anger after political losses, guilt of crimes against humanity, lots of money and armed men, the hunger for political power and fear of losing wealth and going to jail are rich ingredients for a genocidal civil war.

The Fourth and the Fifth Group

There is a known war in Zimbabwe that was always going to come from the victims of genocide in Matabaleland and the Midlands. While pretending that Gukurahundi was a closed chapter, Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa have for years been trying to neutralize the anger and the grief in Matabaleland and the Midlands. The land reform programme was used to settle as many people as possible from Mashonaland provinces in the Midlands and Matabaleland to seek to dilute the identity of the populations and make fewer and fewer those people and communities who directly experienced Gukurahundi.

The naturalisation of the Shona language as a dominant language in Matabeleland through teachers and the resettled new farmers has always been expected to neutralize and dilute the Matabaleland and Midlands Gukurahundi memory and consciousness. Slowly, Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa have been praying that intermarriages and social engineering of the populations will completely erase the communities that saw themselves as Gukurahundi victims and were angry enough to do anything about it. Another programme has been to prop up the other identities within what has been called the Mthwakazi Nation.

The Tongas have been encouraged to stand up on their own. The Kalangas too have been energised to seek autonomous Kalanga nationalism. This has been promoted as political social engineering to ensure that soon enough there will be no one who considers him or herself as authentic Ndebele. Gukurahundi, one day, would be a genocide without victims, so hoped Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa in their guilt and desperation.

Added to the Gukurahundi and marginalisation grievance in Matabaleland and the Midlands has been a big and old secret that dates back to Cecil John Rhodes and King Mzilikazi himself. This secret is the major reason why as one of the smallest countries in the world, Zimbabwe remains of interest even to the mighty super powers. The secret is the reason why Imperial forces ganged up against Lobhengula and extinguished the Mthwakazi Kingdom. In a way, Gukurahundi happened because of this secret. This is not a Chiadzwa, but one of the thickest diamond belts that runs from the far end of Botswana up to the Great Lakes Region.

The angry victims of Gukurahundi are settled on one of the world’s richest and largest diamond reserves that has been known and hidden since precolonial times. When politicians, the few who know, talk about Zimbabwe’s natural resources they talk of, not the gold, the wild life and the other minerals but diamond and platinum reserves in Matabaleland. For that reason, in addition to the Gukurahundi victims, Dumiso Dabengwa and ZIPRA-Vets as the Fourth war-ready group in Zimbabwe, there are troops of international business tycoons, mercenaries, black marketeers, and even proxies of Western and Eastern governments that are waiting for the slightest excuse to join the scramble for the rich pickings in that region of Zimbabwe.

If a civil war is allowed to start in Zimbabwe, control of Matabaleland will be the prime jewel of each group and its international backers most of whom have been sending spies as tourists and journalists, and have been pretending to be small scale businesses that fish in the Zambezi and mine for sand in the river banks when they are trying to locate the heartbeat of diamonds and platinum.

The Political Settlement in Zimbabwe

Given the above, a civil war can very easily explode in Zimbabwe. For political power, wealth and old grudges and grievances many powerful Zimbabweans and their international backers are ready for war. What all Zimbabweans, in the ruling regime and opposition should work for is not the 2018 election, but peace and a working economy in the country. Politicians across the divides should start mobilising for a political settlement and unity government under which the economy and the polity will be mended. Nation building strategies that will make Zimbabwe into one nation, state building strategies that will make Zimbabwe’s national institutions work again are urgently needed.

The friendship and partnership of international backers must be sought not their interference. Once again, every family in Zimbabwe should be exalted and protected, and its future secured in the same way that Robert Mugabe is doing with his own family. The time for narrow leadership is up or we all get swallowed by war and calamity.

Dinizulu Mbikokayise Macaphulana is a Zimbabwean Political Scientist and Semiotician who is based in Pretoria: dinizulumacaphulana@yahoo.com.

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